The CNN-Time "NewsStand" fiasco over false allegations of U.S. forces using nerve gas in Laos in 1970 is clearly one of the decade's ugliest cases of leftist media dishonesty. CNN might not have come clean without The Washington Times, Newsweek, and the Weekly Standard blowing away Peter Arnett & Company's shabby reporting and exposing how CNN should have known its story was a farce, and how they mangled and misquoted military experts to create false impressions. But CNN did come clean in a most public manner and deserved the wide praise it won for its retraction.
In covering the retraction, the rest of the media tried very hard not to connect the obvious dots. Despite the fact that network fiascos in the 1990s have always been aimed at liberals' standard villains, business (GM, Uniroyal, Food Lion) and the U.S. military, liberal bias as a driving impetus isn't being blamed. New York Times TV critic Walter Goodman bashed Bill Kristol for questioning CNN's political motives, "an imputation that makes one wonder about his motives." The competitive demands of producing juicy magazine shows for a 24-hour news channel was the only acceptable explanation.
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski relayed the majority view: "So what's going on? Media critics claim the explosive growth in 24-hour news outlets has created an unhealthy competition." But wait. Which critics? NBC used Tom Rosenstiel, formerly of the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. ABC's "Good Morning America" put on Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz and Marshall Loeb of the Columbia Journalism Review. Those who would charge liberal bias behind the Tailwind hoax were not invited to comment.
Everyone was willing to blame competition, and certainly
that is a factor. As Jonathan Alter theorized in Newsweek: "The biggest
problem is not frauds and incompetents, though they should be drummed out.
It's the channel-flipping factor. We are all so terrified of losing audience
that we're rapidly morphing into an entertainment medium." Journalists
don't see this as a
CNN was correct to fire the producers responsible for this America-bashing insult. It was a refreshing departure from the normal media arrogance one usually finds. Compare CNN's reaction to ABC's when they tried to ruin Food Lion. The "Prime Time Live" producers who lied on their resumes in order to sneak into Food Lion got promotions and raises, and the Executive Producer, who was personally fined $35,000 by a jury - one Mr. Richard Kaplan - got promoted to president of CNN. (Upon his hiring, CNN chief Tom Johnson claimed: "Rick has been involved with shows that have set new standards of excellence in television news." Oops.)
But not enough heads rolled. Despite the gripes of many anti-Kaplan staffers inside CNN, Kaplan went officially unrebuked for this disaster. Why? When "Dateline" rigged GM trucks, NBC News President Michael Gartner was forced to resign. Why shouldn't Kaplan be forced to follow suit, when the concept of merging CNN with Time-Warner magazines into the "NewsStand" format was his brainchild and especially when the erroneous charge - murdering fellow Americans with nerve gas - is so much more serious than tainted chicken breasts?
And why just "reprimand" Peter Arnett, the infamous salesman of Iraqi propaganda during the Gulf War? It was enough of a mystery that CNN considered this America-hating New Zealander an asset to their credibility after the Gulf War, when he admitted to the National Press Club in March 1991 that he really didn't know whether his Baghdad reporting was true, and he "didn't go deep down" to try and find out.
From now on, any important news story delivered by Peter Arnett is not going to be believed.
It's sad that the unashamed Arnett retains his job, while someone like Janet Cooke will never work in the national media again. As a young Washington Post writer, she invented an eight-year-old cocaine addict and won a Pulitzer before the hoax was exposed. Two years ago, she tried to make a comeback. She made no effort to duck responsibility like Kaplan or Arnett, and she was contrite and willing to make amends. The media were sympathetic to her plight, but still nobody hired her. They understood the baggage she would carry, and how her soiled name would damage the credibility of any media outlet sponsoring her. That's the sort of baggage CNN now has and forever will have, at least so long as Arnett and Kaplan are still drawing paychecks there.