Accuracy in Media

In late December, the New York Times ran a story that continued its long-standing practice of dishonoring the service of Americans who served in Vietnam. The Times story, written by John Kifner, was a follow-up to a series published in the Toledo Blade over four days in October 2003. That series covered what the Blade characterized as “the most shocking and significant atrocity story of the Vietnam War.” The Blade’s account focused on the actions of an Army unit over a six-month period in 1967, but Kifner and the Times dismissed the story as “just one of hundreds” of similar incidents.

Back in October, the Blade’s Executive Editor, Ron Royhab, wrote a column that explained the paper’s decision to run the series. He went to considerable lengths to stress that the series was not intended as a commentary on the overall performance of American servicemen in Vietnam. He quoted the lead prosecutor in the My Lai court-martial saying, “the public needs to know that most soldiers don’t act this way.” Retired Army general Hal Moore, who was recently featured in Mel Gibson’s movie “We Were Soldiers,” told him, “war crimes by U.S. soldiers were not commonplace in Vietnam.”

But Kifner wrote that the atrocities described in the Blade’s series “were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam.” Kifner relied primarily on two “experts” to support his allegations. One is a Columbia University doctoral candidate, Nicholas Turse, who told Kifner that his research into government archives had convinced him that the Blade’s story “didn’t really stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else.”

His other source was the transcript of a speech given by John Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. Now a senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Kerry then told the Senate about “war crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” Kifner and the Times concluded that the Blade’s series “once again raised questions about the conduct of American troops in Vietnam.”

After Kifner’s article appeared, the Toledo Blade’s ombudsman, Jack Lessenbery, took exception to the Times’ story. He charged that Kifner had depicted the “Tiger Force atrocities in an unfair light.” He took particular exception to Kifner’s reliance on a Columbia graduate student as his “main expert.” If Lessenbery was unimpressed with Turse’s academic qualifications, he was even less so with Turse’s politics. He pointed to an essay written by Turse in which he described Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold not as “psychotics acting alone,” but as “heirs to a radical tradition that advocates revolution through violence.”

Lessenbery wrote that Kifner’s article “does a disservice to the many hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers who served admirably in Vietnam.” He also wrote that the Times had refused a request by the Blade’s publisher for the opportunity to respond on the Times op-ed page. A Times editor told the Blade that the paper would not publish opinion pieces that “challenged stories” run by the Times.

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