These are not the best of times for Ted Turner. The man who built an empire - and several cable networks along the way - is clearly mortified at what happened to his "baby," CNN.
The Cable News Network has found itself in the embarrassing position of having to very publicly retract a story and apologize for it. The story involved a "CNN Newstand" report that the U.S. military used nerve gas against deserters during the Vietnam War - a story the network now admits does not have a proper basis in fact."It's a nightmare. . . . I just don't know what more self-flagellation would accomplish," Turner told a group of television critics here. "If I thought it would do any good, if anybody has a whip out there I'll just take off my shirt and beat myself until I'm bloody on the back if it would make anybody feel better. I feel that bad. I couldn't hurt any more if I was bleeding."
Neither Turner nor the network he founded has avoided the blame here. CNN has run repeated apologies, news reports about those apologies and entire programs devoted to telling the story of what went wrong.
And Turner, who could have ducked a room full of more than 100 critics fairly easily just by not showing up, didn't do so. He kept a previous commitment to be on hand to promote the upcoming CNN documentary series "The Cold War," and he agreed to spend time answering questions about CNN's own scandal.
"I'm obviously very embarrassed, very sad. . . . I was 100 percent in agreement with the apologies and the admission of mistake. And I feel horrible about it.
"CNN was my baby from the beginning," Turner said, citing a recent poll that indicated the network was the most-trusted news organization in the country. "This is a terrible embarrassment to all of us at CNN. If committing mass suicide would help, I'd even give that some consideration. Nothing has upset me more in probably my whole life."
While that may sound like pure hyperbole from a man once known as Captain Outrageous, the fact is that Turner has always been brutally honest in interviews.
"I've been living like a `Lost Weekend.' You ever see that movie with Ray Milland?" he asked. "It's been the most horrible nightmare that I ever lived through.
"(The Braves) losing to the Yankees after being up two games to none, that doesn't even come in the same league. The break-up of two marriages, the death of my father. This ranks probably the greatest catastrophe in my life."
In addition to his sense of personal anguish, Turner seems to feel some degree of personal betrayal over the nerve-gas story.
"This story was basically kept hidden from CNN brass as well because they were concerned that there would be a leak on it. Can you believe that?" he asked. "Only a small group was aware that it was going on and exactly what it was until it was too late."
Turner, who since merging his company with Time-Warner is the vice chairman of that huge media conglomerate, does not directly control CNN. He was never in charge of the day-to-day operations of the network.
But he personally approved the retraction and the apologies. And Turner has accepted responsibility for the false report and taken steps to prevent it from happening again. He formed a new committee consisting of top CNN management to "review stories of this magnitude if one comes up again.
"And I just want to add my personal apology that's already due to all the veterans and anybody else who was harmed or hurt by this story that came out without adequate evidence," Turner said.
He attributed at least part of the breakdown to the fact that CNN has grown to be such a huge news organization, and that it launched three prime-time news magazines all at once.
"We had a much more collegial, smaller network and nothing like this ever happened before, even though we did make some mistakes and near-mistakes."
Many observers have postulated that the competition from so many news magazines - three on CNN, more than a dozen on the broadcast networks - contributed to this situation. And Turner doesn't necessarily disagree.
"I think the fact that there's so many of them and that there's so many different competing television news organizations," he said. "Everybody's looking for an exclusive, important story, aren't they? You're supposed to be."
And Turner is honest enough to admit that he can't promise that nothing like this will ever happen again.
"You cannot guarantee anything, because we're working on literally hundreds of stories. We have 3,500 journalists all over the world. But we won't go on the air with anything like this again."
While he made no attempt to shirk responsibility for the story, Turner did indicate that it was an "honest mistake."
"In the baseball scores every day, hardly a game goes by that somebody doesn't commit an error. This was a big error, though, and it was unforgivable for a news network as large as ours," Turner said. "I would think that just about everybody makes mistakes sooner or late. Remember what Christ said when they were going to stone the prostitute. He said, `Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' And I think the majority of the people will forgive and forget.
DEFENDING ARNETT: Three producers and executives at CNN lost their jobs over this false story - two quit, another was fired. And, apparently, there was pressure at the highest levels of Time-Warner to fire reporter Peter Arnett, who narrated the piece.
His job was saved by two things - the fact that he acted only as the narrator and had no input into the story, and the good graces of Ted Turner, who took up Arnett's case.
Turner defended the reporter as a "loyal, courageous person." And he said that the reporter's past service to CNN - particularly his reporting from Iraq during the gulf war - played a part in the decision not to fire him.
"He volunteered to stay in Baghdad. He was the only person that did," Turner said. "It was above and beyond the call of duty to stay in Baghdad by himself, which he did for weeks. And, quite frankly, those of us in the (CNN) administration thought there'd be a good chance he wouldn't come out, whether by bombing or being torn apart by the Iraqis after bombs fell and killed a lot of civilians.
"So his past courageous contributions weighed heavily in the decision to spare him from resignation or being fired."