When the round, bespectacled face of retired Army colonel Gains Hawkins filled the television screens of those tuned to CBS stations on the night of Jan. 23, 1982, he spoke with an unusual frankness about how he helped fudge enemy troop estimates in Vietnam 15 years before.
But in outtakes from Hawkins' interview with CBS -- a session lasting more than an hour that was whittled to less than five minutes on the air -- he sounded more uncertain, less to the point.
In one piece of the interview he supported the CBS charge that there was a ceiling imposed on enemy troop estimates in the crucial period before the Tet offensive in January, 1968. Then, a few moments later, he chipped away at the theme of the documentary that is the subject of retired Army general William C. Westmoreland's $120 million libel action against CBS.
When the tape machines were blank in U.S. District Court here this afternoon, lawyers for each side quickly told the jury how Hawkins had supported their respective cases.
In part, it is normal for opposing lawyers -- like professional journalists -- to see an event a little differently. As Richard Salant, former president of CBS News and president of the now-defunct National News Council, puts it: "No two people, if they took 25 minutes and edited it down, would get the same two minutes."
But the issue of outtakes is more than that. The raw tapes for this controversial show -- "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception" -- also deal with a basic aspect of television journalism: how tape is edited. When reels of tape and hours of interviews are pared to one succinct quote, does the truth suffer or is the viewer spared? Is the editing fair so that other sides are aired or are the tapes carefully honed to one pointed message to go on the air?
"You're alone in that editing room with your conscience," said Edward M. Fouhy, vice president and Washington bureau chief of ABC News. "People often say contradicting things in interviews, they backtrack, they say, 'I didn't say that,' and you just have to be careful about it."
As Lester M. Crystal, executive producer of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour puts it: "How much time you have becomes a factor in how you run that interview. How articulate the subject is plays a role. But in a controversial situation, ideally you want to run it long enough so that the person's thoughts run on a little and he has his say," Crystal said.
In the Vietnam documentary, CBS producer George Crile and CBS consultant Samuel Adams did more than 80 interviews for the show, logging hundreds of hours to be fitted into the 90-minute broadcast.
But, U.S. District Judge Pierre Leval, who is hearing the case, has made it clear to attorneys that the issue is not whether CBS should have done things differently.
"The legal test is not whether CBS could have put on a different program than it did or whether they violated their own standards," said Floyd Abrams, an expert on libel law and freedom of the press issues.
"It's whether CBS knew it wasn't true or had grave doubts," Abrams said.
The primary issue the jury will have to decide when the trial ends in several months is whether Westmoreland's team has proved the show was false.
If the jury agrees with Westmoreland that he did not deliberately "cook the books" when he estimated the numbers of the enemy, the general's lawyers then have to prove that CBS knew it was untrue or that they had a reckless disregard for whether it was fact or fiction.
In the Hawkins outtakes played for the jury today, Hawkins described to Crile the lowering of the troop figures in the months before the Tet offensive as, "Dishonesty, George, unprofessionalism."
"But," Hawkins said, "when it comes down to it, who the hell can prove one figure is better than another figure?"
Later, he was asked whether President Lyndon B. Johnson was told about higher enemy troop figures than the official ones -- a key point in the case. "President Johnson knew everything. No one fools commanders," Hawkins said.
But then later, he was less sure: "President Johnson had to know -- I can only make that assumption."
One question in the Hawkins interview is whether CBS was correct in disregarding certain comments that suggested he may not have known for certain whether the president had been informed of the higher enemy figures.
Cuts in a number of interviews are expected to be used by Westmoreland to try to prove that CBS showed reckless disregard for the truth.
Late today, for example, Westmoreland lawyer Dan M. Burt showed Crile's entire interview with retired Army officer James Meacham, who was military editor of The Economist in London at the time of his interview with CBS. CBS had based much of its program on letters Meacham wrote to his wife during the war.
In the broadcast, Meacham was described as accusing former colonel, now general, Daniel O. Graham of erasing the data base to alter the historical record on enemy troop strength for Westmoreland's command in Vietnam.
But in the outtakes played today, Meacham heatedly tells Crile and Adams that he does not agree with their premise that Westmoreland put a ceiling on intelligence figures. "Nobody I had anything to do with faked intelligence," he said. And, on another point, he added ". . . I don't agree with what Sam and you are trying to say."
Attorney Abrams, the libel expert, said that the effect of the outtakes on the law may be less important in some cases than their effect on the jury.
"The jury tends to take visual material very seriously," Abrams said. "They watch it; it has an aura of reality which the written word sometimes doesn't carry."