The Magazine

THE CNN MELTDOWN

Jul 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 43 • By ERIC FELTEN
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CNN and Time's retraction of their false story on nerve-gas use by American soldiers in Laos has made one thing clear: CNN gave free rein to left-wing conspiracy theorizing masquerading as investigative journalism. The media establishment doesn't want to admit this, but it's the case. How do we know? The testimony of CNN's "journalists" themselves.


CNN producers April Oliver and Jack Smith were both fired after their humiliated network was forced to admit (as was reported in these pages three weeks ago in "CNN and Time's Poisonous Smear") that there is no evidence that the U.S. military used nerve gas in Vietnam; nor is there evidence of a mission to assassinate American defectors in Laos. But Oliver and Smith and their colleague in the smear -- CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who was reprimanded but not fired -- are unrepentant.


Oliver and Smith have appeared on any TV interview show that will have them to proclaim that their story is true. According to Oliver and Smith, CNN didn't retract the sensational charges because they were demonstrably false. No, the network caved in to pressure from the military-retiree complex. This isn't some screwy strategy for Oliver and Smith to salvage their careers: They seem actually to believe it. After appearing on Special Edition with Brit Hume on the Fox News Network, Oliver turned to Hume as she was leaving the set and offered him this conspiratorialist nugget: "Colin Powell did it." And Henry Kissinger was in on it, too, according to Smith. Arnett, who does seem to have a strategy for salvaging his career, claims now that he basically lent his famous name and face to the story for "marketing" purposes. And in his own slippery way, Arnett backs his fired colleagues' conspiracy theory, saying, "I don't know whether [the story] was true or not. Laos was a black hole during the war."


But it doesn't take a conspiracy to explain why CNN and Time retracted and apologized for their nerve-gas "scoop" as fast as they could. Articles in the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Slate, the Washington Times, the New York Times, and this magazine left the sarin-gas story in tatters. The noted libel defense attorney Floyd Abrams, hired by CNN to investigate how its producers put the sarin story together, catalogued a devastating assortment of journalistic sins: Credible sources denying the story were ignored. Repeated, explicit denials by key sources such as retired Adm. Thomas Moorer were edited out. A smudged, photocopied document was used to fool a variety of sources into thinking CNN had proof of the use of nerve gas. Robert Van Buskirk, the central source, had written a book about the mission in Laos, an account that flatly contradicted his spiel on CNN; his new account was based on a "recovered memory"; he had been kicked out of the Army after being arrested for gun-running. NewsStand: CNN & Time, the newsmagazine show that aired the Oliver/Arnett story on June 7, never gave any of these relevant facts to its viewers.


If Abrams presented a comprehensive anatomy of how CNN and Time botched the story, his report was laughably misleading about why the story made it on the air, and much of the coverage of the retractions has echoed Abrams's spin.


Abrams called April Oliver's eight-month investigation "journalistic overkill" and suggested that CNN's reporters had made the mistake of falling in love with their story: "The degree of confidence approaching certainty of the CNN journalists who prepared the broadcast of the conclusions offered in it contributed greatly to the journalistic flaws identified in the report," he wrote.


But "journalistic" is hardly the right adjective to describe this enterprise: eight months of dogged effort to prove a horrifying tale of American war crimes that the reporters are "certain" is true, even when the evidence contradicts them. This is a description not of journalists in action but of ideological true believers seeking to put a journalistic gloss on a version of events that has become, for them, an article of faith. This is why April Oliver and Jack Smith are sticking to their guns: They still believe the story.