Aug 1 1998

CNN’s ‘Tailwind’ and Selective Media Retractions

CNN‘s recent retraction of its “Valley of Death” story might suggest that American journalism maintains high standards for military or intelligence-related reporting–and sets the record straight when those standards aren’t met.

In July, CNN (and corporate sibling Time) retracted reports that U.S. special forces operating illegally in Laos in 1970 had used nerve gas as part of “Operation Tailwind,” which targeted American defectors.

Based on months of research and interviews conducted primarily by CNN producer April Oliver, along with senior producer Jack Smith (with correspondent Peter Arnett used mainly for star power and “marketing purposes”), the reports contained on-air, on-the-record comments from several Tailwind participants to the effect that sarin nerve gas was used and that U.S. defectors were killed (CNN Newsstand, 6/7/98, 6/14/98; see also CNN Talkback Live, 6/8/98). But CNN’s presentation of the evidence was marred by overreaching–with inadequate time given to Tailwind veterans and experts who disputed the conclusion that sarin had been used.

Producers Oliver and Smith have defended their work by pointing out that their report needed a full hour for a complete, nuanced presentation (CNN higher-ups refused, according to Oliver, saying the network was “not in the business of doing documentaries anymore”), that even their 18-minute report did include doubters and that it was top CNN executives in the final edit who deleted a comment by a Tailwind pilot that tear gas, not nerve gas, had been deployed.

Soon after the report aired, CNN management began retreating in the face of immense pressure–first from the military establishment, including Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and former CIA chief Richard Helms, and then from a media establishment more inclined to rally around the military than to explore the U.S. government’s secret war in Laos. With CNN producers muzzled by management for several weeks, the media “debate” overlooked evidence from journalists and Vietnam veterans that U.S. defectors were indeed targeted during the Vietnam War. Even the comment made by former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird (Associated Press, 6/9/98) that the U.S. had sent nerve gas to Vietnam in 1967 was quickly forgotten.

According to Oliver, CNN president Rick Kaplan told a group of producers that the barrage of criticism was “not a journalistic problem, this is a PR problem.” (April Oliver, Washington Post op-ed, 7/12/98) Whatever the problem, CNN solved it by hiring attorney Floyd Abrams to conduct an investigation (along with CNN senior vice president and general counsel David Kohler), and then retracting the Tailwind story and firing Oliver and Smith. (The more bankable Arnett was spared after he insisted that he had merely lent his name and face to stories he took no responsibility for.)

It would be a big mistake, of course, to assume that major media routinely retract problematic stories. CNN and other national outlets circulated pro-Pentagon hoaxes during the Gulf War, such as the bogus stories claiming major successes for the Patriot missile, but it’s hard to find a prominent retraction.

Where are the retractions of another story that alleged the use of chemical weapons in Southeast Asia–the many mainstream news reports claiming that the Vietnamese and Soviets were using toxins known as “yellow rain,” which scientists later determined was actually bee feces?

In the ’80s, several news outlets pushed the canard that Soviet/Bulgarian agents were behind the 1981 shooting of the Pope. Why didn’t these outlets–including the New York Times, which employed conspiracy peddler Claire Sterling to do front-page reports–retract this story when the evidence evaporated?

If no one in the corridors of U.S. power raises a squawk, then there’s rarely sufficient pressure for a correction, much less a retraction. On the contrary, U.S. officials are appreciative of a story–however untrue–if it moves their agendas forward.

Here’s a momentous example: On August 5, 1964, American news media reported that North Vietnamese forces–for the second time in three days–had launched unprovoked attacks on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. But the attack by North Vietnam on August 2 wasn’t “unprovoked.” And the “second attack” never occurred.

Across the United States, front pages presented fabrications as facts. The New York Times (8/5/64) proclaimed that the U.S. government was retaliating “after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.” The Washington Post‘s headline (8/5/64) typified the national spin: “American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression.”

Two days later, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution–the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war against North Vietnam–gained nearly unanimous approval from Congress.

We asked a number of Washington Post staffers whether the newspaper ever retracted its Tonkin Gulf reporting. “I can assure you that there was never any retraction,” said Murrey Marder, a reporter who wrote much of the Post‘s coverage of the August 1964 Tonkin events.

Marder remembers noting that the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese navy had been shelling North Vietnamese coastal islands just prior to the reported “unprovoked” attacks by North Vietnam on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. But the Pentagon’s propaganda machinery was in high gear: “Before I could do anything as a reporter, the Washington Post had endorsed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.”

The former Post reporter commented: “If the American press had been doing its job and the Congress had been doing its job, we would never have been involved in the Vietnam War.”

As for the reporting on events in the Gulf of Tonkin, Marder said, “If you were making a retraction, you’d have to make a retraction of virtually everyone’s entire coverage of the Vietnam War.”

Now that’s a retraction we’d like to see.