A recent New York Times article (4/25/01) alleging that former Senator Bob Kerrey was involved in Vietnam War atrocities at a village named Thanh Phong posed some interesting challenges to the Washington Post. Although this story has finally drawn critical attention towards Kerrey, the Post’s efforts at spin control speaks volumes about how the mainstream media protects those with power and privilege.
Bob Kerrey received a Bronze Star after reporting that his SEAL unit killed 21 members of the Viet Cong in Thanh Phong on 2/25/1969. (This medal has been featured in all of his political campaigns.) The New York Times article reported that Gerhard Klann, a member of the SEAL team, is still haunted by the memories of what Kerrey’s Raiders really did. According to Klann, the team was ordered by Kerrey to kill the peasant inhabitants of a small dwelling there. (The team, deep in enemy territory, believed they were endangered if living witnesses of their presence survived.)
Klann says that Kerrey personally assisted with the throat-cutting of an elderly peasant, and that some babies were executed along with the rest. In response, Kerrey publicly disputes Klann’s account, saying that the SEAL team was being fired upon when they fired blindly in the dark, killing all of the civilians. (Many consider this feat to be highly unlikely.)
Kerrey also acknowledges that the bodies were grouped together execution-style, but insists that the team didn’t conduct cold-blooded murder. Kerrey has also impugned Klann’s character by suggesting that he is an unstable drunk.
It is not this author’s intention to criticize Kerrey here for what was probably a common activity in Vietnam. Instead, the issue is how the influential Washington Post dealt with the publication of Klann’s version of the Thanh Phong story.
In short, the Washington Post whitewashed the news. Shortly after the Thanh Phong story (April 27, 2001) broke they ran a large photograph on its front page. It is a picture of a deeply sad Kerrey with a facial expression that suggests he’s about to cry. Behind Kerrey, there’s a blurry image of the flag. Everywhere else in the picture is darkness.
The photograph certainly looks staged. It is so perfectly composed to convey acceptance for Kerrey that it looks as if it came from a PR firm. Even more extraordinary is the caption which appeared above the photo (and just underneath the masthead): “Anguished Memories, Strong Support.”
Remember, this is the front page, not the editorial page. Yet, the Post’s caption (in the most prominent place physically possible) reads like an instruction from our government for us to follow. The Official Story, then, is that Kerrey is sorry; and there’s “strong support” (e.g., from the nation, the Post, etc.) on behalf of this plainly suffering man.
If you read the Post that day you may have found this critical paragraph: “[Kerrey] said his squad was fired upon at night, that it returned fire and that [about 20] children and women died. At the same time, he conceded that their bodies were found grouped together in the middle of the tiny village of Thanh Phong in a manner suggestive of an execution. Another member of his unit, Gerhard Klann, has said Kerrey ordered his men to round up and kill the villagers.”
Obviously, these are extraordinary revelations for a Presidential hopeful for 2004. Certainly, the staged photograph and the extraordinary what-you-should-think caption on the front page are designed to discourage people from diving into the issue and finding that paragraph.
Regular Mediawise readers understand the pattern: The Post provides different functions for the masses and with their elite readers. For the general public, the Post is saying don’t get too worked up; we’re all behind him. For the readers more in the know, that paragraph explains the situation and what the Post plans to work for.
The Post continued to pull out all the stops for Kerrey for several weeks. Two days later (4/29/01), their damage-control team put out an article entitled “Kerrey Team Takes Issue with Report.” In it we learn that in 1998, on the eve of what appeared to be the likely publication of an article in Newsweek on the matter, Kerrey met with the other six of the seven members of the SEAL team to corroborate their stories. (the Post never mentioned that the Washington Post Company also owns Newsweek. Also, the Post never questioned Newsweek’s decision to spike the story, suggesting it is okay for a Senator to be an alleged war criminal.)
Coming three years after that meeting, the Washington Post's article is not offered as criticism that the six men met to work on their stories. Instead, without irony we’re reassured, “The group issued a unanimous statement after the meeting, disputing key elements of a starkly different version of events given by Gerhard Klann.”
Op-eds came in by droves in support of Kerrey. On the same day (4/29/01) as the Post’s gleeful report that the rest of the SEAL team disputes Klann’s version came an editorial written by Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA), Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Within the border of the editorial is yet another photograph of Kerrey looking gravely concerned. The first sentence of the editorial, “War is hell,” conveys perfectly what is on the minds of the three Senators: Kerrey should not be investigated for war crimes.
It took several weeks after the New York Times article before the Washington Post published an article that acknowledged some of the weaknesses of Kerrey’s claims. This came when they ran a front-page article that included interviews with Vietnamese survivors of the Thanh Phong atrocity. (As of May 22, the Post had not yet archived this article on their website, another familiar practice with them.)
Even with the belated article critical of Kerrey, at no point did the Washington Post offer their readers the big picture. They haven’t mentioned that Kerrey’s deeds in Thanh Phong were almost certainly part of a larger operation known as Operation Phoenix. Readers of the alternative media are familiar with this CIA-sponsored death squad and terror program where tens of thousands of innocent Vietnamese were killed in an unsuccessful effort to demoralize the enemy.
The Post’s coverage of the Bob Kerrey-in-Thanh Phong story makes sense from a business perspective. The Washington Post is in the business of selling advertising. They keep their advertisers happiest if they frame the news in a light that causes the buying public the least amount of distress.
Still, there’s a time when the public needs to know the awful truths about our political figures. The Washington Post's blatant spin control on behalf of Bob Kerrey suggests they actually prefer working to keep the war-crime allegations of our political leaders hushed up.