Published on Wednesday, December 17, 2003 by Newsday / Long Island, NY
A Big Story - But Little Noted by Big Media
by Cole C. Campbell
Between May and November of 1967, Tiger Force - an elite platoon of the Army's 101st Airborne Division - killed and maimed dozens, and most likely hundreds, of Vietnamese civilians.
Four years later, the Army began investigating the slaughter, conducting 137 interviews over four and a half years and tracking down former platoon members in 63 cities in the United States, Germany, Korea and the Philippines. The investigation concluded that at least 18 soldiers had committed crimes including murder, assault and dereliction of duty. But no charges were filed. No public report was issued. Nothing was said.
Until Oct. 19, when The Toledo Blade began publishing these facts in a sweeping series, "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths," based on the investigation's classified documents and the newspaper's own interviews with more than 100 people in the United States and Vietnam.
"Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers," The Blade reported. "Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings... One medic said he counted 120 unarmed villagers killed in one month."
The Blade reported that some soldiers tried to stop the atrocities, but were put off by commanders. Had commanders investigated at all at the time, experts told the newspaper, they would have signaled that atrocities would not be tolerated.
Reports on the Tiger Force probe went to the White House during the Nixon and Ford eras and to former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Secretary of the Army Howard Calloway. Gerald Ford and Schlesinger declined to comment to the newspaper, while Calloway said he did not remember the inquiry.
The Blade's series names names, cites documents and vivedly reconstructs the atrocities, based on eyewitness descriptions. It also conveys how the atrocities continue to affect the troops who committed or witnessed them - and the Vietnamese ravaged by them.
Why is all this newsworthy 36 years later? As The Blade's executive editor, Ron Royhab, says in presenting the series, the American people need to know what is done, and not done, by American forces so we can choose to hold accountable those who commit atrocities - and those who do little to stop, correct or punish them.
There is no statute of limitations for the newsworthiness of atrocities - as the journalism community underscored in 2000. That year's Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism was awarded to three Associated Press reporters who documented what the Pulitzer board called "the decades-old secret of how American soldiers early in the Korean War killed hundreds of Korean civilians in a massacre at the No Gun Ri Bridge." And plenty of news organizations carried reports on the disclosure in 2001 that former Sen. Bob Kerry of Nebraska had received a Bronze Star for an engagement in Vietnam that entailed the massacre of a score of civilians, mostly women and children.
Wide dissemination of these stories, and additional reporting by other news organizations, are important components of accountability. Sustained news media attention helps focus public attention on public institutions that are responsible. The Blade continues to publish new details and perspectives on the atrocities, a clear indication there is more to uncover and comment on.
And yet The Blade's reporting has not been built upon by other news organizations around the country. Most newspapers published an Associated Press or Reuters wire-service summary of the series and then shifted their gaze elsewhere. Newsday columnist James P. Pinkerton commented on The Blade's series in an Oct. 30 column. The New York Times has published nothing. An Internet search for Tiger Force citations produces as many references to GI Joe action figures as to atrocities.
Seymour Hersch, who broke the My Lai massacre story, summarized The Blade's report in the Nov. 10 New Yorker magazine. He noted how national news organizations have mostly ignored the story. That prompted three reports on ABC News programs, and Aaron Brown has taped a segment to be aired on CNN.
Why such indifference among news organizations? Many factors contribute, including the difficulty of catching up on a story whose key sources are so widely distributed. There may even be a reluctance to appear anti-Army at a time when troops are engaged in street-fighting in Iraq.
But, sadly, the main impediment is one of professional status. The Blade is not published in Manhattan, Washington, Chicago or Los Angeles. It is not part of a mega-media empire such as Tribune Co., which owns Newsday, or Gannett or Knight-Ridder. And it has not yet earned the halo of regional respectability the profession has awarded papers in Seattle and San Jose and St. Petersburg. That could begin to change when the Pulitzer board meets next spring.
Until then, you may want to inform yourself by reading the series - and reassert your independence from the journalism elite's neglect.
Cole C. Campbell is a former editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.