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Caveat lector

2 May 2001

Our current howler: Volunteer army

Synopsis: Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t judge Bob Kerrey. We do judge our army of spinners.

The Law of War
Gary Solis, The Washington Post, 4/29/01

Commentary by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tim Russert, William Safire
Meet the Press, NBC, 4/29/01

Commentary by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Hardball, MSNBC, 4/30/01

The Guilt of Political Leaders
Robert Mann, The New York Times, 4/29/01

Scales of culpability
Georgey Ann Geyer, The Washington Times, 5/1/01

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue about what happened at Thanh Phong, Vietnam, in February 1969. We do have thoughts about a passage from Sunday’s Washington Post. Gary Solis wrote the op-ed in question:

SOLIS: Did Kerrey commit a war crime in Thanh Phong? It depends on whose recollection you accept, Kerrey’s or that of his teammate, Gerhard Klann. Both Kerrey and Klann doubtless believe their 32-year-old recollections are correct. One, although clearly not lying, is incorrect. But which one? Their accounts cannot be reconciled, and the truth now cannot be determined.

That paragraph is a complete, total cop-out. It’s also an insult, an assault on Post readers. Solis claims no special knowledge about what happened in Thanh Phong. On what basis, then, does he assert that Kerrey and his accuser both "doubtless believe" their accounts of the evening in question? How can Solis possibly say that each of the men is "clearly not lying?" Let us dare to consider the possibility which Solis is trying to spin us away from—the possibility that Klann’s account of the evening is accurate. If Klann is giving an accurate account, then Kerrey would, for obvious reasons, have an incentive to misstate the facts. On what basis can Solis say that Kerrey "doubtless" believes his account? There is simply no sensible way he can say this. But say it he happily does.

So congrats, Post readers, because you’ve been spun; Solis has something he wants you to think, and he’s willing to say things that can’t be defended in order to get you to think it. The Post, betraying its obligation to readers, runs to put his spin into print (hoping to gull you in the process). Note: It is also perfectly possible that Klann has said things which he knows to be false. How can Solis say that Klann "doubtless" thinks his tale is right? Solis has no way to know this.

But our press corps is sunk so deep in spin that dissembling is now second nature. When Thanh Phong was discussed on Meet the Press this week, two panelists engaged in the foolishness too. Here, for example, was Doris Kearns Goodwin, given the first chance to orate:

TIM RUSSERT: It’s been a heart-wrenching week for Senator Kerrey. What’s your thoughts on this, Doris?

GOODWIN: Oh, I have a whole bunch of thoughts on it, because I think what’s happening to him is really unfair as far as the way it’s been portrayed in the media in the following sense. First of all, it was a confusing situation and a confusing war. We know about that war in Vietnam was one where it was so hard to distinguish civilians from Vietcong. Secondly, you cannot tell history or any story from the end backwards. You got to tell it from beginning to middle to end. The fact that it later turned out that civilians were killed does not mean that they knew that at the time when this happened. It just isn’t fair to judge whatever happened at the end by what happened at the beginning in a confusing situation.

This is a simply insulting account of the situation created by Klann’s accusation. It is true that Vietnam was "a confusing war," where "it was hard to distinguish civilians from Vietcong." But what does any of that have to do with Klann’s accusation? According to Klann, there was no "confusion" at all that night; a group of civilians were deliberately killed to permit a safer escape for Kerrey’s team. According to Klann, Kerrey’s company did indeed know that the victims were civilians "at the time when this happened." Essentially, Goodwin—hoping to sell us on Kerrey’s account—narrates this story to fit Kerrey’s version. Goodwin, like Solis, has an outcome she favors. So she hands us a big load of spin.

If anything, Goodwin’s presentation on the April 30 Hardball was even farther divorced from reality:

GOODWIN (4/30/01): [T]his thing happened because these guys were in the night, in a confusing situation. If they had known at the end that there were women and civilians there, they would have done anything to have changed what happened. The fact that that was the result cannot be used to look back and cast bad motives on them from the beginning, since there’s no evidence from those seven guys—and just knowing Bob Kerrey over these years, why in the world would he have done what this other guy claims he did?

This presentation totally fails to take account of the statements of Klann. "Why in the world would [Kerrey] have done what [Klann] claims that he did?" Klann says the killings occurred to allow Kerrey’s team to escape from the area. Goodwin’s account completely exceeds the things she can know.

So how was Russert on the Thanh Phong question? What did you expect from Big Tim?

RUSSERT: The most telling thing for me—and I had an opportunity to talk to Senator Kerrey—is, 20 days after this mission, he embarked on another mission, in which he lost his leg. And he said that he believes that he and his company were so cautious because they were so concerned about what had happened the previous mission, they were overly cautious. They were trying to take prisoners rather than return fire and he wound up leaving his leg in the Delta.

What is that "the most telling thing for" Russert? Simple—because he knows Bob Kerrey, and he doesn’t know Klann, and wants you to trust Kerrey’s version. He wants you to trust what "he said." Kerrey’s account of this later incident may be perfectly accurate, of course, and his account of Thanh Phong may be accurate too. But Kerrey’s statement to Russert does serve Kerrey’s interests—and Kerrey’s account may not be accurate. Russert doesn’t let you consider that point because he wants you to think Just One Thing.

On Meet the Press, William Safire performed more nobly, daring to vocalize Klann’s accusation. "You have to presume innocence," Safire said, "when somebody accuses somebody of rounding up and giving the order for killing innocent civilians, which [Kerrey] denies." That was a slap in the face to Goodwin’s account, which pretended that there was just so much fog that nobody knew what was happenin’. We agree with Safire—we also think that it’s appropriate to presume Kerrey’s innocence. But what’s not appropriate? What’s not appropriate is to go into the Post, or on NBC, and insult the public with ham-handed spinning. Gary Solis has no way of knowing that Kerrey and Klann both believe their accounts. We were lied to enough during Vietnam. Can’t these people stop spinning us now?

Next: It’s failing grades as the Post explains Bush.


The occasional update (5/2/01)

Voices from the choir: For another completely confected account, try this one, from Monday’s New York Times:

ROBERT MANN: Mr. Kerrey’s disclosure is disturbing, and he should be commended for finally acknowledging the truth. Yet I fear this episode might cause us to spend too much time examining the misconduct and crimes of individual soldiers while ignoring the unconstitutional acts committed by our leaders in Washington in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The problem: Mann never explains how he knows that Kerrey has "finally acknowledg[ed] the truth." We’re just told that, without explanation. Or perhaps you prefer to get spun WashTimes-style:

GEORGIE ANN GEYER: Recently, in a series of revelations whose genesis, at least as of this writing remains unclear, a tragic story has been unfolding about [Kerrey] in different venues of the press.

In short, the story is that, in a midnight raid on a supposed Viet Cong village in 1969, Mr. Kerrey led a Navy SEALs raid. He believed his nervous and inexperienced unit had been fired upon by the village, and so they bombarded it. But when they entered, they found only the bodies of 13 Vietnamese women and children or more.

But that, of course, is not "the" story; what Geyer repeats is Kerrey’s story. In her column, she never once describes Klann’s accusation. By the way, here’s her hambone defense of Bob:

GEYER: There were some sadists and psychopaths in the U.S. military then—and there were plenty of them in the anti-war movement, as well—but Bob Kerrey was certainly not one of them. Indeed, in all of the reporting on his bleak and tormenting memories of that night, Mr. Kerrey has spoken repeatedly of how he has "never made my peace with what happened that night."

But Kerrey has not been accused of being a psychopath; he has been accused of engaging in a particular action. And by the way, how does she show that Kerrey isn’t a psychopath? Because he said the right things later on!

No one is forced to be a journalist. There isn’t a draft for the Washington Times. But this matter shows, in stark relief, how rich we are with volunteer spinners. We don’t judge Kerrey, as we plainly can’t. But people prepared to spin us blue? For them, we advise new professions.