CBS News yesterday released, with great reluctance and on orders from a U.S. District Court judge, a 68-page in-house report that takes the network to task for the way a CBS documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," was prepared and presented early last year.
It finds 11 "principal flaws" in the program, charges it with several violations of CBS News "guidelines," and probably reveals the inner workings of a broadcast news organization in more naked detail than a network has ever done before.
Among the documentary's flaws alleged by CBS News senior executive producer Burton Benjamin, who compiled the report: failure to prove that the under-reporting of enemy troop strength in Vietnam was indeed a "conspiracy" as the documentary charged; failure to identify one participant in the documentary (former CIA analyst Sam Adams) as a "paid consultant"; "an imbalance in presenting the two sides of the issue"; and "the coddling of sympathetic witnesses" during the filming of interviews for the program.
In a statement released by CBS with the report, CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter calls it "a thoughtful and detailed inquiry" but says "CBS stands by the documentary and its value to those seeking a broader understanding of the Vietnam experience."
The documentary was controversial when first aired, on Jan. 23, 1982. It presented evidence, often from the mouths of the military leaders involved, that, during the Vietnam war military intelligence consistently and, the report said, deliberately, underestimated enemy strength so as to support the fallacious notion that the Viet Cong were losing the war and that America could somehow win it. The charges were not new, but this was the first time military officials involved had gone on camera to support them.
While the Benjamin Report is highly critical of the way the documentary was made, it also quotes, and appears to endorse, a remark made to Benjamin by Howard Stringer, then executive producer of "CBS Reports," the unit responsible for the documentary. Stringer said, "If all the standards of fairness had been followed, it would not have changed the outcome of the broadcast."
The Benjamin Report was precipitated by TV Guide magazine, which published an attack on the documentary last May with the blazing cover headline, "Anatomy of a Smear." The article called the documentary "powerful and polished" and "ambitious" but also said it was "often arbitrary and unfair" and charged it with various journalistic infractions made in the pursuit of proving a thesis. Then, in September, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam and one of those interviewed on the program, filed suit against CBS Inc. for $120 million on the grounds that the documentary had dishonored him.
Soon controversy surrounding a documentary about the Vietnam war, still an extremely touchy subject in itself, had escalated into what some at CBS News have characterized as an "all-out assault" on "media" in general. In coming forth to defend Westmoreland, CBS sources have said publicly and privately, his friends and supporters have found a new club with which to beat the press.
Yesterday, Westmoreland's lawyer, Dan M. Burt, president of the Capital Legal Foundation here, said he considered the Benjamin Report "devastating" and "very harmful" to CBS News. "Obviously I don't think it's a document CBS is happy to have other people have," Burt said. "I do not think this will make our case any more difficult. I think it will make it substantially easier." Burt complained that CBS had delivered the document to reporters before delivering it to him, but said his first impression was that it clearly did not "square" with an eight-page memorandum issued last July by Sauter. The memo summarized the report but declined to make its full contents public and said, "CBS News stands by this broadcast."
Last week U.S. District Court Judge Pierre N. Leval, who ruled that the report had to be made available to the court, said, "If the Benjamin Report does not say what the Sauter memorandum says it says, it could be significant proof of malice or recklessness on CBS's part in issuing Sauter's statement . . ."
"Probably, Mr. Sauter has a very serious problem," Burt said yesterday, referring to alleged disparities between the memo and the report. The report concludes that "a 'conspiracy,' given the accepted definition of the word, was not proved." Sauter's memo said, "The broadcast presented ample evidence of deception, but we now believe that a judgmental conclusion of conspiracy was inappropriate." Burt says these two sentiments are in conflict.
But Sauter, reached late yesterday, said, "I don't find a disparity at all . . . I find a strong line of consistency between the memo and the report." He said Benjamin helped draft the memo in the first place. "I don't see it the report as a big deal," Sauter said. "The bottom line is, there is no 'smoking gun' in it. I think this is for them Westmoreland and Burt a significant disappointment . . . They did not find what they were convinced was there."
Burt said that he will now seek to obtain the notes compiled by Benjamin as he made his report, a move that Sauter said "we would contest with a tremendous amount of vigor --an incredible vigor." Burt said, "We would seek everything relevant to whether or not CBS libeled General Westmoreland."
At a meeting in New York on Monday, Sauter and lawyers for CBS cautioned all of those involved in the documentary--including correspondent Mike Wallace, producer George Crile and senior producer Andrew Lack--against speaking to the press regarding the report or the suit. But previously, some of those involved in the program had expressed displeasure at the way Benjamin handled the matter and called the report itself "unfair" and "inaccurate."
Benjamin was faulted by insiders for failing to screen for himself the raw filmed interviews made during production of "Uncounted Enemy," but in the report he claims that "to do so would have delayed this report by several months." Producer Crile not only wrote a three-volume "White Paper" answering the charges in the TV Guide article but later, insiders say, wrote a lengthy memo disputing conclusions and methodology of the Benjamin Report. However, these documents were not released by CBS News yesterday.
CBS did make available a series of letters, most previously obtained by The Washington Post, written by some of the military officers interviewed for the documentary and defending it vigorously. George W. Allen, who had been the senior CIA officer in Vietnam, wrote, "That the show itself became controversial should surprise no one; no treatment of the Vietnam War is likely to escape that fate. The show was nevertheless worthwhile, and is a credit to CBS and its tradition of comprehensive, courageous and responsible news coverage."
The Benjamin Report charges a violation of CBS News guidelines in the way Allen's participation was used by the producers of the documentary. Allen was interviewed a second time when his first interview proved unsatisfactory, the report says, and, as TV Guide charged, he was allowed into the editing room so that interviews by others could be screened for him, another violation. Crile said last year, during a brief relaxation of the CBS edict that he not speak to the press in his defense, that Allen "froze" on camera during the first interview and that he was shown the other interviews to relax him, so that he could say on camera what he had already told the producer off-camera.
Use of the word "conspiracy" is also scored by the report, although the word was used only once during the broadcast itself, and that use did not refer to Westmoreland by name ("a conspiracy at the highest levels of American military intelligence," Wallace had said). "On the other hand," Benjamin writes, "TV Guide may have been wise in not challenging the premise of the broadcast. It seems odd, to say the least, for the magazine to launch an attack of this dimension and still say of its investigation: 'Its purpose was not to confirm or deny the existence of the "conspiracy" that CBS's journalists say existed.' "
In his statement Sauter said, "We concluded that any flaws in the preparation did not undermine the editorial integrity of the broadcast, and that it is an accurate and important account of the distortion of enemy strength estimates by the military in Vietnam."
In a speech he gave in Philadelphia on Jan. 25, Sauter charged that "the lawsuit has become a rallying point for people who seek to use it as an instrument for damaging the image, spirit and aggressiveness of the news media."
Burt dismissed this idea yesterday. "In the context I originally heard that remark , I was infuriated by it," he said. He accused Sauter of using "McCarthyesque" tactics-- "smear 'em and sink 'em." Sauter responded, "I would be concerned about that accusation if it came from another source." Burt said that those who are financially supporting Westmoreland's suit, including the Capital Legal Foundation, "are not fanatics or people who want to muzzle the press . . . No one wants to 'screw' CBS. They did something wrong. The fight here is not about CBS. It is about power."