CNN chief executive Tom Johnson told colleagues yesterday that he had twice submitted his resignation over the nerve gas story that the network had to retract, but was rebuffed each time by Ted Turner, CNN's founder.
Johnson also told his staff in a conference call that he is taking another look at possible punishment for Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent on the story, according to several participants in the call. Johnson said he came within a hair of firing Arnett but reprimanded him instead, in part because of his courage in reporting from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War.
Arnett called in to defend himself during a second conference call, declaring that "I contributed not one comma" to the story. He said he had helped build CNN's reputation and that he was "not going to let my reputation go down the tubes" over the controversy. He said he was "shocked" to hear his job is on the line.
Arnett said he was reporting from Iraq during much of the eight-month investigation into allegations that U.S. troops used deadly sarin gas in Laos in 1970 and targeted American defectors. When he returned, he said, he was busy giving speeches. He acknowledged that his role might seem surprising for someone of his "stature."
When he raised questions with April Oliver and Jack Smith, the CNN producers fired over the story, he was presented with several hundred pages of documentation, Arnett said. When he joined in two key interviews, he asked questions from several pages prepared by Oliver. And it was Oliver who wrote the accompanying piece for Time magazine, CNN's corporate partner, with his name apparently tacked on for "marketing reasons," he said.
Johnson also told his troops that Richard Davis, who now oversees CNN's Washington talk shows, has been named executive vice president for standards and practices, running the new office created in the wake of last week's apology for the June 7 report on "NewsStand: CNN & Time."
The intensity of the turmoil at the Atlanta-based network was reflected in the unusually personal criticism that several CNN staffers made of their bosses during the first conference call with dozens of staffers from the network's bureaus. Johnson and CNN/USA President Rick Kaplan sought to take full responsibility for the fiasco during what turned into a heated, often angry discussion.
Both Johnson, a former Los Angeles Times publisher who once worked in Lyndon Johnson's White House, and Kaplan, who was brought in last summer after years as a top producer at ABC, reviewed the nerve gas story before it aired. But Kaplan seems to have become the lightning rod for internal criticism.
Kaplan says he considered resigning over the retracted charges but decided he had not played a significant enough role in the story's editing.
During the morning conference call, some staffers demanded to know how Kaplan, with his high-level experience, could have approved the nerve gas story. One even brought up his involvement with the ABC "PrimeTime Live" story on Food Lion supermarkets, which prompted a $5.5 million jury verdict against the network over its use of hidden cameras.
Kaplan, a former "PrimeTime" executive producer, defended the Food Lion story, noting that the jury award was reduced on appeal to $315,000. Kaplan himself was fined $35,000, but that was later cut to $7,500. Another staffer questioned his role in having Cokie Roberts put on a winter coat and stand in front of a picture of the Capitol so it would look as if she were reporting from the Hill.
Much of the staff's anger was also directed at Arnett. Andrea Koppel, CNN's diplomatic reporter, questioned the nature of Arnett's job and whether the CNN brass is protecting him, participants said. Had it been a less famous correspondent, she said, that person would have been fired or should have resigned. Some producers questioned how they could have confidence in Arnett's reports in the future.
Other staffers wondered during the call whether their network was simply trying to make a big splash for the debut of "NewsStand," which both Kaplan and Oliver have denied.
Days before the segment aired, Jamie McIntyre, CNN's Pentagon correspondent, wrote a memo questioning several weaknesses in the piece, particularly the account of retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, 86, who was presented as a confirming source although he never claimed firsthand knowledge that nerve gas was used.
Jeff Greenfield, co-anchor of "NewsStand," faulted his own performance, saying in an interview that he failed to ask enough questions because he was "so wrapped up in the creation of a new show. I was way too distant from the story for my own good. My radar was jammed."
CNN came under immediate pressure from current and former military officials after the piece aired. Johnson sought out former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and retired Gen. Colin Powell, both of whom said he should retract the story.
"There was considerable antipathy in the military community of the United States to the broadcast," said Floyd Abrams, the media lawyer who found in a report for CNN that the story was both unproven and unfair. "I had a four-star general break down in tears on the phone with me as he talked about the injustice, as he viewed it, of the broadcast."
But Smith and Oliver say the CNN retraction was linked to military pressure. Oliver, in a letter to Kaplan, called it "an organized attack full of untruths and brutal slander." The producers say Johnson ordered them to meet with chief Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon and other officials to assist in the Pentagon's probe of the nerve gas charges.
"Rick Kaplan did not want to take the heat of congressional hearings," Smith said. "Tom Johnson caved in to the commercial pressure being brought on him," he added, referring to alleged threats by retired military officers to contact CNN's advertisers and local cable companies. "Kaplan caved. Johnson caved."
Smith also said he and Oliver had been "deceived" because they were repeatedly promised a chance to respond to Abrams's findings, with one meeting scheduled with CNN's legal counsel for noon on Thursday -- the precise hour the report was released. "We got a star chamber proceeding," Smith said. "It's a sham report, a fake that allowed the company to lynch us and get this behind them."
Abrams strongly disputed Smith's account, saying the producers had repeatedly provided him with information and even wrote him a 19-page, 47-point rebuttal to the main criticisms of the story.
"We spent a good deal of time with her and with him at CNN over a four-day period," Abrams said. "We were and are aware of their views on every relevant issue."
In a widely circulated July 4 memo, McIntyre, the Pentagon reporter, said he was "angry" at Smith and Oliver for the "multitude of journalistic sins they committed" in pursuit of their "conspiracy theory." He said the two producers owe an apology to "their colleagues at CNN, whose reputations and credibility have been grievously wounded by this shoddy piece of journalism."
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