The last weekend of April marked a high point in American journalism, when the New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes II exposed a dreadful war crime. It also marked a low point in American journalism, when the media denied the crime, minimized it, defended it and reburied it.
The story had first been exhumed by Newsweek‘s Gregory L. Vistica in 1998. He established that in the Mekong Delta one night in 1969, in the village of Thanh Phong, a squad of Navy SEALs led by Bob Kerrey knifed to death an elderly couple and three children, then gunned down a cluster of women and children. Kerrey was cited for killing 21 Vietcong, and awarded a Bronze Star. Confronted by Vistica nearly 30 years later, he acknowledged that the citation was false and said he’d agonized over the killings ever since. A few days later, he withdrew as a candidate for the presidency. On that ground, Newsweek spiked the story as no longer of interest.
Three years later, Vistica finally placed the story with the Times and CBS. Set to appear in the Sunday Magazine on April 29 and on 60 Minutes II on May 1, it was leaked to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post with Kerrey’s cooperation. It set off a media storm. Most of the commentary accepted one or another version of Kerrey’s often contradictory testimony, and treated him as the agonized victim of what Jonathan Alter of Newsweek (5/7/01) described as “gotcha” journalism. Kerrey told the Associated Press (4/28/01): “The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort.”
Mark Shields on PBS ‘s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (4/27/01) described the Times ‘ cautious suggestion that the incident deserved a public inquiry as “an act of moral arrogance rarely seen.” Brit Hume on Fox News Channel expressed similar outrage (4/29/01). His sometimes liberal panelist Juan Williams concurred: “I mean, this is unbelievable. We have these elite New York press type people….” (Williams is a Washington press type.) Mara Liasson of NPR chimed in: “You didn’t see people from the major newspapers or television networks asking those questions.” She was mistaken; an ABC reporter put the ironic question to Kerrey at a news conference, “What did you do that was wrong?”
Questions–on the right
There were some pundits, mostly on the right, who raised critical questions about Kerrey’s account. In the New York Post (5/2/01), Michael Kelly asked why all the bodies allegedly killed in a fire fight were found in a huddle, “suggestive of an execution,” and why none survived with wounds. In the right-leaning weekly New York Press (5/2/01), Christopher Caldwell mercilessly dissected Kerrey’s lies, contradictions and evasions, concluding: “The question is not whether Bob Kerrey should keep his Bronze Star but whether he should be prosecuted.”
To be sure, most of the pit bulls of the right rallied to Kerrey. In the Times itself (4/30/01), William Safire called the story “another manifestation of the self-flagellation that led to the Vietnam Syndrome–that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat.”
He worried needlessly. Most commentary followed the line taken by Hendrik Hertzberg in that organ of the liberal elite, The New Yorker (5/7/01). He trembled with Kerrey “along the treacherously canopied riverbanks of the Mekong Delta” and agreed with him that it was “a free-fire zone, an area where civilians had been warned to leave their homes and regather in strategic hamlets, and where the difference between guerrillas and civilians, never sharp, was further blurred by darkness and fear.”
Hertzberg’s perception was blurred, too. Among other things, he repeated a common assertion that Kerrey, upon his return from Vietnam, spoke and organized against the war. There is no evidence that he did. In fact, he accepted a Congressional Medal of Honor from President Nixon, in a photo op staged to counter the antiwar protests.
As recently as last year, well after he told Vistica how he was haunted by what happened in Thanh Phong, he wrote in the Washington Post (4/30/01): “The shame is that we, at the end, turned our back on Vietnam and on the sacrifice of more than 58,000 Americans. We succumbed to fatigue and self-doubt, we went back on the promise we had made to support the South Vietnamese, and the Communists were able to defeat our allies.”
Another member of the New York press elite, David Halberstam, appeared at the New School in defense of Kerrey, its new president. That part of the Mekong Delta “was the purest bandit country,” he said (Village Voice, 5/15/01). “By 1969, everyone who lived there would have been third generation Viet Cong.” The comment explodes the myth that the American correspondents who covered Vietnam in 1963 were opposed to the war. In fact, many of them loved it, and sometimes even took a potshot at the occasional peasant; Malcolm Browne, then of AP, later of the Times, reportedly kept a severed Vietnamese hand tacked above his typewriter (William Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War). The group led by Halberstam of the Times were not critics of the war, but of the military brass they thought was losing it.
Even more surprising than Halberstam’s reaction to the Vistica expose was that of Christopher Hitchens, the eminent left-wing journalist, who also teaches at the New School. On April 30, he told Fox TV that he liked Kerrey and thought he wouldn’t have made a bad president. “But look,” Hitchens said, “none of the people he killed were raped. None of them were mutilated, had their ears cut off. He never referred to them as gooks or slopes afterwards…. For one day’s work in a free-fire zone in the Mekong Delta, it was nothing like as bad as most days.” By his next deadline for The Nation (5/28/01), however, Hitchens concluded that Kerrey was guilty after all, though not as guilty as those who gave the orders–Nixon and Kissinger.
Many other commentators, of course, denied there was any guilt at all. The Washington Post (4/30/01) said it was wrong to “subject a single citizen to such scrutiny.” Evan Thomas, the Newsweek editor who had spiked the story, called it Kerrey’s “agonizing tale” (5/7/01). Clyde Haberman of the New York Times (5/1/01) and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek (5/7/01) were both inspired to pay homage to our veterans at Vietnam memorials. “Those of us who didn’t serve,” Alter wrote, “can only witness their anguish, and learn.”
Dan Rather, who added luster to his career with the 60 Minutes II Kerrey story, was uneasy about it, and it showed. “It is painful,” he told an interviewer (New York Observer, 5/14/01). “I want to do journalism that matters. A great deal of the time in recent years we spend–I spent–developing stories that in the end don’t matter. This piece matters.”
Indeed it did. The report clamored for public hearings and further investigations by the media into this war crime and others, and into whether, as Hertzberg intoned, our democracy had lost its soul. Yet, after 10 days, a word check found that the story had quite vanished from the New York Times. What happened to those women and children in Thanh Phong did not have the staying power of what happened to Paula Jones in Little Rock.
John Hess is a World War II veteran who is writing a critical memoir of his 24 years at the New York Times.