Accuracy in Media

CNN claims to have one of the most attractive and detailed sites on the World Wide Web. And it used this site on the Internet to hype, publicize and distribute its phony nerve gas charges against America’s Vietnam veterans. But the Internet proved to be a useful tool against CNN. A publication called Salon says the controversy “is the biggest case yet of how networked organizing by a motivated group can overwhelm the power of traditional institutions.” And the campaign against CNN continues.

On our own web site,, we provided detailed criticism of the CNN program. These included copies of letters that were sent to executives at CNN and Time magazine, which helped produce the story. Salon points out General Perry Smith, who was CNN’s military analyst, used the Internet himself to gather information about the many holes in the story. He e-mailed a list of questions to 300 of his sources and got back first-hand testimony about why it wasn’t true. One of those sources was a former Green Beret who had already sent out 500 e-mails of his own. Smith commented that it allowed him to do in three days what CNN producer April Oliver did in 8 months.

The difference is that Oliver came to the wrong conclusion; Smith discovered the real facts. Oliver was fired as a result of the fiasco and Smith resigned from the network in disgust. He had never been consulted by CNN during preparation of the program. But this raises the question of how Oliver could have come to the wrong conclusion after spending so much time on the story? It’s not like she rushed on the air with a story without doing her research. She had done a lot of research, and a reasonable person might say that after eight months of effort she must have known that the story was false but proceeded with it anyway.

Such reasonable people might sit on the jury that will now judge CNN. Former Green Beret sergeant Keith Planich, who was pictured repeatedly in the CNN report, has sued the network for more than $100 million. He resents being defamed as a member of a military operation that used nerve gas and killed innocent women and children.

Although pictures of him were used, he said he was never contacted about the story during its preparation. He commented, “The journalists from CNN created a story to sensationalize a kickoff of a new television program. They didn’t care about the truth. The truth was there if they’d have looked for it.” Those familiar with legal jargon might recognize his comments as suggesting that CNN proceeded with malice, with reckless disregard of the truth.

Based on what General Smith has said, this might not be too difficult to prove. As we noted earlier, if Smith could prove the charges false in three days, why couldn’t CNN prove them false in 8 months? This indicates that CNN was determined to air the charges regardless of their truth. General Smith will probably be called as a witness in the defamation trial against his old network.

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