July 5, 1998
Taking the Fall

If you thought I was going to let the recent CNN/Time Magazine shenanigans pass without comment, youíre probably a new reader to this column.

If so, welcome!  Itís good to have you here @LA.COM.

If not, get ready, Ďcause Iím busting out the whipping stick again.

Recapping the horror, CNN and Time magazine have teamed up to produce what is perhaps the worst titled show in the history of broadcasting.  ("CNN Presents CNN NewsStand -- CNN and Time Magazine" really rolls right off the tongue.)

And, in its debut "edition," the fine folks at CNN said the U.S. Government had used nerve gas on defectors during the Vietnam War, in an operation code-named "Tailwind."

Now, thereís an old science chestnut which, if I may paraphrase, says "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."  The image of U.S. pilots dropping lethal nerve gas on U.S. soldiers certainly qualifies as an extraordinary claim.

But CNN didnít have the extraordinary proof to back it up.  At least, thatís the determination of the media lawyer they hired to investigate themselves.

Long form television "news" (like the CNN/Time piece, or, say, just about any story at EXTRA) has a lot in common with sausage.  You really, really donít want to know what went on up until the time it ended up on your plate.

So when it came time for the post-mortem, the producers of this CNN piece turned over all their notes, all their interview tapes, and explained why they came out with the story they came out with.  They had a reasonable certainty they were reporting the truth.  CNN, after the story aired, disagreed, and the producers were canned.  (More on that later.)

The sad thing is, if you dissected any other story on a newsmagazine show,  youíd probably end up with the same concerns about the truth.  On this weekís edition of CNN and Time Magazine, they showed how the producers had left key moments from key interviews on the cutting room floor.

Well, duh!  They were trying to tell a story!  Anything that doesnít support the story is routinely discarded.  If you still have an overall belief that the story youíre telling is true, youíll gladly leave out that kind of non-supportive information.  Iím not saying itís right, Iím not saying I do it, but it does happen, all the time.

Iíve seen producers ask an interview subject the same question over and over again until they got the "right" answer.  Did some of that happen here?  Iíd say itís likely.

But my biggest concern about the CNN/Time story is this:  What happened to our friend "allegedly?"  This handy dandy little word letís you say just about anything in the entire world.  "President Clinton allegedly hired four hookers in Hong Kong," is fine.  The White House issues a denial, a White House insider tells the Drudge Report it was only three hookers, Ken Starr flies to Hong Kong, etc.  Youíre off the hook, in the clear.

So why didnít the CNN/Time folks drop in a few key "allegedly"s?

Itís also interesting to me that when CNN and Time team up, they create a new television show to showcase their combined product.  There was a version of the Tailwind article in Time, but donít you think the CNN folks should be forced to put out their own whole magazine?  ("Tales Which Might Be True" is a good title.)

The most interesting thing to come out of all of this, though, has to be the level of punishment the people involved received.

The supervising producer of CNN Presents CNN NewsStand: CNN and Time Magazine?  Resigned.

The two producers responsible for the Tailwind piece?  Fired, after being asked to resign and refusing.  Rightly or wrongly, they continue to insist their story is solid.

Reporter Peter Arnett, the guy who is the only CNN or Time person on camera during this story?  The guy who gave voice to this story?  The guy who contributed enough to it so that he got a co-writing credit in the Time magazine version?  Gulf War hero Peter Arnett?  Well, he was reprimanded.  Very strongly.

Three behind the scenes writers and producers take the fall, and this on-camera clown keeps his job.

Any more questions about the state of "journalism" today?

Class dismissed.

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Colin Campbell - jenolen@earthlink.net
Last updated July 5, 1998