Gossip has it that the underlings at Cable News Network and Time magazine have still not recovered from the backblast following the network’s Operation Tailwind story. Aired on June 7 under the title “Valley of Death,” and then published in Time , the program alleged that the United States used poison gas in Laos in 1970 to assassinate American deserters. On July 2, the network retracted the story and various second-level people at CNN were thrown out the door.
On July 10, Ted Turner, the big boss at CNN and a very large stockholder of Time Warner Inc. , blathered out a maniacal act of public contrition, telling the audience at one of those journalism conferences so dear to the industry that, “If committing mass suicide would help, I’ve even given that some consideration.” How one person commits mass suicide was left unexplained in the news reports reaching here. Perhaps Mr. Turner has delusions of pharaonism and believes that after he knocks himself off, his employees will throw themselves on the funeral pyre, too, in an act of corporate suttee, if I may be allowed to mix cultural metaphors. “Nothing has upset me more, probably, in my whole life,” Mr. Turner went on to say, heaping a Pelion of exaggeration on top of an Ossa of theatrical overstatement. “I’ll take my shirt off and beat myself bloody on the back … I couldn’t hurt any more if I was bleeding.”
Mr. Turner’s bleating cut little ice with James Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy, who served with the Marines. In The Wall Street Journal , Mr. Webb shot back at the media magnate and others in journalism who have lifted a leg on those who fought that now-distant war. Truth, it appears, is not only the first casualty of war but the last, seeing as how CNN broke its poison gas story almost 30 years after it was alleged to have happened.
Apologies aside, there are questions not yet answered. The failure of Mr. Turner and the other uppermost executives at Time Warner to fire CNN News Group chief executive Tom Johnson, Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson, or Richard Kaplan, the CNN-U.S. president, has, of course, been much remarked on. Their asses were, apparently, saved because they were too valuable to the corporation to lose, or they were too distant to appreciate how shaky the story was.
Well, maybe, and maybe they knew it was a crock and aired it, anyway. Messrs. Johnson, Isaacson and Kaplan have been around a long time.
We can presume they’re savvy men, impervious to being gulled by subordinates living out the peacenik passions of their youths. This was a story that a politically sophisticated person should have seen was unbelievable on its face. The heart of the story is that in the middle of the Cold War, the United States, on the say-so of unknown, unnamed low-level commanders in the field, used poison gas. And what was the poison gas, a weapon of mass destruction, used for? Why, to rub out a few deserters hiding in a neutral country. Preposterous. Strategically absurd, tactically ridiculous. Why not use an atom bomb, if you want to make sure you got that little covey of unimportant buggers?
Either these top men at Time Warner are political naïfs, utter children, or they suspended disbelief and allowed those under them to go ahead with a story that they, although not their subordinates who believed their own crap, knew not to be true. To the cynical outsider, it seems as though the CNN- Time story might have been shaped so that a falsehood could be disseminated without fear of it recoiling back on the network or the magazine. The name of the officer who made the decision to use poison gas is not given, the name of the men who released it is not given. Hence, there is nobody in a position to sue for defamation or libel. Certainly, this is the way to fabricate and publish a lie or, as is more likely in this case, allow a lie to be broadcast, although, I repeat, those who put the program together, the producers, believed this stuff to be true.
The motives for allowing the propagation of a falsehood?
Ratings and circulation have often been mentioned. There is also synergy. When Warner Brothers and Time Inc. first merged and then when Time Warner merged with CNN, there was much palaver about synergy, the cross-pollenization of print and broadcast and how we, stockholders and the reading and viewing public, would be the better for it. The benefits of synergy have proven to be evanescent, while the actualities of synergy are that information or data or persiflage, cooked up by one company or organization or another, is forever being repackaged and reformatted to turn up again elsewhere.
If Tailwind had not been exposed as a figment of the liberal media conspiracy, rest assured that in due course the same story would have made its appearance on the History Channel, A&E, your kids’ high school textbooks, and you can guess where else. All big money or mainstream media, as they like to call themselves, pump out and suck up warmed-over stuff done by other organizations. The same tired and tiresome bylines abound in half a dozen formats from print to Web page. The same 30 people saying the same 30 things in the same 30 places. It’s cheap and most of the time it doesn’t matter, save for the sad sack repetitiousness they spray us with around the clock. Call it brand-name news.
Another person who has been exposed as a great humbug by the poison gas story is Peter Arnett, our modern-day Richard Harding Davis. Mr. Arnett owes his present renown to the Gulf War, a conflict during which the mainstream media lent itself to the Government’s ham-handed propaganda, so that to this day most people are under the misapprehension that this passage of arms exemplified the power of American arms, when, if anything, it was quite the reverse.
We’re still waiting for the apologies and the retractions on that one.
But it’s a poor Tailwind that blows no good. The episode serves to remind us that all-stars like Mr. Arnett, on all the networks and some magazines, too, do neither their own reporting nor writing.
They do the performing and other people, working for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars less money, do the work.
These others gather the information, frame the questions that the Arnetts pose to the interviewees, and write the final script. It’s a ventriloquist and dummy act. And when there’s a fuck-up, it’s the ventriloquists who get canned. The celebrity journalists, through whom untruths are conveyed, get to stay on. You don’t fire the dummy for reading the wrong lines. Pinocchio’s nose grew because he was a real boy with free will, and not one of those splendid splinterheads who adorn the nightly news. Anyway, we may suppose that Time Warner has too much invested in his marquee value to sack the swashbuckling Mr. Arnett, and why should they? His place will only be taken by another talking puppet.
Hard on the fiasco at CNN and Time came news of the firing of reporter Mike Gallagher from The Cincinnati Enquirer . Mr. Gallagher had written an exhaustive report on Chiquita Brands International Inc. and sweated labor, bribery, herbicides, pesticides and Yankee corporate mayhem in the tropics. Chiquita, of course, is the moniker used by a company that has achieved lasting infamy in Central America under the name of the United Fruit Company.
To obtain all the information needed for his story, the enterprising Mr. Gallagher appears to have stolen a large number of voice mails from Chiquita a.k.a. United Fruit. When the banana barons made this alleged pilferage known to Mr. Gallagher’s gutless employers, the Gannett newspaper chain, they paid United Fruit, whoops, Chiquita, more than $10 million, ran a front-page apology for three consecutive days and fired Mr. Gallagher. What else?
A lot for Mr. Gallagher who, doubtless, will never get another mainstream job and is being sued by United Fruit–Oh, Lordy, I slipped on that banana peel again–and, also, is being pursued by a grand jury. The judge in the case is the recipient of campaign contributions from Chiquita’s chief executive, Carl H. Lindner Jr., a man whose business history would make a Bolshevik out of the Pope.
The details of Gannett’s surrender to United Chiquita or whatever are locked up as part of the legal settlement. The agreement underscores the increasing difficulty of getting meaningful information about the gigantic corporations who control our lives. Stealing may be the only way to get the important stuff.
Reporters were doing it long before the corporate lawyers and their judglings put a gag order on the world.
So there you have it. Sometimes they want fact, and sometimes they want fiction. In mainstream journalism, a newsie can get fired for making it up or for telling the truth. I tell ya, you can’t win for losing around here.