Floyd Abrams' Report

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The Floyd Abrams report presents more evidence of journalistic wrongdoing and unethical behavior than its conclusion would indicate. While Abrams concludes that there was no effort on the part of the producers (the summarily-fired April Oliver and Jack Smith) to falsify the material presented, his report indicates otherwise.

Women and Children Were Killed

Of all the nitwit charges made, the one that was probably the most egregious was that the U.S. personnel on the mission had deliberately killed "women and children". This is stated, explicity in the first paragraph of the June 15, 1998 Time Magazine article. Despite the fact that no one, not in the written transcripts, not in the aired-video, and not in the Time article, is directly quoted using the words "women and children". Here is April Oliver's justification for simply inserting that allegation into the article.

Abrams report details the following:

The report touches on the possibility of noncombatants -- women and children -- being killed. This statement was juxtaposed with and thus implicitly supported by a statement by Hagen that "the majority of the people that were there [in the base camp] were not combat personnel." Hagen's full answer was:

"The majority of the people there that were there were not combat personnel. They were more of a transportation unit."

The full context here clearly gives a different impression from the broadcast.

Hagen is clearly quoted, on camera as saying "They were more of a transportation unit". He most certainly does not say that these genderless people were "women and children" yet that is the conclusion that was supposedly innocently, albeit carelessly, drawn by Arnett-Oliver, et al.

However, by simply editing-out the last sentence of Hagen's response from the aired-video, and juxtaposing Hagen's statement that "The majority of the people there that were there were not combat personnel", with Arnett's solemnly intoned accusation that "women and children" were killed leaves the impression, deliberately, that Hagen actually said that.

The Video Tape Editing Process

Apparently CNN was only willing to devote an 18-minute segment of its inagural "Newstand" program to these sensational allegations. To put this in perspective, this is approximately the segment length on most CBS "60-Minutes" broadcasts although for truly sensational topics CBS typically allocates more time, up to the entire 48 minutes of air-time.

It is fascinating to read Abrams report and discover that after an eigth-hour video taped interview of Admiral Thomas Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970, that less than a minute of video tape was actually aired. It is also disturbing to note that answers supplied by Admiral Moorer to one question, were edited and juxtaposed with different questions asked by Arnett.

The same tendency can be observed with the interviews of Van Buskirk, Hagen, Schmidt, et al. There must have been mountains of unused video tape on the cutting room floor after this report was assembled into its final format.

Entire interviews conducted with the raid Commander, former-Captain Eugene McCarley, the Special Forces Medic on the Raid, then-Sergeant Mike Rose, and two of the Spad pilots, Don Feld and Art Bishop, went completely unused. Why? They contradicted the central thesis of the aired report.

The next time you watch a program on CNN where a particpant in an event is quoted on-camera, you must ask yourself, did he actually say that in response to that question, or was that response carefully edited to appear that way?

Good Cop, Bad Cop - Homicide: Life On The Streets

At one point April Oliver begins questioning one of her alleged "confidential sources" by stating, in Abrams words:

In one exchange, for example, the producer told the source that she had a letter from the Defense Department that said "that the men on the ground in Tailwind say that CBU-15 was accurate and effective every time" it was used in the Tailwind mission. In response to that, the source said:

Well, I guess that's right. It does sound like multiple delivery. It could have been on more than one airplane. It means more than one aircraft were used on that particular mission.

Read those quotes again. "I guess that's right." "It does sound like multiple delivery." "It could have been on more than one airplane." Does this sound to you like a ringing endorsement of Oliver's information by the "confidential source"?

The real problem here is that April had no such letter. This is akin to one of the detectives on NBC's "Homicide: Life On The Streets" who has a suspect "in the box" and says

"We have a witness who positively identifies your buddy as being present at the scene on the night of the murder"
when no such witness exists. In these cases people tend to corroborate whatever the detective says he already knows. It appears that is what happened with the "confidential source".

In fact, after Abrams' team had the blurry photocopy of this document analyzed by an independent "document expert", it appears that the letter in question actually says that the weapon used on Tailwind was CBU-25, tear gas, and not CBU-15, nerve agent. This is not mentioned in the Time article or the CNN Newstand program segment.

However, here is how Abrams justifies this behavior:

Our point is not that the producer was deliberately misleading the source by the reference to the document. It is that it was impossible to know at the time she told the source that it said "CBU-15," whether or not it did. If, as we now believe likely, it did not say CBU-15, the reference to it in an exchange with the source may well have affected the source's view of the matter.

If the photocopy was so blurry and indistinct on such a crucial point, why didn't April Oliver et al hire an independent document expert to resolve the issue? The possibility exists that they did just that and choose to ignore the findings.

In fact, it appears that the entire source of the original allegations was this document. All subsequent "investigation" by Arnette-Oliver, et al seems to have been devoted to simply finding evidence to corroborate this document. Any contrary evidence was simply ignored.

The Good Faith Effort

Abrams prefaces his findings by stating the following:

In that respect, we start with our assessment of the good faith of the journalistic effort involved here. After interviewing the journalists, reviewing their notes and outtakes and considering all criticism voiced of the program, we are persuaded beyond doubt that the report was rooted in extensive research done over an eight-month period and reflects the honestly held conclusions of CNN's journalists.

Consider a scenario where April Oliver, Peter Arnett, Jack Smith, et al, are physicists and not "journalists". Further, imagine that they are convinced that the earth is flat, and not round as is generally accepted. Further suppose that they interview 200 people over an eight-month period, including physicists, and prepare a televised report stating essentially what they believe (the world is flat), and not the evidence and testimony from those interviewed which tends to flatly (no pun intended) refute their beliefs. Would that be considered "good faith" science? Hardly. Would you consider that such a report was "...rooted in extensive research ..."? I rather doubt it. It appears that they didn't even consult the Cliff's Notes on this story.

Further, would CNN have asked for the resignations of Oliver and Smith, et al, and then fire them when they refused, had this been an honest mistake? How does an honest mistake stretch over an eight-month period? At what point did somebody in this cabal decide that irrespective of hard evidence to the contrary, they would present their conclusions no matter what?

Abrams seems to justify this journalistic faux pas because the journalists firmly believed what they were writing. Huh? I thought that the way the investigative process worked was that you started with an open mind and gathered data, critically analyzed the data, looked for flaws, adjusted for errors, and then published a conclusion supported by the data. I didn't know that you are supposed to start with a firmly held belief, and than selectively find information to support that belief, discarding any data which directly refutes it.

Ockham's Razor needs to be applied here. Basically, the concept is that if there are many conflicting explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one is usually the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that Oliver, Arnett, Smith, et al, started out to prove what the already believed. When they couldn't prove it beyond even the slightest doubt, they simply ignored the contradictory evidence and made their wild, essentially baseless allegations.

In the end, they actually won. Because no one can ever prove that the allegations are false. It is not possible to prove a negative hypothesis. There will forever be doubts about what happened on Operation Tailwind. That is the real shame and disservice here.

As is mentioned elsewhere, early on in the damage control initiated by Peter Arnett, when this collection of whole-cloth began to unravel, Arnett made sure that he mentioned, on camera, the names of the other people involved in this fiasco. This was deliberate, and intended to spread the blame. It is notably that all the other people were fired by CNN, or resigned, except Arnett, CNN's entre into Bagdad, who was "reprimanded". That ranks right up there with William Calley being pardoned by President Richard Nixon in terms of forceful, decisive retribution for wrongdoing.

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Creation Date: Thursday, July 2, 1998
Last Modified: Friday, July 3, 1998
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1998