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Journalism with a Smerc: Gullibility and Fiction at the Philadelphia Inquirer

Let me state from the outset: I have no problem with soldiers who inflate their war stories, any more than I am bothered by anybody who likes to spice up the tale of a youthful exploit.

It’s different though, when exaggerations are exploited for personal gain, like what Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal did when he campaigned on the outrageous claim that he was a Vietnam War combat veteran when he really wasn’t.

My grandfather, William Lindorff, earned a Silver Star in World War I, where he was an ambulance driver on the front lines in France. My father, a Marine in World War II, says that his dad never once talked about that medal. Now, I’d say that’s a real hero.

David Christian, on the other hand, who ran twice unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress in Pennsylvania, has talked a lot about his own heroism as a soldier in Vietnam. In fact he’s written (with author William Hoffer), a book about his exploits, titled Victor Six. A cover blurb from the Philadelphia Inquirer touts him (perhaps a bit excessively, given Marine Gen. Smedley Butler’s unparalleled two Congressional Medals of Honor), as “this country’s most decorated war hero.”

I’m not going to challenge Christian’s tales of his heroic actions in Nam, where his website claims he won two Silver Stars, but some of his other stories, particularly one he recently told to blustery conservative radio talk-show host and local newspaper columnist Michael Smerconish, do merit a little examination, and raise questions about what Stephen Colbert would call his general “truthiness.”

On May 20, in a column in the Inquirer headlined “Vietnam hero cures an old Rutgers wound,” Smerconish hails Christian for bravely returning to the Camden campus of Rutgers Law School this year and finally, more than three and a half decades late, earning a law degree he had tried unsuccessfully to earn after returning from Vietnam.

According to Smerconish and Christian, the Bristol, PA native, reportedly the youngest second lieutenant in the Army at 18 (a rank he says he attained only a year after he had enlisted at 17), was driven to “drop out” of law school, reportedly “a few credits shy” of graduation, because of the “unfriendly environment,” which he says included abuse by an administration and faculty who Smerconish says “made a circus of his attempt to earn a law degree.”

Sounds horrible, no?  But Christian’s astonishing claims of administration and faculty abuse don’t really stand up well on close inspection--a standard journalistic procedure that the shamelessly credulous Smerconish and his equally credulous editor Kevin Ferris simply dispensed with.

Christian told Smerconish--and Smerconish obligingly reported--that, “certain of the deans” disputed Christian’s claims to have war injuries (including shrapnel and bullet wounds and severe napalm burns, that together with the pain medication the Veterans Hospital was giving him, allegedly interfered with his ability to do his school work), and that, in Christian’s own words, “I was asked by the administration to disrobe in front of the student body because they didn’t think I was a disabled veteran.”  Christian went on in the article to say, “At the time there was no Americans With Disabilities Act and there was no Privacy Act.  They couldn’t touch the politicians, but they could touch a war hero.”

Smerconish made no effort to check this account of an outrageous abuse out with the law school, according to the school’s media relations office and dean’s office, but when I called and spoke with the current dean, Rayman Solomon, himself a Vietnam War veteran and the man who bent the rules and allowed Christian to come back last year and finish his degree, he advised me to locate a copy of Christian’s autobiography.  

“He tells a different story there,” Solomon said dryly.

I did go out and buy the book, and indeed Christian’s story there is wildly at variance with the dramatic horror story of having to strip in front of his classmates.

In his book, Christian writes that when he first went to the school administration to plead for special consideration to be admitted despite his very low score on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), he was treated cooly by both the dean of the school, the late Russell Fairbanks (himself a former lieutenant colonel), and the school’s dean of admissions, Peter Bent. Feeling that they didn’t believe him and to better make his case, Christian says that at one point, when he was alone with Dean Bent, he opened his shirt to display his scars. (He claims in the book, also rather incredibly, that Bent then took a pencil and “stuck it into the deepest bullet wound he could find,” saying, “You know, I’ve shot a deer, Mr. Christian, less severely than you’ve been shot. I’m amazed that you lived.”

Now, maybe one of these two outrageous stories is true, and maybe the other one is, but certainly not both. And as a reporter, experience has taught me that once you start getting differences like this in the telling of a tale, chances are neither one is true. Besides, Christian’s website also says he earned seven (count 'em) Purple Hearts--awards that are bestowed on soldiers wounded in battle. Right there, any dean would have known he had been pretty seriously injured--especially a dean who had been a Lt. Colonel--and surely wouldn’t have needed him to “disrobe” to prove anything.

I also have my doubts about Christian’s other tales of political harassment at Rutgers, as recounted as fact by Smerconish.

Take the one about how “some faculty members” (unnamed of course) “would post lists of purported Vietnam heroes -- lists that would include North Vietnamese names.”

Smerconish didn’t bother to ask Christian where on earth a Rutgers law prof would round up such a list. A draft resister myself, I was active in the anti-war movement, and read Chinese fluently (it was my major in college), and I never saw any such list of North Vietnamese heroes--not even in People's Daily. Unless one of those unidentified professors spoke and read Vietnamese and somehow, in the pre-Internet era, had managed to get access to North Vietnamese newspapers, I don’t know, and Michael Smerconish can’t possibly know, where he or she would have gotten such names. Nor did he ask Christian how he knew they were North Vietnamese heroes, and not Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) heroes--if such a list existed at all.

And then there’s Christian’s claim that “the faculty” (again no names) “made a circus” of his “attempt to earn a law degree.”  Smerconish quotes Christian as saying, “If I got a grade that was marginal, they would release it to the newspapers and news media.”

Oh please.

What faculty member would do this? Particularly with a dean who was a veteran, and who, according to current Dean Solomon, was not anti-war?  And even in the unlikely event that there were a few faculty members obsessed with such loathing for Christian, because of his pro-war politics, that they would want to embarrass him like that, who among them would have been idiotic enough to think any news organization would be interested in seeing, much less publishing, the failing grades of a war veteran--and a documented medal winner at that?  

It simply defies belief.

Unless you are Michael Smerconish.

Smerconish quotes Christian as saying that the current law dean at Rutgers Camden, Dean Solomon, “was shocked at this social tragedy.”

Smerconish, incredibly, while blithely libeling the old deans and faculty at Rutgers, never bothered to call the school, even to interview the current dean who was generous, flexible and unbureaucratic enough to allow Christian a do-over.

I did make that call, and here’s what I learned. Christian didn’t “drop out.” He flunked out of Rutgers. But as current dean, Solomon decided to accept Christian’s request to be allowed to return and finish. As he explains it, “When he came to see me, we didn’t talk about the past. It was, ‘What do you want to do? What can we do for you?’  My feeling was, the medical care back then was not as good, and the school’s support services weren’t as good, and I was sure that if he had been here today with the same medical problems, we could have helped him more, so I figured we should give him a second chance.”

l tried to contact Smerconish both through the Inquirer, which generally publishes its reporters’ email contacts at the end of their stories, but not this particular columnist’s address, and the editors at the paper would not even provide me with a business email address or phone number for him (the paper did run a chopped version of a critical letter I sent in.) The reclusive Smerconish’s website doesn’t provide an office number--just an 800 number that takes messages, and a contact window for leaving an email message for his radio show.  So I left several messages--both voicemail and digital--asking him to call me or tell me how to contact him about the story.

Smerconish and his staff just blew me off.

I did reach his direct editor at the Inquirer, editorial board member Kevin Ferris, explaining that I was a local journalist and was working on a story about Christian as a follow up to Smerconish’s Inquirer column. When I asked Ferris what kind of fact checking was required of columnists, Ferris got testy and said, “I don’t respond to ambush interviews.”

I asked him how it could be an “ambush” interview if I had called him up at his office and told him I was a reporter. (There is, after all, not any more direct way to tell a person--particularly a fellow journalist--that you are calling to interview them than to announce that you are a journalist working on a story!) He claimed I hadn’t told him I was working on a story.  Anyhow, when I asked him again whether Smerconish’s story on Christian and his law degree was fact-checked, noting that when I have written opinion pieces for the paper my work has been rigorously fact-checked, he was silent. I suggested to him that his silence sounded like a “no comment” to me, and he grumbled, “I’m not going to comment.” 

I also sent requests to Christian’s website asking for a chance to interview him about his story of abuse at Rutgers Law Camden, and never got a response from him either.

Jerry Lembke, a sociology professor at Holy Cross University in Massachusetts, is author of an excellent book called Spitting Image, which examines the widely held belief, repeated by many Vietnam War veterans, that returning veterans were “spit on” and called “baby killers,” by “peaceniks” (usually women).  Lembcke, after poring over endless newspaper and magazine files, and following up on many of these stories, discovered that there is not a single photo or video image of such spitting, and that veterans’ stories of such spitting invariably had flaws and impossible contradictions (Most vets in those days, for example, returned from the war not on commercial flights, but in military transports that landed on military bases, where there would be no peaceniks to spit on them even if there had been would-be spitters in the peace movement.) Indeed the only documented spitting at veterans that Lembcke did find was by right-wing pro-war people who were spitting on returning Veterans whose long locks, facial hair and peace signs drawn on helmets, uniforms and necklaces marked them as anti-war. (I would add that as an anti-war activist, I never once heard of anyone dissing soldiers, whom most of us viewed as victims of the Washington war machine, not as monsters or baby killers.)

“Christian’s claim that he was forced to disrobe in front of his classmates is just outrageous,” says Lembcke, himself a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.  “I never heard that one. It’s the whole masculinity threat thing--the humiliation.  It’s just like the spitting stories you hear, about half of which are purported to have been the work of women or young girls--often described as being blonde.”

Lembcke adds, “The claim about the faculty posting of North Vietnamese heroes’ names is also not plausible. Why on earth would someone do that?” 

He’s right. As I recall, most of the university faculties back during the war, and especially the administrators, were decidedly not anti-war, and certainly not rabidly anti-war. That, after all, is why we university students were taking over the administration buildings: to protest the administrations’ and the faculties’ passivity and even overt support for the war machine. Yet Christian describes Rutgers Law School Camden as somehow being a seething hive of rabidly anti-war faculty and deans--a veritable Antioch College!

I’d love to hear David Christian’s identification by name of the professors whom he alleges did these dastardly things to him, so journalists could get their side of the story. I’d love to hear from any surviving deans about their version of his tales of abuse (Dean Fairbanks is dead, but perhaps his family might offer some recollections). Maybe some of the students from that time have their own accounts.

As for Smerconish, he has shown himself to be a poor excuse for a  journalist, all too gullible when dealing with someone whose politics he shares to bother doing even the most cursory work of checking out a story.

And the Inquirer? Senior managers should pull the ideologically right-wing Ferris from his post as editor of the page-two column, and put someone in his place who will be professional and make people like Smerconish back up what they are writing. Ferris is paid to be an editor, right? Apparently to him, that means just writing the headline. Or maybe he’s just afraid of Smerconish.

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