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CNN, Embarrassed Again

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Last Wednesday CNN's Anderson Cooper utilized information derived from the journal of Christopher Stevens, the murdered U.S. Ambassador to Libya, while interviewing Senator John McCain on his program. According to CNN, it had obtained the journal on September 15th after finding it "on the floor of the largely unsecured consulate compound where [Stevens] was fatally wounded." CNN says that it notified Stevens' family of its possession of the journal within hours of its discovery. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Family members and State Department Officials agreed during the Sept. 14 conference call to hold off on using the diary until the family had a chance to review its contents." The family also requested that the journal be returned to them.

The State Department's Phillippe Reines, who was on the phone call, believes that CNN "ultimately broke their pledge" by using material learned through the journals before getting the family's permission. Reines, who considers "CNN's handling of the journal to be 'indefensible,'" added that the incident is "not a proud episode in CNN's history."

I probably know CNN's history as well as anybody and I recall with regret two other incidents where CNN failed to meet the standards of responsible journalism. In November of 1990 General Manuel Noriega, the deposed president of Panama, was tried on drug charges in Miami. His jailers taped his phone calls, even the ones between him and his lawyers. CNN got hold of the tapes and for some unfathomable reason told General Noriega's lawyer about them. The lawyer, claiming attorney-client privilege asked the judge for an injunction to prevent playing the tapes on CNN. The judge granted the injunction and CNN appealed.

Before the appeal was decided, CNN informed its audience in an on-air promo, that a story coming up would contain the "the very tapes CNN had been ordered not to broadcast." The next day the court of appeals upheld the lower court injunction. The Supreme Court refused to consider the case and the New York Times' Anthony Lewis called it "CNN's Folly." Lewis wrote that "the cable news network has inexplicably made the threat [of prior restraint] worse by provocative and lawless behavior." The district court judge had the last laugh. He cited CNN for criminal content and offered CNN the choice between paying a huge fine or paying less but apologizing on the air for 24 hours. CNN chose the cheap way out and in December of 1994, it scrolled a 177 word apology across its screen approximately 20 times over a two day period.

That was small potatoes compared to what CNN did when it took on the Pentagon in 1998. It produced Valley of Death, a prime-time documentary on Operation Tailwind accusing the U.S. military of using sarin, a poison gas, in Laos to immobilize or kill GIs who had been captured by or had defected to the Vietcong. CNN had recently been acquired by Time Warner and the report was the premier of a CNN/Time magazine series to be called NewsStand. Both the reporter and the producer were first class journalists. They had questioned the people responsible for Operation Tailwind. They had taken comprehensive notes, but several of the key players had spoken off camera or with no audio tape to confirm their statements. Nevertheless, CNN's lawyer approved the program.

CNN's Chairman, Tom Johnson, still had his doubts and asked both CNN's Pentagon reporter and its military consultant, Perry Smith, to check it out with the Pentagon. Both Smith and the reporter said the Pentagon denied the story. But internal pressure largely from the newly appointed CNN President, Rick Kaplan, convinced Johnson to run the story. Then the roof fell in. Johnson brought in an outside lawyer, Floyd Abrams, and asked him to decide whether or not CNN should have run the story. Abrams reported back that "CNN's broadcast was not fair." The reporter and the producer were fired. Peter Arnett who had voiced over the report was reprimanded and two executive producers resigned.

Then the lawsuits began and Time Warner paid off everybody in sight. The fired producer and reporter received huge settlements. The sources who claimed they had been misquoted were equally rewarded and CNN's reputation had been ruined. Its ratings, which had been in decline for years, dropped to what was, until recently, an all time low. Neither its reputation nor its ratings have ever fully recovered and now CNN is caught up in the midst of another potential disgrace.

In Tuesday morning's New York Times, Bill Carter reports that Geneva Overholser said "use of information from the diary to pursue interviews seemed to comport with the standard journalism technique of using material on background...but could be faulted for...not revealing initially that it had access to Mr. Steven's diary." On the other side of the fence, the Wall Street Journal reports that "family members and U.S. officials were surprised when CNN anchor appeared to use the information from The Journal by attributing it to a source familiar with Mr. Steven's thinking." The source was, of course, the journal, and CNN's attribution was false.

As I write this, I recognize that it might seem as if I were taking joy in CNN's embarrassment. That is not so, but I do mourn the CNN that might have been. Now, Time Warner is seeking new leadership for CNN. I wish them well, it may be the last chance to return CNN to its previous glory.