Few of Times
mistakes have created the
kind of embarrassment
which erupted in the wake
of its April 1992 cover
story on the bombing of
Pan American Flight 103.
The cold-blooded act sparked an international manhunt. The United States government eventually apprehended two Syrians, charged them with the crime and moved toward trial when Time released a sensational cover story which purportedly brought to light never-before-known facts about the incident.
In fact, the piece was a journalistic sham which derailed justice, catered to hidden special interests and gave Time a black eye and ridicule in the news community ever since.
n 1988, Pan Am 103, en route to the United States from the Middle East, stopped over in Frankfurt, Germany. There, terrorists smuggled aboard a bomb which subsequently detonated while the plane was in the air over Scotland.
James Bond Scenario
Times version of the Lockerbie bombing was more suited to a spy novel than a news story: Rogue CIA and DEA agents had been smuggling drugs from the Middle East to the U.S. via Frankfurt long enough for the route to become a well-established pipeline. Police and other authorities were paid to look the other way while couriers or mules carried suitcases full of drugs through Customs without problem.
Terrorists allegedly got the bomb aboard by switching luggage with one such mule who, able to pass easily through airport security, unknowingly carried aboard explosives rather than his more customary load of heroin.
The magazines account made it appear that the government and its agents, by ensuring lax security, had helped make it possible for the bomb to be smuggled aboard in the first place and had been at least partially responsible for the disaster. The two suspects being held for the crime suddenly changed from murdering terrorists to potential scapegoats.
But Times James Bond scenario started to unravel even before the story was published.
Initially, several Time editors had decided to kill the story due to the questionable integrity of its two sources: Lester Coleman, a former agent for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Juval Aviv, a former private investigator for Pan Am.
Both were unabashed media hounds who, even years after the debacle of the April 1992 article, continued to peddle their story with glossy press kits.
Time took the bait, despite the misgivings of several editors. Staff with the Washington Bureau passed inter-office memos which pointed out that Coleman was a flake and Aviv a known fabricator and urged scrapping the story. When the Bureau Chief in Atlanta got a copy of the story, he approached a local journalist familiar with Coleman and asked him to verify the narrative. The reporter, Dennis Suit, described Colemans story as bull , and warned that Time would be crazy to publish the story in any form. That advice was ignored. The story went front page and almost immediately drew a lawsuit.
Central to the Time piece was a CIA double agent named David Lovejoy, who supposedly told terrorists which Pan Am flight to put the bomb onto. Coleman even supplied a photograph of Lovejoy, which ran with the article.
However, the man identified as Lovejoy was actually former Christian Broadcasting Network cameraman Michael Schafer, who had worked with Coleman for six months in Beirut in 1985. When his picture appeared in Time, Schafer was running a janitorial floor-care service.
Two weeks later, the magazine admitted its error and ran a retraction. Schafer filed a $26 million libel suit. Yet, thanks to the near-immunity granted the press under American lawno matter how injurious its actionsTime was allowed by the jury to walk away unscathed. Apparently even admitted falsehoods which cause great harm are not enough to meet the standard imposed by law.
The Vested Interest
The biggest unanswered question was why Time charged ahead with the phony Pan Am account in the first place.
That story came out a few months later, when New York magazine exposed behind-the-scenes double dealing which had instigated the story: a secret book deal and a covert attempt to derail an ongoing legal case.
The Pan Am 103 story began life as a development deal between Juval Aviv and Time/Warner Books. The arrangement was cooked up between Aviv and former Time lawyer Gabriel Perle, who introduced Aviv to Roy Rowan, a retired Time and Fortune editor who would later pen the article. At first, Rowan proposed that he and Aviv write a book on Americas shadow government.
The plan was simple: Time/Warner would advance enough money to finance locating publishable evidence of the shadow government. Once the hoped-for material emerged, it would be used not only for the proposed book, but as the basis for a series of pre-publication exposes in Time.
Ignoring the obvious ethical issues surrounding the use of a series of news stories to front a book deal, Time/Warner advanced Aviv and Rowan $20,000 each and, on October 24, 1991, signed a contract for a series of articles.
When the story finally broke, Time already had pumped $40,000 and a year of effort into the project, reason enough, perhaps, for the magazines rejection of the advice of those who urged killing the Pan Am story. But far more than just a book deal was at stake.
In December 1991, Coleman was hiding out in Sweden. He fled the United States after being arrested in Chicago for attempting to procure a false passport. After reading news accounts of the crash, Coleman had his lawyers contact attorneys for Pan Am.
Pan Am proved eager to listen. Relatives of those killed aboard flight 103 had filed civil negligence lawsuits against Pan Am, seeking billions in damages. If Colemans story were true, some of the blame could be deflected onto the federal government.
Pan Ams lawyers contacted Aviv and put him in touch with Time. The cover story on flight 103 appeared one week before trial began in the civil negligence suit against Pan Am.
Had the scheme worked, Time/Warner would have secured the rights to a book for a mere $40,000 while at the same time gaining publicity worth millions for the effort. And that same publicity could have swayed the jurors in Pan Ams case and saved the airline millions in liabilities.