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New York Times Ignored, Then Distorted Story Of Vietnam Atrocities

by Jack Lessenberry

Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths
EDITOR'S NOTE: Thirty-six years after the Army's elite Tiger Force committed terrible war crimes in Vietnam and decades after the Army appeared to have covered up the events, the Toledo (Ohio) Blade produced a remarkable investigative series that is surely worthy of a Pulitzer. Yet the story was almost completely ignored by major U.S. media. The cold reception that the story received has become a story in itself, with Salon and Newsday offering excellent op/eds decrying the lack of interest. Most noticible in its silence was The New York Times, which didn't acknowledge the story until late in the year, and then in an insulting article.

The Blade story was chosen as one of the Albion Monitor's 2003 Wayward Press Awards for important news stories that received little attention by the U.S. media.]

Toledo Blade
The Toledo (Ohio) Blade produced a remarkable investigative series that is surely worthy of a Pulitzer, yet the story was almost completely ignored by major U.S. media
For nearly a year, Toledo Blade reporters Mike Sallah and Mitch Weiss have worked on reporting and writing what has turned out to be perhaps the most shocking and significant atrocity story of the Vietnam War.

For at least six months in 1967, an elite unit called Tiger Force rampaged through Vietnam's Central Highlands, murdering -- at the encouragement of their officers -- probably hundreds of unarmed civilians.

Our reporters traveled across the United States, interviewing veterans of Tiger Force, and went to Vietnam to talk with victims and survivors of the atrocities. The result of this investigation was a series, "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths," that ran in The Blade Oct. 19-22. It was later featured on national news broadcasts from the ABC Evening News and Nightline to National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke the story of the 1968 My Lai massacre, praised the Tiger Force series in the Nov. 10 issue of the New Yorker, noting that "the responsibility of the press is to do exactly what The Blade has done: to find, verify, and publish the truth."

Mr. Hersh also took note of the significance of these stories, noting that a law professor quoted in The Blade series believes that My Lai itself might have been avoided had military officials acted on complaints about Tiger Force activities that had been filed by at least two soldiers. Instead, there was a cover-up, one that lasted 28 years.

Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. But an article in the New York Times on Dec. 28 casts the Tiger Force atrocities in an unfair light. The article, "Report on Brutal Vietnam Campaign Stirs Memories," quoted a Columbia University graduate student studying history and public health, Nicholas Turse, as saying that there was nothing particularly unusual about Tiger Force's actions, as awful as they were.

"I read through that case a year ago ... and it really didn't stand out. It was just one of hundreds," said Mr. Turse, who is working on a dissertation about American war crimes in Vietnam.

(Mr. Turse has also written an essay in which he described Columbine High School killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as members of "a legitimate radical faction." who are the "heirs to the youth rebellion of the sixties.")

Mr. Turse, rather than any of the nationally known historians of the Vietnam War, was the main expert quoted in the Times story. But the real problem with the New York Times report was that it presented an incomplete and distorted view of what The Blade reporters had done.

Mr. Turse is quoted as saying that he ran across the records of the Tiger Force case, and the documents did not stand out.

That isn't surprising, because all he was allowed to see was the long-known public record of the investigation at the National Archives.

The Blade reporters, later including Joe Mahr, drew heavily from more than 1,000 classified documents never before made public, including assessments of the case made by Criminal Investigation Command agents. Mr. Turse never saw these records, because they have never been published.

However, Mr. Turse did say something about the series that the New York Times chose not to publish. "The Toledo Blade articles represent some of the best reporting on a Vietnam War crime by any newspaper, during or since the end of the conflict."

The New York Times story, and a long article posted on the Internet by Mr. Turse, do not challenge the facts that appeared in the Blade series. "In recent telephone interviews with the New York Times, three of the former soldiers quoted by The Blade confirmed that the articles had accurately described their unit's actions," acknowledged Times reporter John Kifner.

It's well known that atrocities occurred during the Vietnam War -- many of them unreported. But when those crimes are reported and later covered up after an Army inquiry that lasts 4 1/2 years, newspapers have an obligation to tell the truth, no matter how painful it is.

"We would have been party to a cover-up if we had knowledge of these war crimes and did not publish the story," said Ron Royhab, The Blade's executive editor.

But the New York Times -- and the graduate student -- seem to be arguing that behavior like that of Tiger Force was more the rule than the exception. As documented by The Blade, in the case of Tiger Force, this included cutting off human ears to make necklaces, rape and wanton murder, and in one case, evidently cutting off a baby's head to steal a necklace.

This characterization does a disservice to the many hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers who served admirably in Vietnam. Blade reporters interviewed more than 40 members of Tiger Force, often in person, and many other Vietnam-era veterans as well. Indeed, even some members of Tiger Force tried to stop the violence and ultimately complained to higher authorities, taking those steps at the cost of grave personal risk to their careers and, perhaps, even their lives.

This is not journalism worthy of the New York Times. And it came, interestingly enough, after months in which the Times essentially ignored the Tiger Force revelations.

Yet when John Robinson Block, the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, contacted the Times to ask if our reporters could write a piece for the opinion page making it clear what the true nature of their reporting was, he was told no. An editor told him that opinion articles are not allowed to challenge stories that have appeared in the New York Times.

Why would the newspaper commonly regarded as the nation's greatest behave this way? Mr. Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, may have put his finger on it. "News organizations instinctively debunk scoops from their competitors, especially those in smaller markets."

Sadly, he is in a position to know.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan
This commentary first appeared in The Toledo Blade January 4, 2004
Reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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