Reporters accuse execs of caving to politicos

NEW YORK — April Oliver and Jack Smith, who were fired after CNN retracted its “Valley of Death” Operation Tailwind report, on Wednesday accused CNN’s top brass of caving into political pressure to kill further investigation into the story. The pair, who produced the report, also charged that the investigation that led to their dismissals was rigged to protect CNN’s top executives.

Oliver and Smith were axed this month after First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams filed a report of his probe into the CNN story. Abrams’ investigation said nothing in the story was untrue but there was not enough evidence to go with the news seg, which accused the U.S. military of dropping deadly sarin nerve gas on defectors in Laos in 1970.

On Wednesday, Oliver and Smith issued a 77-page rebuttal to Abrams’ investigation that said, among other things, the entire report was tainted because David Kohler, senior VP and general counsel of CNN, was the co-author of the report, which created a conflict of interest situation.

CNN spokesman Steve Haworth denied that Kohler’s participation in the Abrams report in any way biased it to protect CNN’s top executives.

“One of the signatures on the report was Floyd Abrams’ and his integrity speaks for itself,” said Haworth.

Oliver accused CNN chairman Tom Johnson and the cabler’s U.S. prez Rick Kaplan of caving into political pressure from people such as Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell when they decided to retract the story.

“I’ve never seen the extent of panic and fear in executive faces (as that) of Johnson and Kaplan over a story,” said Smith. “At CBS (where Smith worked at one point), they stood up to the Pentagon. Under Tom Johnson, you cooperate with them.”

Oliver added that she believes CNN’s brass decided to retract the story because it would help CNN reporters’ ability to report news on the military going forward. “CNN’s bread and butter is being there first,” said Oliver. “When they looked at the corporate bottom line, it would be better to keep their sources in Bosnia and around the world rather than stick with this 28-year-old story.”

Haworth disputed that CNN gave in to anyone in deciding to retract the story.

“CNN management did not cave to any outside pressure,” said Haworth. “The only pressure we felt was generated by the clarity of Abrams’ report that said the story did not have sufficient support to go on the air.”

Oliver and Smith said they will continue to report the Tailwind story on their own as freelancers. They accused CNN management of forbidding staffers from continuing the investigation.

Oliver said she left three tapes of a new interview of another confidential source sitting in a CNN office that further backed up the accusation that nerve gas was used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

“We’ve been told by our colleagues at CNN that they’ve been threatened with their jobs if they do a scintilla of work with us,” said Oliver.

Haworth countered, “There is no prohibition on the possibility that there will be new information that will air on the story.”

On Tuesday, the Pentagon said its own investigation into CNN’s initial Tailwind charges found nothing to support accusations that U.S. forces used nerve gas in Laos.

The Tailwind story was the premiere episode of a magazine series called “CNN NewsStand,” a collaboration between CNN and sister journalistic enterprise Time magazine.

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