Tailwinds ill wind
CNN, fired producers still feeling effects of retracted story
By Dan Trigoboff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/3/2000 8:00:00 PM
Two years ago, Nicholas Schulkin came into a world with more than the usual stress. He was expected in mid-July, two weeks after his mother, April Oliver, was fired by CNN in one of the most publicized and, Oliver contends, least understood controversies in the history of electronic journalism. It was a controversy that would cast a pall over the tenure of CNN Domestic President Rick Kaplan and strike a damaging blow to his attempts to create more appointment TV for the network.
In the midst of April Oliver's vehement defense of the "Valley of Death" story (on the Army's Operation Tailwind), Nicholas was born (Aug. 14). "He's got all his fingers and toes," Oliver would tell a group of young journalists at the National Press Club, "to the profound relief of CNN's legal team."
Oliver eventually would face CNN's legal team, suing CNN for defamation, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy and various contract claims. The suit was settled this May, with CNN apparently paying at least several hundred thousand dollars.
Neither Oliver nor her attorney can reveal its terms. But earlier this summer, Oliver and her family moved into a high-six-figure house in upscale Bethesda, Md.-more than twice the price of their former home and ordinarily out of reach for a law student unemployed most of the past two years and her researcher spouse.
Sources say the networks often prefer settlement to litigation, and CNN has settled or won dismissal on several of the myriad Tailwind claims. One suit remaining is a recently filed action from the story's co-producer ,Jack Smith. It is similar to Oliver's and was filed shortly after her settlement. Both Oliver and Smith maintain the story was well reported and accurate, and that CNN's mistake was to retract it. They were, they contend, scapegoats as CNN backed off the story rather than alienate the military, which had been so important to the network's success; they say the network would not allow them to defend the story and call the retraction a whitewash. "CNN did a lot of damage to a reputation I'd spent a lifetime building," says Smith.
Ironically, both Oliver and Smith are likely to testify in cases brought by plaintiffs from the military. CNN's retraction two years ago-which did not say the story was untrue, but that it was not sufficiently supported-makes it unlikely CNN will defend the story's accuracy. But under the law, CNN need only show the story was not produced in bad faith, and Oliver and Smith's continued commitment to the story should be consistent with CNN's defense. Their testimony, however, could also put into evidence criticisms Oliver and Smith have made of CNN and Time-Warner management.
On the exit of CNN/U.S. President Rick Kaplan last week, Oliver commented that "Rick Kaplan is a good newsman who missed his moment of greatness. He could have been another Ben Bradlee," she added, referring to the former Washington Post's support for its Watergate reporting despite intense pressure. Oliver suggests that Tom Johnson was at least equally to blame for the Tailwind debacle, which she obviously defines differently from others.
CNN stands by its past statements and would not discuss Tailwind. Some working for CNN then, however, indicate sympathy for Oliver and Smith because they believed higher-ups should have been fired in addition or instead. CNN wanted a home run to buttress Time-Warner's "synergy" and even made the story sharper and less balanced, sources said, only to disavow it later with little personal consequence. But those sources lamented that the story did not produce a "smoking gun" for Tailwind, and while they respected the reporters' sincerity, felt they'd oversold the story. "Since when," Oliver responded, "has there been a "beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard in journalism? The story was largely built on sources, and its sources were good."
Oliver says she's ready to move on as she enters her second year at the George Mason University School of Law, where the Princeton graduate is near the top of her class. But she admits she'd like to be reporting again.
Jack Smith and his wife are in Chicago, where they have children and grandchildren, where they've lived before and where they'd planned to live again-but not so soon.
"I was going to work a few more years" at CNN, says Smith, now 64. "I'd rather be covering politics."
Smith will teach political science at Loyola University and politics and the press at DePaul University. Was the name "Jack Smith" generic enough to avoid the issue of Tailwind? "I made it a point to make sure they knew who I was," Smith said.
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