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Jewish World Review May 22, 2001 / 29 Iyar, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Is Bob Kerrey home free? -- CBS's "60 Minutes" devoted an hour to the charge that former Sen. Bob Kerrey, leading a team of Navy Seals, executed unarmed civilians, including a baby, in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. The morning after the show aired, the Lincoln Journal Star (Neb.) interviewed Kerrey.

During the CBS program, Kerrey denied that there had been any intent to kill civilians in that 1969 night action in a free-fire zone, maintaining that the Seals had returned fire after being fired upon.

Relaxed, Kerrey told the Nebraskan interviewer that, as the reporter put it, "The end of the public's fixation on that night in Thanh Phong could be over." Added Kerrey, "Enough is enough."

Indeed, even before the accusations and denials on the "60 Minutes" show were broadcast, the board of trustees of New York's New School University, of which Kerrey is president, declared "unqualified support" for him.

And in the weeks since the thunderstorm of media coverage of this story, Kerrey is off the front pages and seldom mentioned on television news, including the 24-hour news stations. Nor is there much discussion of Kerrey on radio talk shows.

Still, for some Americans, including a few journalists, questions remain. Why and how, for example, did five of Kerrey's Raiders, after years of silence, suddenly decide to confirm Kerrey's version of the incident?

The seventh Seal, Gerhard Klann, told "60 Minutes" and The New York Times that Kerrey had commanded him and the other five Seals to line up women and children and to shoot them to death.

On April 30, The New York Post reported that Kerrey had brought those five members of his squad to New York City "from all over the United States" three days before. A high-powered public-relations operative got rooms for them at an Upper East Side hotel. They then traveled to Kerrey's home, where "the group met until 2 a.m., thrashing out a consensus of what they say happened" that night in 1969. "By late Saturday afternoon, Kerrey was emboldened to claim that sections of the media were involved in a conspiracy against him."

Gerhard Klann, who works in a steel mill, can't afford to hire a PR firm.

The May 7 issue of Time magazine reported that on April 7, five members of Kerrey's Raiders "dined at Kerrey's house and talked the raid over for the very first time." The next evening, they issued "a statement of facts."

This reminded me of a New York City policy. When one or more New York City police officers are accused of a particularly brutal action, they are given 48 hours during which they need not speak to anyone, including the police department's internal-affairs investigators. There are some, including me, who believe that this 48-hour rule allows the accused to agree on an account of what happened.

Another murky part of this story concerns the misapprehension by many that Kerrey finally broke his 32-year silence this year to The New York Times and "60 Minutes" because he needed to heal himself, to exorcise the nightmare that had caused him such anguish for so long.

However, as Howard Kurtz has reported in the Washington Post, Kerrey recounted his memory of that night to Newsweek magazine two years ago -- at a time when he had decided not to run for the presidency.

Newsweek's assistant managing editor, Evan Thomas, told Kurtz: "We could have run the story. We had Kerrey's confirmation. We just didn't want to do it to the guy when he wasn't running for president."

And Newsweek's editor, Mark Whitaker, adds, "We all agreed there's a higher level of scrutiny that goes on for presidential candidates."

It's the first time I've heard this criterion for not running a story about what might have been a war crime. Was it really not right to run the story because the officer in charge that night was no longer a presidential candidate?

Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said to the Washington Post: "It's hard to imagine by what definition this isn't news. Even if Kerrey never intended to run for president, the story of one of the more admired figures in political life, who won a Bronze star for this action, speaks to something beyond just Kerrey. It raises all kinds of questions about what the Vietnam War was like for grunts and young officers."

And what it was like for the women and children killed by Kerrey's Raiders.

But there's more to Newsweek's holding the story. According to the May 7 issue of Newsweek, the magazine says it "did reach an informal understanding with Kerrey that when and if he decided to go public, he would turn to Newsweek." That was two years ago.

So that Newsweek could have a scoop, the public's right to know -- a right that is hallowed among journalists -- was deep-sixed.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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