2 May 2001
Our current howler: Volunteer army
Synopsis: Here at THE HOWLER, we dont 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 dont have a clue about what happened at Thanh Phong, Vietnam, in February 1969. We do have thoughts about a passage from Sundays 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, Kerreys 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. Its 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 fromthe possibility that Klanns 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 youve been spun; Solis has something he wants you to think, and hes willing to say things that cant 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: Its been a heart-wrenching week for Senator Kerrey. Whats your thoughts on this, Doris?
GOODWIN: Oh, I have a whole bunch of thoughts on it, because I think whats happening to him is really unfair as far as the way its 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 isnt 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 Klanns 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 Klanns 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 Kerreys team. According to Klann, Kerreys company did indeed know that the victims were civilians "at the time when this happened." Essentially, Goodwinhoping to sell us on Kerreys accountnarrates this story to fit Kerreys version. Goodwin, like Solis, has an outcome she favors. So she hands us a big load of spin.
If anything, Goodwins 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 theres no evidence from those seven guysand 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 Kerreys team to escape from the area. Goodwins 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 meand I had an opportunity to talk to Senator Kerreyis, 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? Simplebecause he knows Bob Kerrey, and he doesnt know Klann, and wants you to trust Kerreys version. He wants you to trust what "he said." Kerreys account of this later incident may be perfectly accurate, of course, and his account of Thanh Phong may be accurate too. But Kerreys statement to Russert does serve Kerreys interestsand Kerreys account may not be accurate. Russert doesnt 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 Klanns 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 Goodwins account, which pretended that there was just so much fog that nobody knew what was happenin. We agree with Safirewe also think that its appropriate to presume Kerreys innocence. But whats not appropriate? Whats 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. Cant these people stop spinning us now?
Next: Its 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 Mondays New York Times:
ROBERT MANN: Mr. Kerreys 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 1960s and 1970s.
The problem: Mann never explains how he knows that Kerrey has "finally acknowledg[ed] the truth." Were 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 Kerreys story. In her column, she never once describes Klanns accusation. By the way, heres her hambone defense of Bob:
GEYER: There were some sadists and psychopaths in the U.S. military thenand there were plenty of them in the anti-war movement, as wellbut 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 isnt a psychopath? Because he said the right things later on!
No one is forced to be a journalist. There isnt a draft for the Washington Times. But this matter shows, in stark relief, how rich we are with volunteer spinners. We dont judge Kerrey, as we plainly cant. But people prepared to spin us blue? For them, we advise new professions.