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CNN Creates Watchdog Position

Its credibility damaged by the Vietnam nerve-gas story it retracted, CNN is creating a new watchdog position to review the accuracy of its reporting.

CNN's chief executive also said he offered to quit over the debacle but Ted Turner wouldn't accept his resignation.

Tom Johnson, chairman, president and chief executive officer for CNN News Group, said that he has made telephone calls of apology to members of the Special Forces team that carried out a 1970 mission in Laos called Operation Tailwind and that he apologized to CNN employees in a series of "town hall meetings" about the story this week.

"This is a big blow. This one really hurts ... a major, self-inflicted wound," Johnson said about the reputation built by CNN over the past 18 years.

Johnson also disclosed Tuesday that he planned to meet again with veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett, who was reprimanded earlier, to decide whether "other action" is warranted. Two producers have already been fired and another quit after CNN's retraction July 2.

Johnson said he offered his own resignation to Turner, who founded the news network in 1980 as part of his TBS empire.

"I feel responsible for what happened here, and I don't believe in ducking responsibility," Johnson explained.

"He said, `I don't accept it,' " recounted Johnson, who served as publisher of the Los Angeles Times and was an aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson before being hired by Turner in 1990. He said Turner was "certainly deeply regretting this" and in daily communication on the handling of the retraction and its fallout.

"Nobody cares more about the reputation of CNN than Ted," said Johnson.

A spokeswoman for Turner didn't immediately return a phone message.

CNN retracted its June 7 report which was heavily criticized by the military after a CNN-requested review by prominent media attorney Floyd Abrams.

Abrams concluded the reporting couldn't support the allegation that the poison gas sarin was used, that American defectors were targeted or that they were even in the Laotian camp where the mission was carried out. He also said information contradicting the story's conclusion had been discarded.

Johnson discussed the story and its fallout in his office Tuesday as he prepared to announce creation of a new position, executive vice president of editorial standards and practices.

Rick Davis, a senior vice president who has overseen CNN's Washington public affairs shows and was a member of the network's 1980 original launch team, will review major CNN reporting for accuracy, fairness and responsibility.

Johnson also affirmed "tremendous confidence" in Richard Kaplan, the CNN/USA president hired last year from ABC.

Kaplan used the nerve gas story in the kickoff of Newstand, a newsmagazine series that runs five times a week. Johnson said producers failed to give Kalan important information about their story.

Johnson said those involved in the story were "a crack investigative team" that "really came to believe the story."

Fired producers April Oliver and Jack Smith have continued to defend their work. Smith said Johnson and Kaplan "caved to pressure on this story."

When asked what he should have done differently, Johnson said he should have made sure that CNN's Pentagon correspondent and its military analyst were included in the story. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith quit as CNN analyst after the story aired.

Johnson declined to detail issues he planned to raise with Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Vietnam War coverage for The Associated Press and was a leading reporter in CNN's much-praised coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

Arnett, who had indicated last week he had a limited role in the story, interviewed two of the primary sources for the program, Oliver told The Washington Times in a story published Sunday.

"He went beyond simply reading a script," Johnson said of Arnett's role.

"Peter has been reprimanded, and I would say reprimanded quite forcibly," Johnson said.

Written by Dan Sewell ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed