The veteran journalist and Executive Director of the Harvard University Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy discusses coverage of No Gun Ri.
The following are extended excerpts of his interview with media correspondent Terence Smith.
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|TERENCE SMITH: What did you think when you first read the AP story on
No Gun Ri?
MARVIN KALB: I was amazed that the AP would get involved in this kind of investigative reporting. For me the Associated Press is a wire service. It is a wire service that tells you what happened yesterday. It's going to give you the daybook on tomorrow but I didn't expect them to do serious, month-long, year-long investigative reporting and then to come out with something that was as controversial as it did, so I was quite shocked.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you think of the story itself?
MARVIN KALB: The story was a painful one to read, first because it paints the United States, it paints the American soldier, the American army in such an unfavorable light ethically. I want to believe that this is not what the United States Army did. Certainly from my own experience it's not what the United States Army did.
TERENCE SMITH: And you were in Korea?
MARVIN KALB: I was not in Korea but I was attached to a Korean intelligence unit right here in Washington D.C. so I was deeply, but safely involved in the Korean War from afar but it was my war.
We have been obsessed as a nation by the Vietnam War but the Korean War has really been a forgotten war. So from my point of view it was a good thing that a news organization would give us information -- even such negative information -- about the war. Maybe other things would come out of other journalistic efforts that would give perhaps a more balanced view of what I think happened in Korea.
|The U.S. News challenge|
TERENCE SMITH: What did you then think when you saw the U.S. News challenge to it?
MARVIN KALB: I was not surprised by the U.S. News challenge I was puzzled by a number of things [the AP reporters] said. It did not seem to me to be a complete story. I kept thinking about the wildness of those early days in the Korean war - how difficult it was as a poorly trained American soldier to see a lot of civilians coming across a bridge and you know that there are soldiers among those civilians and you know those soldiers are there to kill you, and yet how do you kill them when the civilians are all around? That was the first war of the Cold War, in which we saw that kind of guerilla activity. And clearly, the American troops were not prepared for it, and they fired - and there's no doubt in my mind that a terrible thing happened. But the doubt that is in my mind is whether it happened in as awful and premeditated and unethical context as the story depicts.
TERENCE SMITH: These are tough questions - and especially tough 50 years later. From a journalistic point of view, what do you think of this exercise?
MARVIN KALB: I am puzzled about why the Associated Press should be doing this kind of investigative reporting--
TERENCE SMITH: Let me give you their answer: Their answer is simply, this is a dramatic event involving American troops. And if something terrible did happen there that day, and if particularly it was done under orders, then it should be disclosed.
MARVIN KALB: I would never argue with that kind of an argument. Of course if something bad happened even something, let us say, good that happened initiated by the American army, that this should be reported. My point is that journalism today does not seem to look for what might be good in what the United States did or could have done in the past, but rather what is bad.
TERENCE SMITH: Why? If that's so, if that's a trend, why?
MARVIN KALB: I think it is an outgrowth of the Vietnam War coverage. I think there have been any number of illustrations since Vietnam, since My Lai, of reporters who have found their careers in attacking the United States. It puzzles me. It worries me. I am not saying that this is a deliberate thing but it does happen often enough to at least raise a question in my mind. Why are there so many issues that come up that are negative? Is it possible that we are all that bad? Somehow or another -- I don't think so.
TERENCE SMITH: If you were surprised, perhaps, by the approach taken by the AP, what then about the phenomenon of two major news organizations challenging each other - in effect, U.S. News challenging the work and the veracity of the AP? That is a phenomenon.
MARVIN KALB: That is a phenomenon... It is an inescapable part of the political process and the cultural life of the nation. Journalists who used to like to consider themselves flies on the wall of history -- we're detached, we're objective, we're not part of what we cover -- are now seen as part of the story and because they are part of the story. They are under scrutiny in the same way the politician is under scrutiny, perhaps not as much but I have a feeling that they ought to be under scrutiny because journalism today is an enormously important, hugely profitable enterprise and for that reason, powerful as it is, it ought to be subjected to scrutiny. So people scrutinize it - but who does the scrutiny? Journalists. So it ends up being journalists looking at other journalists. And in this particular case, it is U.S. News and World Report, among others, looking at the Associated Press. And it all comes down, again because of television, in my view, to how a story is conveyed on television - how it ends up looking on television
There is a tendency among many people using television or seeking to get on television of believing that television is truth. There is no truth. We are all hungering for truth, for some higher truth, for some deeper insight into our history, our experience but I don't think journalism is the vehicle to bring us truth. It's the first draft of history. It's always been thought of that way and it ought to continue to be thought of that way. Not as true history - not as real truth.
|Should the AP have done the story?|
TERENCE SMITH: So are you saying that the AP shouldn't have done this?
MARVIN KALB: No. I am not saying that the AP -- the AP, God bless it, can do whatever it wants in however much depth, but I think the AP does all of us a much better service by telling us what happened today all over the world and let other people deal with history, preferably those who are historians.
TERENCE SMITH: Another phenomenon of this story is that the AP issued its story laced with caveats that explained that certain things were not known and not clear and that there were internal conflicts. But then the story was picked up and played across the board in newspapers and on television, and most of those caveats got dropped. Tell me about that process, because it happened here, and maybe it happens often.
MARVIN KALB: Journalism often has a second life and a third life and in the second life and in the third telling in effect everything gets reduced to simplicity. When it gets reduced to simplicity all of the complexity and the nuances are dropped. So that the people who might have missed the first account -- the AP account, but they get the second version say on NBC are going to get -- I don't want to say a skewed version, but they're going to get only part of what it is that the AP originally presented. And getting only part, they're going to get a somewhat distorted version of reality.
[Journalists] have many skills but it's in different areas. When you go back into history, when you go back into archives, when you go back into people who are using their memory to recapture events, awful or good, that happened 50 years ago, you're bound in some way or another to distort your personal role in those events. You end up putting yourself in places where you probably weren't because you've heard about these things over the years. The facts become part of your life. You assume that those facts are reality but they're not.
TERENCE SMITH: What if, in this case, you end up with individual accounts being questioned or even refuted, but that the central story remains. That's what the AP believes has happened - that the central story that something terrible occurred that day at No Gun Ri remains.
MARVIN KALB: But something terrible occurs in a war every day, everywhere that there is a war. We may not know about each little dreadful thing, but war, almost by definition, is a series of dreadful activities. This focuses on one small event -- what is it about that event that we really know? My question is: How reliably certain can we be that there was a massacre? And how many people have to be killed for it to be called a massacre? And isn't there the tendency in modern day journalism to use large, eye-catching words like massacre in order to attract a reader, in order to attract a viewer? I think there is that tendency. I don't think journalists would argue that point either. ...And we never get the truth, we only get to an approximation of it.
|The journalistic lesson|
TERENCE SMITH: So that, for you anyway, is the journalistic lesson here?
MARVIN KALB: I would hope there is a journalistic lesson here but I suspect it will not be learned. I think that the incentives in journalism today are to continue to go for a story that is bound, just bound by its very nature to attract controversy, buzz, a degree of sensationalism, the use of words like massacre. Sure some people could argue, particularly if you're a South Korean, that if five people were killed, that is a massacre for me. But is it a massacre for the American people and is it the work of the Associated Press?
TERENCE SMITH: This trend that you see, that you're talking about, to put the U.S. military under a harsh light, strong scrutiny -- what explains that?
MARVIN KALB: It is great television and it's wonderful modern journalism. In my view it started in the Vietnam War, although it probably started many years before that too. But in the Vietnam War when there was something truly dreadful that the United States did in that truly dreadful war, it was trapped it was caught, it was on camera and suddenly there was My Lai and there were army investigations and people were dismissed. All sorts of things happened because the American people do not want to believe that their army composed of their sons and daughters engaged in dreadful unethical activities. And so you have Tailwind when CNN, for example, a couple of years ago put out the story that the American military during the Vietnam war deliberately used poison gas on its own people in order to hush up the use of poison gas against the enemy. The Seymour Hersh story in the New Yorker magazine very recently, criticizing General McCaffrey for engaging also in massacres of Iraqi civilians and soldiers. One could ask the question, why are there so many of these stories at this time and it has to be because journalism considers this hot news. This is where journalism is today. Right or wrong, that's its location.
TERENCE SMITH: And you have a problem with that?
MARVIN KALB: I have a very strong problem with it because I think that journalists must have a central responsibility, which is, and it's very difficult to do, I repeat, to give us the news. Give it to us as straight as you can, as fairly as you can, as accurately as you can, recognizing that it's just a first slice. It's not the definitive reckoning that we're going to find in the Bible 5,000 years from now.
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