CBS has done more apologizing for an outstanding documentary on Vietnam than Richard Nixon ever did for Watergate.
Something is rotten in the state of Paleyville.
CBS News insiders and interested parties at other networks are privately expressing alarm and disbelief about the way CBS News handled an attack by TV Guide on a Jan. 23 documentary called "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which documented the manipulation of enemy troop strength by U.S. military intelligence during the Vietnam war. On Thursday, CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter issued an eight-page memo, the result of a six-week investigation, that stood by the documentary but found it guilty of five violations of CBS News "standards" and had other quibbles over such details as use of the word "conspiracy" in describing the scandal being exposed.
Killing, or at least impugning, the messenger who arrives with bad news is an old tradition, but you don't often find the messenger bopping himself over the head. Instead of dispelling the cloud that had formed over the program, CBS News all but seeded it for rain.
And this despite the facts that the central thesis of the program has never been disproven (it wasn't even seriously called into question by the TV Guide article); that those who made accusations of deliberate deception by military intelligence under Gen. William C. Westmoreland included military intelligence officers from Westmoreland's own command; ; and that none of these witnesses has since recanted his story, disavowed the documentary or been proven incorrect.
Indeed, some of those who appeared on the program--and others familiar with the research that led to the broadcast--wrote Sauter during the investigation to express their overwhelming endorsement of the documentary and faith in its conclusions. George Allen, a former senior CIA officer who still does training work on contract with the agency, told Sauter in his letter that "a videotape of the show has been used in a professional development course for senior officers as a case study in ethics and intelligence, illustrating as it does the difficulty of maintaining the independence and objectivity--not to say integrity--of intelligence in a highly politicized situation."
In terms of journalistic authority and reputation, CBS News is a giant and TV Guide a ridiculously tiny gnat. Why, then, should CBS News have bent over so far backwards to entertain the accusations--in public yet--and risk imperiling the morale and reputation of its own staff in the process? Because, extremely knowledgeable insiders say, Black Rock--CBS corporate headquarters in New York--applied immense pressure on Sauter to do so, for reasons that remain dark and mysterious and, to some within CBS, frightening.
Sauter has denied there was such pressure, but a key source says "It is a matter of fact" that there was; that Black Rock wanted someone--probably the documentary's producer, George Crile--fired over the controversy and that Sauter spent day upon day hammering out the compromise memo that was released last week. Among those with whom Sauter negotiated are Thomas Wyman, president of CBS Inc., Gene F. Jankowski, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, and, insiders believe, "The Chairman," William S. Paley himself, even though Paley was vacationing in Europe while the investigation went on.
No one knows at this point how wide the wider ramifications of this unsavory incident will be. One insider has noted that there is "a sea of piranha who would love to find a wound in broadcast journalism at the moment and rip it open," largely because network news is perceived to be anti-administration and any disparagement of the military-industrial establishment right now is deemed hostile.
The implications for investigative journalism in television--the most difficult kind to do--are not healthy. The CBS statement says the producers of "Uncounted Enemy" should have "sought out and interviewed more persons who disagreed with the broadcast premise" even though the statement affirms that the broadcast proved its premise correct. If they're going to be this sheepish and equivocating about investigative reporting, maybe CBS News should also start apologizing for "Harvest of Shame," "The Selling of the Pentagon," "The CIA's Secret Army" (produced by Crile), "The Defense of the United States" and the other landmark documentaries that have made CBS News unquestionably the most respected organization in broadcast journalism.
Maybe Ed Murrow should have found a few more folks who didn't think it was so tragic that migrant workers were being abused and exploited and hanging onto life by their fingernails.
Fred W. Friendly, the former CBS News president who now functions as a kind of guru and conscience for broadcast journalism, said Friday, "What worries me, and what I hope is addressed soon, is that the kind of tough, hard-hitting, fire-in-the-belly journalism that built CBS News will be chilled by this . . . The other two networks have never really done work in a class with CBS. CBS has done the tough ones. I'm not talking about my day, I mean in the last 10 years or so. This kind of thing could send a chill through there."
The fate of the documentary is another illustration of the sad lot of the whistle-blower in our society; he often gets the whistle shoved down his throat. On the other hand, one has to wonder about the attitude of whoever thought they were blowing a whistle on Crile by leaking internal CBS memos, and gossip, to TV Guide. This source (or sources, as the authors of the TV Guide piece keep insisting) had to have observed the alleged offenses during the production of the documentary. Why didn't they bring them to the attention of CBS News executives then? Why wait until later and leak them to TV Guide, thus jeopardizing, in the public's mind, the reputation of an entire news organization?
Says Friendly, from his home in New York: "Something is wrong in the esprit de corps of a news organization where this kind of thing is happening."
Friendly also said that although he is "sad" to think about what could cause such disloyalty among the personnel of CBS Reports, "A news organization, like an athletic organization, is measured by its character when things aren't going so well. You judge news organizations by the way they act in adversity, and I'm very proud of the way CBS News has acted."
CBS News officials were pressured not only by the money-men at Black Rock but also by the CBS affiliates, and the story of "Uncounted Enemy" is also a case study in the changing relationship between a television network and its stations. Ten or 15 years ago, one broadcasting expert says, affiliates earned 30 to 40 percent of their revenues from their relationship with the network, but today that figure has plummeted to only 5, 6 or 7 percent. The networks must cower before affiliates they once could dictate to. This new affiliate clout--partly a result of the ongoing revolution in telecommunications technologies--is the principal reason no network has dared to mount a one-hour nightly news show, despite the news divisions' lust to do so, and probably won't attempt it for at least the next five years.
Everything changes, of course--even CBS News. The "Uncounted Enemy" mess is a baptism by fire for news president Sauter, who took over earlier this year. Naturally, there is in-house speculation about the way the matter would have been handled by the former news president, the distinguished William Leonard, who is vacationing in Europe and could not be reached for comment. Unlike Leonard and other predecessors, Sauter does not come from a strict news background. His other jobs at CBS have included chief censor and president of CBS Sports.
Another hallowed name that pops up in relation to this affair is that of Frank Stanton, the former CBS Inc. president who stood up to Congress and refused to turn over unused film from "Selling of the Pentagon" in 1971. There are no Frank Stantons at CBS any more. "Neither we nor anybody else is going to have a Frank Stanton again," one insider glumly notes. But there is a less attractive side even to this tale of seeming heroics. According to one veteran of that skirmish, despite the outward sign of solidarity, Peter Davis, producer of "Pentagon," was out of CBS about six months later (Davis is also in Europe, and also unreachable). He went on to produce, on his own, such documentaries as "Hearts and Minds" and, earlier this year, the "Middletown" series on public TV.
There are those within CBS who think that, after a few months of cooling off, Crile will quietly disappear from CBS as well. Another name mentioned as a possible sacrifice is Roger D. Colloff, the news vice president who was chiefly responsible for signing off on "Uncounted Enemy." Colloff, questioned late last week, said "There are lots of rumors floating around" but did not want to comment on any of them. "Roger is nervous," one source said.
Reed Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media (AIM)--a big fish in that "sea of piranha"--said Friday, contentedly, "If I were Mr. Crile, I wouldn't make any long-term plans to be there for a long time." Irvine said he was "disappointed" in the CBS statement, thinks the network should be "pressured" to release the entire 68-page report on the investigation, and called the network's announcement of a new vice president to serve as an ombudsman "a vindication of what we have been urging for a long time."
By coincidence, Irvine said, he visited CBS the day the statement was released, meeting with Wyman, Jankowski and Sauter. The visit was arranged at an April CBS shareholder's meeting at which Irvine reportedly referred to Walter Cronkite as a "Communist dupe." Irvine said Friday that he did not call Cronkite a Communist "in so many words" but had charged that the former anchorman "has consistently, over the years, done a number of peculiar things. After the Tet offensive he came on the air and said it was a defeat for our side even though he'd been over there and knew that not to be true."
Irvine also recalled having said of Cronkite that "Anyone who'd served in Moscow as a correspondent and not come back making anti-communist statements had to be under some suspicion."
This is the kind of mentality to which CBS News is catering with its lavish apologia.
All the brouhaha over "Uncounted Enemy," and all the arguing about whether the Vietnam deceptions constitute in the strictest literal sense a "conspiracy," obscure the deeper and more profound implications of the documentary and the reason it was made in the first place. Retired Col. George Hampshire said in his letter to Sauter that although it was painful for him to do so, he appeared on the documentary "in the hope that, for once, history won't be repeated."
Retired Lt. Richard G. McArthur, a principal analyst for Westmoreland's intelligence operation, said in his letter to Sauter, "My motive for appearing was to help inform the American people of how they were lied to during the war, with the sincere hope that such actions could be prevented in the future."
Richard M. Moose, who served as special assistant to national security adviser Walt Rostow (a critic of the program) during the Lyndon Johnson administration, wrote to Sauter that the "great irony" of the controversy was that "during Vietnam, the motives of anyone who produced inconvenient numbers estimates of enemy troops were always the first thing to be questioned. Seldom the numbers themselves. So now, those who have the most to live down have questioned the CBS producer's integrity. That's about all there is left to attack. The numbers are now, finally, pretty well beyond dispute."
As principal investigator for the House Intelligence Committee in 1975, Greg Rushford looked into charges of intelligence manipulation in Vietnam brought by Sam Adams, who was a consultant to Crile for the documentary. In his letter to Sauter, Rushford wrote, "What a tragedy it will be for journalism if your internal investigation--like the shallow ones the CIA ran against Sam Adams--forces the George Criles out of the business. From my point of view, journalism needs more George Criles just as our government agencies need more Sam Adams."
A CBS correspondent responding to Sauter's statement last week tried to look on the bright side. He said something even worse had been expected and added, "At least it's not another bad day at Black Rock." But it was. It may have been a bad day for all of broadcast journalism.