11 July 1998

CNN's Capitulation: No Freedom to Accuse US of War Crimes

11 July 1998
The Times of India

CNN's Capitulation

No Freedom to Accuse US of War Crimes


IN the demonology of the new world order, poison
gas is something only `madmen' from `rogue states' use, not
`civilised' leaders of the free world. So when a CNN broadcast
last month accused the US army of using nerve gas during the
Vietnam War, all hell broke loose. The allegations focussed on an
incident which occurred in Laos in September 1970. In the
programme, former members of the Studies and Observation Group
(SOG)--a secret US army outfit--confessed to dropping sarin on
Vietcong fighters and even suggested that noncombatants might
have been gassed. The programme featured corroborative statements
by Admiral Thomas Moorer, the US armed forces chief at the time,
and the evidence of other retired officers who declined to be

That the US deliberately killed a large number of
civilians in Vietnam is an established fact, even if the details
have subliminally been erased from public memory by decades of
official amnesia, psychological denial, and filmic distortion.
But while its use of napalm and Agent Orange is well-known, no
one had ever accused Washington of using nerve gas.

Abject Apology

As the implications sunk in, Pentagon media
managers launched a guerrilla operation to discredit the CNN
programme. In response to the pressure, channel executives asked
a consultant to review it. He in turn hired former intelligence
officers from a private investigative agency to try and confirm
the account through their own military sources. Though the
programme was based on eight months of research, the consultant
took just two weeks to reach the rather predictable conclusion
that the nerve gas allegation could not be sustained.

CNN's chairman issued an abject apology for having
cast aspersions on the US military. However, the programme's
producers, Ms April Oliver and Mr Jack Smith, stood by their
story and were summarily fired while an executive producer was
forced to resign.

The channel's retraction and subsequent dismissal
of the staff involved raises disturbing questions about media
freedom. While US journalists routinely speculate about the
crimes of other governments on the flimsiest of evidence, they
are evidently not free to point fingers at their own. Two years
ago, Mr Gary Webb, a reporter with the San Jose Mercury News,
wrote a series of articles on the way in which the CIA and the
contras had smuggled crack cocaine into the US. Eventually, his
newspaper was forced to issue a cringing apology and he too was

CNN's retraction highlights the symbiotic
relationship between the US government, especially the Pentagon,
and major media organisations. If the Gulf War became known as
`CNN's war,' this was largely due to the way in which the channel
and the armed forces made use of each other. This relationship
was underwritten by a tacit understanding that CNN would not do
anything to damage the reputation of the US. During the Gulf War,
CNN collaborated with the Pentagon in covering up the bombing of
the Amiriya civilian shelter in Baghdad in which 400 people died.
By broadcasting the nerve gas story, however, CNN transgressed
the rules. It was an act of treachery that could only be
expiated by capitulation that was unconditional and absolute.

My Lai Massacre

In DECIDING WHAT'S NEWS, Herbert Gans has
described how US atrocities in Vietnam were underreported "for
even when reporters had collected evidence that convinced them,
New York considered the stories sufficiently unbelievable to
reject them as `atypical'." When CBS finally carried a story
about American soldiers collecting the ears of dead North
Vietnamese soldiers, for example, "the reporter's text was
almost entirely devoted to an apologetic statement explaining the
incident was atypical."

In February 1968, the then US secretary of state
Dean Rusk told a group of newsmen covering the Vietnam War
exactly what was expected of them. "None of your papers or your
broadcasting apparatuses are worth a damn unless the US
succeeds," he said. "They are trivial compared to that question.
So I don't know why, to win a Pulitzer Prize, people have to go
probing for things one can bitch about when there are 2,000
stories on the same day about things that are more constructive
in character."

The My Lai massacre occurred a few weeks later, on
March 15, 1968. The next day the New York Times--whose reports
last month fuelled the lynch mob against the CNN producers for
their "incorrect" nerve gas report--front-paged the following
dispatch about My Lai, an operation it labelled a significant
success: "American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a
pincer movement on the central coastal plain yesterday, killing
128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting."

Only on November 13, 1969 did the true facts
finally pierce the fog of ignorance and incredulity. All the
several hundred victims were children, women, old or infirm men,
and they were gunned down mercilessly, in cold blood. When the
details about My Lai became known, no newspaper or TV channel
apologised for having reported wrongly. No executives looking
grave and penitent came on air to confess Uncle Sam had taken
them for a ride.

Something to Hide

The terrible truth about My Lai emerged because of
Ronald Ridenhour, a former GI who was tormented by the accounts
of the massacre he had heard from soldiers who had participated
in it. Though the army top brass knew about the killings and was
even in possession of photographs taken by its official
photographer, an investigation was ordered only when it seemed
that Ridenhour would go public. My Lai itself got written into
official history as an aberration. The Pentagon was careful to
ensure that the discourse of war crimes was kept out of all
discussions about the massacre. The accused soldiers were
dispersed to army bases across the country so that there would be
no mass trial suggestive of Nuremberg. Finally, only one person--
First Lieutenant William Calley--was ever convicted, and he too
received a suspended sentence.

This is not to suggest that the reality of My Lai
is proof enough that the US used nerve gas. In any investigative
report about events shrouded in official secrecy, mistakes can
and do occur. Often journalists have to make judgment calls about
the accuracy of their sources and tend to do so by weighing what
is probable. While there is no sure way yet of concluding whether
the sarin story is true or false, any journalist basing herself
on the facts assembled--and the record of US criminality during
the Vietnam War--would be justified in wanting to alert the world
to the possibility that nerve gas might have been used. The
sacking of journalists for raising such troubling questions only
serves to intimidate reporters and editors into staying away from
subjects the US government considers too sensitive. And suggests
that Washington may really have something to hide.

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