The first big network smear
CBS aired it. Dan Rather was the reporter. The program attempted to damage the reputation of a commander—in—chief.
Are we talking about Wednesday's 60 Minutes? No, we're talking about a CBS Reports program The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which ran January 23, 1982.
Now you might think that the subtitle refers to John Kerry. Actually, the program sought to prove that General William C. Westmoreland, then Commander—in—Chief of U.S. forces in Vietnam, deliberately misled President Johnson, the Pentagon and Americans as to the actual strength of the VC/NVA just prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive, thereby giving the false impression that we were winning the war. It was the first big smear of a public figure attempted by CBS.
Produced by George Crile and narrated by Mike Wallace, the program was based on allegations by former CIA analyst and well—known left—winger, Sam Adams, whose claims had already been investigated, and dismissed by, the House Select Committee on Intelligence in 1975.
Even knowing their source had been discredited, CBS went ahead with the production anyway. It featured paid, coached and rehearsed 'witnesses' and Dan Rather deliberately provoking General Westmoreland to make him angry; to make him appear 'guilty' under his questioning.
In the aftermath of its controversial airing, TV GUIDE ran a major article titled 'Anatomy of A Smear: How CBS Broke The Rules and 'Got' Westmoreland.' Professor Leonard Magruder, then teaching at Suffolk College wrote a detailed analysis of what he knew to be a pack of lies. He and his students saw to it that CBS executives and reporters, as well as those of other networks, plus major newspapers, received copies. (Renata Adler would later write her book on it titled Reckless Disregard)
General Westmoreland received a copy of Professor Magruder's work and sent it to his lawyers, who were working on a $120 million libel suit against CBS. The general received tremendous support from Americans across the country and from fellow Vietnam vets, who organized The Veterans for Westmoreland Committee which raised many thousands of dollars for his defense fund. For his part, Westmoreland stated that any money he received from a settlement would go to charities helping veterans and their families.
The general had made a public statement on December 27, 1983 in which he listed some of the exhibits in his lawsuit. They included:
—Dan Rather promising to investigate criticisms of the program, which he never did.
—Failure by CBS to make public the findings of its internal investigation (the Benjamin Report) which concluded that the program was biased and its allegations unproved.
—Affadavits from numerous military officers and CIA officials attesting that the programs allegations were false.
—A memo from George Crile to Mike Wallace instructing him as to interview technique, with Crile saying: 'Now all you have to do is break General Westmoreland.'
—A George Crile memo to Mike Wallace urging CBS to 'forget process' telling Wallace to ask Rather to intercede on his and Wallace's behalf with current and former Evening News and CBS Reports executive producers. (read: help! Save my rear end)
In the end, much to the frustration of many vets and supportive Americans, General Westmoreland settled for an apology from CBS. He was a magnanimous gentlemen about the whole thing, saying that 'I do not believe it is fair to judge the media by the isolated actions of some of its irresponsible members.'
But the damage had been done. CBS sustained a severe PR black eye and its credibility was damaged severely. It was a bad day at Black Rock (the nickname of CBS's Sixth Avenue skyscraper headquarters). Its first major attempt at smearing a commander—in—chief failed miserably.
And as we now know, blinded by arrogance, they refused to heed the obvious lesson, and now face permanent, possibly fatal injury.
The author would like to acknowledge the work of Professor Leonard Magruder, some of which was used as source material for this article. Professor Magruder is the founder and president of Vietnam Veterans For Academic Reform, fighting against college and university speech codes, multiculturalism, PC and other manifestations of leftwing rot on campus.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian