Richard Reeves

What's Wrong With the Kerrey Story?

LOS ANGELES -- I have no special knowledge of the heroism or shame of Bob Kerrey 32 years ago in Vietnam, but I am reasonably certain that the debate over his conduct as a young Navy lieutenant will make him better known and more popular than he ever was as a governor and U.S. senator. The publicity, the charges and counter-charges, could even make him president.

Americans generally do not believe that the young men and women they send into harm's way are likely to kill civilians or children -- and if they do, there is good reason. War is hell.

In the best-documented American atrocity of that dreadful war -- the killing of at least 109 old men, women and children on March 16, 1968, in a village we called My Lai -- the public overwhelmingly supported Lt. William Calley Jr. as he was court-martialed and found guilty by a panel of officers who had served in Vietnam.

The six-man jury deliberated for 13 days after the longest war-crime trial in American military history ended. They found Calley guilty of premeditated murder, rejecting his defense and this testimony: "They were all the enemy. They were all to be destroyed. ... That was my order, sir. That was the order of the day, sir." He said that he had been told that even the children of the hamlet were considered Vietcong sympathizers and had thrown grenades at Americans.

On March 31, 1971, the court-martial sentenced Calley to life in prison. There were more than 50,000 telegrams to President Nixon by the end of the day -- running 100-to-1 in favor of clemency for Calley. A quick White House national poll indicated that 96 percent of Americans were aware of the charges and 79 percent of respondents disapproved of the verdict. The commander in chief commuted his sentence.

Kerrey is obviously a better man by far than Calley. For reasons of his own, it was he who decided to tell this shaming story about himself. I know that he talked about it because he wanted it out and probably because he thinks it is healthy to talk about what young men are actually called on to do to survive in war.

That said, my concern is not about once and future politicians, but about journalism. This story is another advance of a new kind of bottom-line journalism. I was startled by the fact that my alma mater, The New York Times, was working with CBS News, the producers of "60 Minutes II." The Vietnam interviews were not done by the writer, Gregory L. Vistica, but by anonymous (to Times' readers) CBS producers. So two world-class news operations willingly gave up full control over the reporting on an important story because it cost less that way.

Pooling resources is a good way to save money. The same thing is happening across the spectrum of my business. The once-competitive network news departments now share film shot by foreign news organizations or free-lance crews hustling film and stories around the world -- all ABC, CBS and NBC often do is to put in voice-overs by their own anchors or correspondents. That is the way the accountants want it. That is why MSNBC and Newsweek have a deal. Why train newspeople when you can rent them for 10 minutes or an hour?

Does it matter? Well, it did on election night last year. The confusion in broadcasting results from all over the country did not happen because systems were too complicated. It was because new systems are too simple. In the old days, each network had its own polling units, run by proved and trusted supervisors. Then the accountants said why shouldn't we all get together and have only one operation -- for a third the cost?

So they did it, creating Voters News Service on the cheap. Then VNS screwed up the counts, and there was no one else in the field. The networks and voters, too, got what they paid for: chaos.

Where will it end? If it keeps going this way, one day there will be only one giant source of most news: Big Brother producing the same message printed in different typefaces, told in different voices.

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