Holy Cow! History: When CNN almost fell for fake news

Journalists walk a razor’s edge between speed and accuracy, and they occasionally get cut.

On the one hand, there is the ever-increasing pressure to be first with major breaking news. On the other is the obligation to get the story right. They’ve been at odds ever since Ben Franklin was printing newspapers, and probably always will be.

By and large, reporters have gotten more right than wrong over the years, with a few major mistakes along the way. Remember the Chicago Tribune’s 1948 epic fail, “Dewey Defeats Truman”? (He didn’t.) During a 1981 assassination attempt, ABC News briefly reported President Ronald Reagan had died. (He hadn’t.)

Nowhere is the challenge of first versus factual more pressing than in TV’s 24-hour news cycle. Immediacy and instant access are its hallmarks, after all.

But the original cable news pioneer once came within a whisker of being badly burned. This was what happened when CNN almost fell for fake news.

In that paleolithic period before Al Gore invented the internet, CNN and its sister channel CNN Headline News were the channels to watch if you wanted to stay on top of breaking news. In fact, reporting major events as they happened was the networks’ raison d’être.

(In full transparency, I worked as a news writer and editor at CNN and CNN Headline News off and on between 1984 to 2009. Though I wasn’t present when this incident happened, I heard it firsthand from many folks who were there that ill-fated morning. It was passed along like a ghost story whispered around the campfire late at night, a cautionary tale about what happens from acting too fast.)

CNN was launched on a shoestring budget in 1980 followed by Headline News in 1982. The pair slowly but surely proved themselves to be the little engines that could. Staffed by a combination of seasoned veterans and enthusiastic youngsters such as myself who still had wet ink on their journalism diplomas, they set about doing the impossible: Bringing breaking news into America’s living rooms in real-time. And they got better at it year after year until reaching their apotheosis by being the only TV news outlet to report live during the 1991 Gulf War’s start from inside Iraq.

The network was riding high on that success heading into 1992. At the same time, President George H.W. Bush was also riding a wave of popularity following the swift defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces. He rang in the new year on an Asian-Pacific trip focused on the major global realignment underway after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

On the morning of Jan. 8, Bush and the U.S. ambassador to Japan played a doubles tennis match against that country’s emperor and prime minister. (The home team won.)

There was a big state dinner that night at the PM’s place. Suddenly, between the second and third courses, Bush leaned over, vomited in his host’s lap, and fell to the floor. Secret Service agents rushed him off. It was later announced he was suffering from a nasty case of stomach flu.

And that might have been that — if the phone hadn’t rung at CNN headquarters in Atlanta.

To say things were confusing in the newsroom that morning would be an understatement. Sudden, unexpected breaking news always sent an electric charge racing through the ranks. And it rarely gets bigger than the president keeling over in the middle of a black-tie bash.

Three hours after that incident, a caller identifying himself as the president’s personal physician said Bush was dead.

A brief burst of extremely intense debate among CNN Headline News’ senior producers followed. A command decision was reached. The news would be reported.

And so, during a commercial break, highly esteemed announcer Don Harrison was told to read the story when the newscast resumed. You could cut the tension with a knife.

At 9:45 a.m. Harrison said, “This just in to CNN Headline News. And we say right off the bat, we have not confirmed this through another source. …”

At that moment a frantic producer was heard off camera yelling, “No! Stop!”

Harrison, a consummated professional, rallied and went on as best he could. “We are now getting a correction. We will not give you that story. … President Bush is resting comfortably after …”

It turned out the phone call was traced to a residence in Garden City, Idaho. An unstable man named James Smith had identified himself as the president’s doctor and had made the rounds telling anyone who would listen that Bush was dead.

CNN’s main editorial desk had originally determined the call was a hoax and had ignored it. But somehow the story drifted over to its sister network, which came within a whisker of making perhaps the network’s greatest news blunder of all time.

When it was over, CNN implemented new safeguards when determining which stories were approved to report. And Smith was hustled off to a mental facility.

Lesson learned the hard way. But it had been a very close call.

Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected].