Gassed at CNN
On June 7, the day the most explosive story of her career aired on CNN, April Oliver's bosses sent her flowers. "Valley of Death," which Oliver had spent the last eight months investigating with senior producer Jack Smith, asserted that the U.S. had used the nerve gas sarin on its own defectors during a raid in Laos called "Operation Tailwind." It was the debut feature of CNN/Time magazine's "synergy" collaboration NewsStand, an attempt to compete with highly rated network news magazines 60 Minutes and 20/20. Oliver remembers that management called Smith on that day as well, offering glowing praise.
Less than a month later, those same managers fired Oliver and Smith, denounced them in the media and retracted the story. Their unit's executive producer, Pamela Hill, resigned in protest; Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Peter Arnett, who had provided on-camera commentary and shared a byline with Oliver in Time, cut his losses and kept his job by confessing that he was merely Smith and Oliver's front man. CNN enlisted two lawyers, Constitutional expert Floyd Abrams and in-house counsel David Kohler, who found "exhaustive research," but still dismissed the report as "unsupportable." And on July 21, the Pentagon concluded a six-week investigation by announcing that the U.S. military had never used nerve gas. Pundits in the media and elsewhere apparently regarded the Pentagon as capable of policing its own historical wrongdoing, and a First Amendment attorney worthy of vetting a news story for journalistic standards, and assumed that April Oliver, who was eight months pregnant and 36 years old at the time of her firing, would scurry away in shame.
They were wrong. Oliver, still unemployed, with a newborn son to "teach me what's important in life," remains firm in her conviction that "Valley of Death" was responsible and fair, and ever more dedicated to being heard. "If I'd thought I'd done something terribly wrong, I would have disappeared," she says over the phone from her home in Washington, D.C., a week before her appearance this Sunday, October 25, at University Synagogue in Westwood to present her case at an event sponsored by the ACLU and other organizations. "I certainly wouldn't be doing public-speaking engagements or radio interviews. But we followed every standard procedure for ensuring veracity that our combined 47 years in journalism had taught us."
What her own 15 years did not teach was what to expect from her peers once she'd been ousted. News sources, with few exceptions, supported almost without analysis the dutiful capitulation of CNN president Richard Kaplan and chairman Tom Johnson to the likes of Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. Instead of probing in depth the issue of whether CNN, a network made famous by its Gulf War coverage and ever-dependent on the Pentagon's approval for sources, was right to fire Oliver and Smith, the vast majority of column inches were devoted to figuring out how an estimable news organization like CNN could let these two hype-hungry newshounds off their leashes. Fortune magazine published an entire article on the debacle by a reporter who never deigned to contact Oliver or Smith; the Columbia Journalism Review ran a four-page article, "Ten Mistakes That Led to The Great CNN/Time Fiasco" by Neil Hickey, and failed to call Oliver to confirm a single fact. "And they're critiquing me for being biased," Oliver declares. "The hypocrisy in all this belly-aching and navel-gazing is really astonishing.
"When the mass media moves," she's learned, "they move as one mass. The power is overwhelming, and it can depress you."
If Oliver, who a few months after graduating from Princeton in 1983 went to work for Hodding Carter's PBS show Inside Story, is disillusioned by CNN's treatment of her and the media's compliance, even she realizes she should have been wiser. "For 10 years I avoided corporate media, because I believed that I was in it for different reasons - not money and fame, not ratings, but content." She moved to CNN after funding constraints forced the MacNeil/ Lehrer Newshour, where Oliver was covering foreign affairs, to cut back its travel budget, and for the most part she was happy. "I absolutely loved my job," she says. "I really did. There are few places in television where you can report on public affairs with a sense of civic responsibility, not worrying about ratings, not under great pressure to deliver by a deadline." Now she counts The Nation's Alexander Cockburn among her few outspoken allies (in his August 24 column, Cockburn made the very salient point that Oliver and Smith are part of a disturbing trend - not of untrustworthy journalists, but of turncoat corporate media honchos) and has positioned herself as an avatar of the individual journalist's right to defy corporate-media censorship.
"I've found a voice I didn't know I had, and that's been wonderful," she says. "And I think that I'd like to set up something to help other people in similar crises," noting the escalating number of reporters being abandoned by news organizations with conflicting corporate interests - among them Gary Webb, who reported for the San Jose Mercury News on the connection between the CIA and drug trafficking, and Mike Gallagher, who's been accused of illegally accessing voicemail for a Cincinnati Enquirer expose on employee mistreatment at Chiquita Brands International. "I never wanted to take up a cause or become a political advocate, but it's important to stand up for the integrity of the journalistic process. What are going to be our journalistic values for the next decade?" she asks. "Corporate media with a good-old-boy relationship to the establishment? Or is there a constituency out there for valuable reporting that challenges establishment power at its very root?"
In the meantime, Oliver has heard that an edict has been handed down at CNN forbidding her close friends to help her in any way, and she's been "having a hard time," she says, getting her mail and messages. ("I'm not aware of anything official like that," says CNN spokesperson Steve Haworth. "But I can't deny that no one in the organization has said something along those lines.") There have, however, been reassuring things happening as well. "I've been getting a lot of invitations from journalism schools, radio talk-show hosts and other organizations to speak, and I don't think that Jack and I would be getting those if some people didn't believe us." She maintains hope, if not for vindication, then at least for a deeper critique, in a broader forum, of the story she and Smith tried to tell. "I think that over time we will find that Tailwind was not the only incident of this kind. I don't know if that will happen fast enough for me to work in television again," she says. "But I will never regret doing that piece."