Deja Vu for Rather

Am I the only one that isn’t surprised by this in the blogosphere? And I’m not talking about “the MSM and Rather are biased.” I’m talking, Rather is regularly duped by sources and generally sucks at fact checking.

Stolen Valor by Jug Burkett and Glenna Whitley is an invaluable resource for this kind of thing. Jug was writing about John Kerry and all these subjects 10 years ago, so it isn’t like he is some hack playing a back and forth because John Kerry is running against George Bush. This is from page 104 of Stolen Valor; it is carried on from a story about “Marvin” who manufactured a complete lie about how he was so traumatized in Vietnam that he lived in the forest in stumps and prompted the duped journalist to bring up the quote, “If your own mother says she loves you, check it out”:

The Origins of “The Wall Within”

In 1987, when TV producers Paul and Holly Fine decided they wanted to do a story for CBS on “trip-wire” vets, they began calling the veterans’ therapists in Washington State. Lloyd Humphrey, a counselor for the Vet Center in the Colville/Kettle Falls area of Washington, told them about a Vietnam Veteran who called himself “Cajun James.”

His real name was James Eugene Howard. In 1981, Howard had quit his job as an electrical contractor, changed his name to “Cajun,” bought some horses and moved his family into the wild foothills to live in a teepee. In 1986, Howard moved back to town to run for office of the county auditor, listing himself as Cajun James and a general store as his residence. Cajun James wrote to Paul Fine, telling him there were hundreds of Vietnam vets living in armed camps in the rugged wilderness of the Northwest woods. If Fine came to Washington, Cajun James promised to lead the producers to them.

“I guess there’s a bonding that happens between two people sometimes that just clicks.” Fine wrote back to Cajun James. “If you can gain permission for us to meet these vets, I must film them in July because this special will be broadcast in September. Please call me collect anytime, day or night.”

The Fines, Rather, and their crew came to the Colville/Kettle Falls area to shoot footage of the “wilderness vets” for a documentary to be called “Missing in America.” Cajun James was hoping his connection with Fine and CBS would help him stage a benefit concert for veterans’ programs featuring major stars. In return for his help, Fine gave him the names of some of the stars’ agents. But Cajun James could not lead CBS to large numbers of vets living in the wilderness. Why? There weren’t any. Even Cajun James was living in town.

To find veterans for his “trip-wire” documentary, Fine turned to the local Veterans Center, where counselors assured him that they had one of the largest populations of veterans with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder –Phelps] in the country. The counselors put out the word that CBS wanted to talk to Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, and dozens agreed. (Marvin’s legacy was felt in the CBS presentation. “I used trip-wires,” Southards told Rather. “I lived in logs. I lived in stumps.”)

Even before the documentary aired, many local people believed that the 60 Minutes crew picked out the most sensational stories. “We felt all along that CBS committed tremendous exploitation of some very sick individuals while they were here,” said Colville resident Sarah Lee Pilley, who runs the restaurant where the CBS crew dined. She talked to writer Doug Clark, who wrote about the New Yorkers’ decent on Washington before the piece aired. “I got the distinct feeling that CBS had a story they had decided on before they left New York. Then they came out here and filled the bill for what they wanted by talking to people who would fit in best with their script.”

Mrs. Pilley told Clark that CBS initially expressed interest in interviewing her husband, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who had seen heavy combat in Vietnam. But they lost interest when they realized how successful he had become after the war. The crew interviewed eighty-seven Vietnam veterans before finally choosing the “four or five saddest cases to put on film,” Mrs. Pilley said. “The factual part of it didn’t seem to matter as long as they captured the high drama and emotion these few individuals offered.”

After the documentary was broadcast, Sarah Pilley condemned it as “emotional exploitation of the mentally ill.” She was not the only one who felt CBS exploited the veterans. After Cajun James’ promise to lead CBS to an armed encampment fell through, Lloyd Humphrey, leader of a rap group [group therapy, not hip-hop –Phelps] at the Stephens County Counseling Center in Colville, had helped the Fines locate other vets to interview. The producers had filmed individuals who had worked through their trauma and were making a success of their lives, Humphrey said. But the CBS producers did not use any of that footage. They wanted the crazy ones.

“There are ‘Nam vets with strong delusional tendances,” said James Funke of the Vietnam Veterans’ Outreach Center in Spokane. “But that’s the minority; that’s not the type we see. There have been a couple of crazy guys who have come through here, but there have been thousands of others.”

In any sample of a large enough population — World War II vets, Vietnam vets, employees of the Cincinnati Transit System, even journalists — you are going to find people with emotional and mental problems. CBS apparently did little to check the veterans’ stories to verify that they were clients at a Vet Center and had spent some time in Vietnam.

“It would seem reasonable to expect better journalism from the network of Murrow and Cronkite,” wrote Clark. [SNORT –P]

After “The Wall Within” aired in 1988, [September 1988 — was that an election year? My gosh, it was –Phelps] the concept of trip-wire vets continued to make the rounds, migrating to other locations where it was picked up by other journalists. In 1992, ABC’s 20/20 aired a story on “bush vets” living in the jungles of Hawaii. Anchor Tom Jarriel repeated the usual false statistics: More than one-half of all Vietnam vets have suffered from emotional disorders, marital abuse, and inability to hold a job. One in ten is homeless. Nearly half a million Vietnam-era vets now suffer from PTSD. [These are all myths that Burkett debunked in the first 100 pages. He still has 600 more to go at this point. –P]

I did the same thing with “The Wall Within” — sent off for the transcripts and started making calls. The story originated much the same was the CBS “documentary” began. I tracked the story back to a Honolulu station’s news department, which had picked up the idea from a local newspaper. From there it went national, with “Hawaii bush vets” appearing in a piece called “Lost in America” in Time magazine. From there it went to 20/20.

For the most part, the handful of veterans in the various stories were the same. Unlike those on CBS, the vets picked by 20/20 didn’t manufacture elaborate war histories to include assassinations, civilian murders, and the deaths of buddies who did not exist. Methodically, I tracked down the records, but because the names were common, I was able to locate only four or five. Of the Hawaii vets I was able to locate records for, some had exaggerated, but none had created stories out of whole cloth.

When confronted by Malcolm McConnell for Reader’s Digest and Glenna Whitley for Texas Monthly with the evidence that “The Wall Within” was a fraud, Rather and the producers refused to comment. “The producers stand behind their story,” said Kim Akhtar, a spokeswoman for CBS. “They had enough proof of who they were.”

Rather holds himself to be virtually alone in the world of serious TV journalism, often making the point in public pronouncements. On September 30, 1993, in an address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Rather chastised the other television reporters for producing entertainment, not serious, hard-hitting pieces like “The Wall Within.”

“It’s the ratings, don’t you know?” Rather said. “They’ve got us putting more fuzz and wuzz” on the air so news can compete with entertainment programs for “dead bodies, mayhem, and lurid tales.” Invoking the memory of newsman Edward R. Murrows, he invited mass repentance. “We should all be ashamed of what we have and have not done, measured against what we could do.”

Rather lashed out at his own network, although not by name, for airing an entertainment show in the spring of 1993 about the purported discovery of Noah’s Ark, which turned out to be a hoax. That time would be better spent making a documentary, Rather said. He warned that other news organizations, including CBS, couldn’t rejoice over the Dateline NBC disaster, when the NBC producers were caught using tiny rockets to fake a truck crash test. “It could happen to us,” Rather said.

My point exactly.

Why won’t Rather and CBS admit their “documentary” was a fraud, that it perpetuated an unwarranted, false picture of men who fought in Vietnam?

Rather certainly has experience with the military. During the Korean War, when men could be drafted out of college, Dan Irvin Rather joined the Army Reserves while attending Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas, thus avoiding the possibility of being drafted. On graduating in 1954, well after the Korean War was over and the killing had ended, Rather quit the reserves and enlisted in the Marine Corps. (This is the same national broadcaster who, night after night during the 1988 presidential campaign, hammered Dan Quayle for avoiding Vietnam by joining the National Guard.) [Hmm. –P] Although the press often refers to Rather as an “Ex-Marine,” he did not finish Marine recruit training. He joined the Marines on January 22, 1954, but was discharged less than four months later, on May 11, for being medically unfit. (As a boy, Rather had suffered from rheumatic fever.)

Perhaps Rather and the Fines — obviously very important journalists — don’t believe they can be fooled by ordinary people telling extraordinary stories.

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