It's true that CNN retracted the news story after it aired, and fired the segment's producers, Jack Smith and April Oliver. But the pair filed wrongful termination lawsuits, and apparently Smith and Oliver had a pretty good case: one of them reportedly received $1 million from CNN, and the other settled for an undisclosed sum.
Moreover, the wrongful termination suit obviously entailed examining the accuracy of the producers' reporting on Tailwind. Far from proving incompetence on Smith and Oliver's part, the case apparently validated them. In the book Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN (excerpted here), the network's co-founder and its first president, Reese Schonfeld, relates that when the Tailwind story's key witness Admiral Thomas Moorer was confronted at the deposition by Oliver's notes from their conversation, the Admiral affirmed that he had made the statements the producer he'd met with claimed he had: "His answers indicated that Oliver had quoted him correctly about Operation Tailwind. Moorer admitted that sometimes defectors were killed and that he had been told by Singlaub [ former SOG commander ] that killing defectors was a priority. When asked about the use of sarin, the poison gas, Moorer said, "If the weapon could save American lives, I would never hesitate to use it.'" After Moorer's deposition, it was apparent that CNN's retraction was premature, cowardly and dead wrong." This is certainly not the way Sorkin presented CNN's Tailwind saga to Jon Stewart's left-leaning fan base .
But even more specifically, Sorkin told The Daily Show that what went wrong with the reporting on Tailwind in 1998 was that a producer, frustrated at being unable to get the source for the story to state on camera that sarin gas was used in Operation Tailwind, altered videotape of the interview in the editing room. Sorkin claimed that the CNN producer had changed the military expert's response from "If we used sarin gas, it would've been wrong" to sound as if the source was saying they had used sarin gas and it was wrong.
Even if it was 15 years ago, this is quite a claim to make against an individual journalist. It's especially extreme considering that an extensive internal investigation was conducted by CNN and authored by two of the company's high-powered attorneys, Floyd Abrams and David Kohler -- and this report contains no such allegation. In the text of that official 1998 'AK Report' currently posted on CNN's own site, Abrams and Kohler criticize a host of specific flaws in the reporting on Tailwind, cite some instances where sound bites from sources were cut off before an important follow-up statement, and conclude that CNN should issue a retraction -- but they also state categorically: "we have found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process." The report stressed that "the report was rooted in extensive research done over an eight-month period and reflects the honestly held conclusions of CNN's journalists," and affirmed: "we do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent."
Their chief complaint about the investigative reporters' handling of the story is not about tampering but about vague interview questions and premature extrapolations from inadequate responses. The attorneys explained: "when one reviews, in their entirety, the underlying transcripts, outtakes, notes, and other available information, much of the most important data said to support the broadcast offers far less support than had been suspected." If true (more on that later), this is obviously a big problem with the methodology behind the Tailwind news story, but it's quite different from the impression Sorkin gave.
Additionally, the Tailwind segment did not ignore contradictions between pre-show interviews and on-camera statements, as Sorkin appears to believe. The source Sorkin was referring to was probably Admiral Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970 -- who, as mentioned above, later confirmed his off-camera statements in a legal setting, though he had disputed them immediately after the broadcast. But another military source, Captain Eugene McCarley, was the leader of the SOG Operation in Laos, and the "Valley of Death' piece quotes him thus in the transcript (with narration by Peter Arnett):
"ARNETT: Captain McCarley told CNN off camera the use of nerve gas on Tailwind was quote "very possible.' Later on-camera he said: