What's Wrong With The Kerrey Story?
By Richard Reeves
LOS ANGELES -- I have no special knowledge of the heroism or shame of Bob
Kerrey 32 years ago in Vietnam, but I am reasonably certain that the debate
over his conduct as a young Navy lieutenant will make him better known and
more popular than he ever was as a governor and U.S. senator. The publicity,
the charges and counter-charges, could even make him president.
Americans generally do not believe that the young men and women they send
into harm's way are likely to kill civilians or children -- and if they do,
there is good reason. War is hell.
In the best-documented American atrocity of that dreadful war -- the killing
of at least 109 old men, women and children on March 16, 1968, in a village
we called My Lai -- the public overwhelmingly supported Lt. William Calley
Jr. as he was court-martialed and found guilty by a panel of officers who
had served in Vietnam.
The six-man jury deliberated for 13 days after the longest war-crime trial
in American military history ended. They found Calley guilty of premeditated
murder, rejecting his defense and this testimony: "They were all the enemy.
They were all to be destroyed. ... That was my order, sir. That was the
order of the day, sir." He said that he had been told that even the children
of the hamlet were considered Vietcong sympathizers and had thrown grenades
On March 31, 1971, the court-martial sentenced Calley to life in prison.
There were more than 50,000 telegrams to President Nixon by the end of the
day -- running 100-to-1 in favor of clemency for Calley. A quick White House
national poll indicated that 96 percent of Americans were aware of the
charges and 79 percent of respondents disapproved of the verdict. The
commander in chief commuted his sentence.
Kerrey is obviously a better man by far than Calley. For reasons of his own,
it was he who decided to tell this shaming story about himself. I know that
he talked about it because he wanted it out and probably because he thinks
it is healthy to talk about what young men are actually called on to do to
survive in war.
That said, my concern is not about once and future politicians, but about
journalism. This story is another advance of a new kind of bottom-line
journalism. I was startled by the fact that my alma mater, The New York
Times, was working with CBS News, the producers of "60 Minutes II." The
Vietnam interviews were not done by the writer, Gregory L. Vistica, but by
anonymous (to Times' readers) CBS producers. So two world-class news
operations willingly gave up full control over the reporting on an important
story because it cost less that way.
Pooling resources is a good way to save money. The same thing is happening
across the spectrum of my business. The once-competitive network news
departments now share film shot by foreign news organizations or free-lance
crews hustling film and stories around the world -- all ABC, CBS and NBC
often do is to put in voice-overs by their own anchors or correspondents.
That is the way the accountants want it. That is why MSNBC and Newsweek have
a deal. Why train newspeople when you can rent them for 10 minutes or an
Does it matter? Well, it did on election night last year. The confusion in
broadcasting results from all over the country did not happen because
systems were too complicated. It was because new systems are too simple. In
the old days, each network had its own polling units, run by proved and
trusted supervisors. Then the accountants said why shouldn't we all get
together and have only one operation -- for a third the cost?
So they did it, creating Voters News Service on the cheap. Then VNS screwed
up the counts, and there was no one else in the field. The networks and
voters, too, got what they paid for: chaos.
Where will it end? If it keeps going this way, one day there will be only
one giant source of most news: Big Brother producing the same message
printed in different typefaces, told in different voices.
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