After six weeks of internal investigation and intense secrecy, CBS News yesterday issued an eight-page statement defending its Jan. 23 documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." The program was the subject of a May 29 TV Guide cover story that charged the broadcast with "inaccuracies, distortions and violations of journalistic standards."
"CBS News stands by this broadcast," the statement said. But it also cites five violations of CBS News standards committed during production of the 90-minute program and announces the creation of a new position--Vice President, News Practices--to handle future controversies. The statement also promises "a future broadcast on the issues treated in the original broadcast."
In an article by Don Kowet and Sally Bedell that was headlined "Anatomy of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the Rules and 'Got' Gen. Westmoreland," TV Guide charged that in attempting to prove deliberate under-reporting of enemy troops during the Vietnam war by military intelligence under the command of Gen. William C. Westmoreland, producer George Crile ignored evidence that cast doubt on the thesis and defied established CBS standards on news reporting.
An exhaustive in-house study of the charges conducted by senior executive producer Burton Benjamin resulted in a 68-page report--one that CBS officials say will not be made public--that found that the central premise of the program was "substantiated." But the statement, signed by CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter, also lists points on which the program is vulnerable.
"We now feel it would have been a better broadcast," the statement said, "if: it had not used the word 'conspiracy'; it had sought out and interviewed more persons who disagreed with the broadcast premise; and there had been strict compliance with CBS News standards."
The word "conspiracy" was used only once in the broadcast, but also appeared in promotional material for the program, the statement says, adding, "The broadcast presents ample evidence of deception but we now believe that a judgmental conclusion of conspiracy was inappropriate." However, the statement criticizes TV Guide for its use of the word "smear" in attacking the broadcast:
"The TV Guide characterization was an exploitive attack on a serious, substantive journalistic effort," the statement said.
Westmoreland, reached by telephone by the Associated Press at his summer home in Brevard, N.C., called the CBS memo "an incredible whitewash."
"I felt the ethics of the producers were unconscionable," the general said. "But I thought that because of the integrity and fair play of the people at the highest echelons of CBS, they would not stoop to being associated with a whitewash."
The TV Guide article, combined with Reagan administration criticism of an earlier CBS News documentary, Bill Moyers' "People Like Us," created new tension between the news division and CBS affiliates at their recent meeting in San Francisco and, reportedly, even greater tension between CBS corporate hierarchy and the news division.
When asked, Sauter said yesterday that CBS brass had not pressured him to find a scapegoat or to lop off a few heads in the interest of saving face. "I would say that's totally inaccurate," said Sauter. "The Broadcast Group, with whom we dealt, was supportive. I experienced no tension. Nor did I feel pressure."
Sauter also responded yesterday to criticism from inside and outside CBS News that the whole matter had been badly handled. A top news executive at another network said recently CBS should have stood by its story at once and not conducted any investigation. "I say, we did support our broadcast and our people," Sauter said. "The charges by TV Guide were long and elaborate and they deserved the attention they received."
Five violations of CBS News guidelines were listed in the statement, and three other charges, cited in the TV Guide article, were characterized as "unwarranted." Among those violations listed was that producer Crile refilmed an interview with one of his key witnesses, former CIA official George Allen, not to elicit new information but because Crile was dissatisfied with the first interview. Crile also violated guidelines when he let Allen see tapes of others interviewed for the program, the statement said.
The CBS statement says, "None of these violations changed the substance of the broadcast, but we take them no less seriously."
From New York, coauthor Kowet said yesterday he felt most of the charges he and Bedell had made in their article had been acknowledged by CBS News, "so I don't see how they can then say they stand by the broadcast. What wouldn't they stand by?"
Later in the day, Kowet said his "ire" had "cooled" and added, "I don't want to be too harsh on them. They do admit a lot of stuff, which is kind of gutsy for a network." He called the statement "pretty strong stuff" and said he will write a response to it for the "Update" section of the next issue of TV Guide, which appears Monday. Bedell, now a reporter for The New York Times, will not contribute to the response, he said.
For producer Crile, whose previous work for CBS included an award-winning documentary, "The CIA's Secret Army" in 1977, and another report that generated considerable controversy, "Gay Power, Gay Politics," in 1980, the statement ended six weeks of dangling on a string. Crile and others involved in the program were forbidden by Sauter from discussing it during the investigation. Even Mike Wallace, correspondent on the report, refused to return phone calls.
"Mainly, I'm happy that CBS stands by the broadcast and that I am now free to defend it as fully as it deserves to be defended," Crile said from his office yesterday. "I have been frustrated by not being able to use my own voice."
Crile said of the TV Guide article--one unlike any in the history of that publication--that "I feel as if TV Guide was guilty of almost compulsively doing all the things they said we had done. They misrepresented what people had said, built charges on false premises and used semantical tricks to make their case."
Several of those involved directly or peripherally with the broadcast and mentioned in the TV Guide article wrote letters to Sauter during the investigation and expressed support for the program.
Sam Adams, the former CIA analyst who was paid $25,000 to be a consultant to the program and who was interviewed on camera, "was coached extensively at CBS News on the questioning he would be facing" from Wallace on camera--a direct violation of CBS rules--according to the TV Guide piece. Adams said earlier this week from his home in Virginia that he was not coached at all.
"Absolutely not. No," Adams said. "They imply I went up to New York a week before to be read a list of questions and that just simply never happened." The CBS statement said, "We do not believe the paid consultant was rehearsed for his interview."
The TV Guide article also claimed that Adams "now doubts the documentary's premise of a Westmoreland-led conspiracy." Adams says he does think the "conspiracy" went higher than Westmoreland but that the main point of the program was not that Westmoreland led the conspiracy anyway. "That floored me," he says of the allegation. "I have no serious problems at all with the program."
Kowet and Bedell charge that Crile and his associates failed adequately to investigate Adams' credibility. But Crile had known Adams since 1975, when Adams wrote a piece for Harper's, where Crile was an editor. This led to Adams' testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. Greg Rushford, an investigator for that committee, also wrote to Sauter to defend Crile and Adams. Adams, Rushford said earlier this week, is "totally credible and fair-minded." As for Crile, "If it hadn't been for George, nobody in Congress would have investigated this thing seriously at all."
Thomas Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote a book on former CIA chief Richard Helms, "The Man Who Kept the Secrets," in 1979, also wrote to Sauter when he learned of the controversy. "It's incredible to me these guys TV Guide have caused so much trouble for CBS with matters of so little substance," he said yesterday from his home in Vermont. He told Sauter in the letter that "all these charges are a terrible red herring." And he called Adams "a completely and totally trustworthy individual."
Allen, who had been Adams' supervisor at the CIA, was interviewed twice by Crile and was shown tapes of other interviews, as both TV Guide and the CBS report say. Insiders close to the production say Allen "froze" on camera during his initial interview and that he was shown the other tapes to relax him.
TV Guide charged that Allen tried to "dissuade" Crile from doing the report at all. Allen says this is a misinterpretation; that at his first meeting with Crile, he told the producer it would be difficult to put all the information into cohesive form for television. "I was just being skeptical," Allen said this week. "They CBS proved me wrong, in effect." He also said, "I think the TV Guide article misrepresented me more than the CBS broadcast did." He called the program "a useful contribution."
Statements by retired Col. Gaines Hawkins that cast doubt on the conspiracy theory "fell to the cutting room floor," TV Guide charged, but Hawkins, who was part of Westoreland's intelligence operation, said this week, "I was satisfied with the way CBS quoted me in the damn thing . . . I was not quoted out of context."
Hawkins said Kowet had called him during preparation of the TV Guide article. "It was obvious he wanted me to give him something that would tear down the CBS documentary," Hawkins said. "He didn't even mention in that article that he had talked to me. I told him I was satisfied with the program . . . He was trying to get me to backtrack, to say the documentary wasn't quite fair to my interview. But I still stand by it. I think CBS did pretty well."
In response to that, Kowet said, "The fact that Gaines Hawkins stands by his statements has nothing to do with the fact that CBS says in the program that Hawkins was carrying out orders from Westmoreland."
Kowet also said he was surprised by some of the reaction to the story. "We immediately polarized the press," he said. "I've been stunned. Absolutely stunned. People are not reading our piece, they're arguing the Vietnam war again. I'm a liberal. If the documentary was a bad one, it doesn't matter if the target was Westmoreland or Ralph Nader."