A report on the Voice of America yesterday, quoting U.S. officials as saying that as many as 80,000 Vietnamese troops were involved in an offensive in Cambodia, brought a quick rebuff from the State Department and an equally sharp defense from VOA's director.
"We are confident of our facts and our sources and we never claimed to speak for the government of the United States," said VOA Director R. Peter Straus. "We are satisfied with our news and its objectivity."
State Department Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Hodding Carter, who is often placed in the position of denying reports that appear in the daily press, had singled out the government-run VOA at his regular morning briefing.
"We are not able to confirm reports on the number of troops involved (in the Vietnam-Cambodia fighting) as claimed by VOA and others," Carter said, adding that it would be "inaccurate and misleading" to characterize the VOA report as reflecting official views.
Great efforts have been made in recent months within the administration and within Congress to proclaim publicly the independence of VOA's news broadcasting operations and it is rare for a VOA report to be the subject of State Department comment.
Rows over VOA broadcasting operations generally have involved behind-the-scenes efforts to prevent the radio from reporting on certain subjects or to block its correspondents from traveling to areas considered snsitive by U.S. policymakers.
Carter's deputy, Tom Reston, minimized the incident, noting that the VOA correspondent who developed the story "may have been reporting someone's views on background as any journalist does."
Carter's concern, he said, was that the wording of the broadcast may have left the impression that an official U.S. position was being reported.
"As long as there is no implication of an official U.S. position, we are relatively relaxed about it," Reston said.
The State Department has taken pains over recent months to keep a hands-off position on the tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam. The VOA report was developed by the radio's Pentagon correspondent, although it is unclear whether the information on the Vietnamese troops came from Pentagon sources.
Straus said that VOA continued to broadcast its report after Carter's statements at his morning briefing but also reported the State Department's characterization of it as inaccurate.