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CNN Retracts Vietnam Story

July 2, 1998

Apologizing to viewers and Vietnam veterans for ``serious faults″ in its reporting, CNN on Thursday retracted a story alleging U.S. commandos used nerve gas to kill American defectors during the war. It was the latest in a series of major embarrassments involving journalism.

The two main producers of the report were fired following a CNN-requested investigation by a prominent media attorney. In addition, a senior producer resigned.

The lead reporter, Peter Arnett, was reprimanded.

``CNN’s system of journalistic checks and balances, which has served CNN exceptionally well in the past, failed in this case,″ Tom Johnson, president of the CNN News Group, said in a statement read on the air several times.

Johnson said CNN personnel bore full responsibility for its joint ``NewsStand″ report with Time magazine.

Time and the Pentagon said their own probes into the report had, so far, not found any support for the charges. CNN hired attorney Floyd Abrams last week to investigate the accuracy of the Operation Tailwind report, and made its statement based on his probe.

Abrams concluded that CNN’s reporting could not support the allegation that the poison gas sarin was used, that American defectors were targeted or that they were even in the Laotian camp where the mission was carried out in 1970.

``The story wasn’t there,″ Abrams said. ``It was a mistake. It was a bad mistake, and CNN has apologized for it, as I think they should.″

While Abrams’ report criticized the newsgathering, he said it could not be suggested that the people involved fabricated information. If anything, he said, the serious flaws in the report stemmed from the journalists’ deep belief in the story and the way they discounted contrary information.

``That doesn’t necessarily mean that the story isn’t true,″ Abrams said in an interview on CNN. ``But what it does mean then is that at this moment we simply do not have enough evidence, in my view, for any conclusion to be reached _ that the presidents have been lying to us for all these years and that what we’ve been told was just a pack of lies.″

Johnson said reporters, producers and executives at CNN bear responsibility for the mistake. Several of them paid for the error.

April Oliver and Jack Smith, the story’s top producers, told The Associated Press they were fired. Pam Hill, senior producer for ``NewsStand,″ resigned.

Arnett, who covered the Gulf War from Baghdad for CNN and won the Pulitzer Prize while with The Associated Press for his coverage of the Vietnam War, was reprimanded because he was not involved in much of the reporting, a CNN official said.

Ms. Oliver and Smith said they still believed the story was accurate, and they were disheartened by the lack of support from CNN.

``These shadow warriors don’t like us looking into their business and their dark spaces,″ Ms. Oliver said of the military special forces. ``They’re doing their best to make sure that no one else does. I’m not a single-minded, one point-of-view producer. Check with anyone, and you’ll find that’s inaccurate. It’s part of killing the messenger.″

Said Smith: ``We presented the facts that we gathered. Let the people judge. This was a report on America’s secret army. There is no documentation.″

CNN said ``hundreds″ of military experts and veterans disputed the report almost immediately after it was aired. One soldier quoted in the report, Robert Van Buskirk, later said he had repressed all memory of the events since 1974, when he had a religious conversion. CNN made no mention of the repressed memory.

Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted confirming the use of nerve gas, but Abrams said the 87-year-old former official should not have been relied upon as a source because information he provided was unclear.

Johnson said CNN owed ``a special apology to the personnel involved in Operation Tailwind, both the soldiers on the ground and the U.S. Air Force pilots and the U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilots who were involved in this action.″

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said its own review would continue despite the retraction, and likely would be completed within two weeks.

``We’re obviously gratified that CNN retracted a report that we believe was not accurate,″ he said. ``All the work we’ve done in reviewing the report suggests ... those charges were wrong.″

Time magazine also issued an apology Thursday for running a story based on the CNN report. It said it would be corrected in next week’s issue. Time and CNN are both owned by Time Warner and cooperate in the production of ``NewsStand.″

The story proved a major embarrassment to CNN/USA President Richard Kaplan, who joined CNN last August from ABC. Launching a series of newsmagazines called ``NewsStand″ was his top programming initiative, and he used the nerve gas story to attract attention to the series’ premiere.

Former CNN military analyst Perry Smith, a retired major general who served in Vietnam, resigned in protest following the report. He said he was pleased by the retraction, but that major damage had been done to CNN’s reputation.

``It cannot be totally removed and so I think it is a very, very sad story in the history of television journalism,″ he said.

It was the fourth incident in recent weeks involving inaccurate reports at major media companies.

Last Sunday, The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a front-page apology to Chiquita Brands International Inc., saying its series of stories questioning the company’s business practices were ``untrue″ and based on stolen voice mail. The newspaper said it has fired the lead reporter and agreed to pay more than $10 million to settle any claims against it by the company, even though no lawsuit had been filed against the newspaper. On Thursday, Chiquita filed a federal lawsuit against the lead reporter, Michael Gallagher.

Last month, Boston Globe metro columnist Patricia Smith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year, was forced to resign after admitting to fabricating people and quotes in four columns this year.

In May, Stephen Glass, associate editor of The New Republic, was fired after confessing he had ``embellished″ a story about computer hackers. The magazine said he had fabricated material in 27 of 41 articles over the past three years.

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