to suppress the story thirty years later
“The Story No One Wanted to Hear”
J. Robert Port
Chapter 9 of “Into the Buzzsaw”
In the life of an investigative reporter, at least one who is devoted to his craft and pursues if for altruistic reasons, there come certain awful, lonely moments of realization—those rare times when you stumble upon something you know in your gut, or you think you know, is not just news, but terribly important news.
You literally tremble when you discover some document you recognize to be a smoking gun. Your hand shakes as you scribble down quotes from some whistle-blower finally summoning up the nerve to say what he really knows. You realize people could be hurt seeing the ugly truth in print, and that you, as the messenger, will probably be attacked, but you are compelled to tell the story as fairly as you can. You do this because if is your profession and because you long ago decided that this pursuit of knowledge, however imperfect, however unprofitable, is a wiser choice for all of us than secrecy or ignorance.
To keep perspective, you frighten yourself by typesetting a ninety point headline in your mind, testing how much power its words can accurately convey. These moments of realizations are like a head –on highway collision, where your life passes before you. You imagine in an instant a cascade of consequences your news will likely set in motion—and whether you still are up to the task.
For me, such a moment came one evening in April 1998, as I worked late, which I often did then, in my tiny windowless office—crammed with spartan steel furniture and buzzing computer screens—on the fifth floor of the headquarters of the Associated Press (AP) in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. The hundreds who work there, thanklessly I must say, call it “50 Rock”.
The AP is a factory of news that beams an endless stream of words and pictures by satellite into nearly every newspaper and television station in America. It has an unmatched reach around the globe. Few people realize the AP’s telecomunicatio9ns infrastructure carries all the other major news wires of the United States, too: the New York Times wire, the Washington Post wire, Gannet News service, Knight Ridder’s wire—wven what remains of United Press International (UPI), the AP’s head-to-head competitor that suffered a financial collapse more than a decade ago—all feed their news into the same “wire”. The APs.
The AP itself is a nonprofit corporation owned by its members, who are essentially all the news organizations in America. It has almost nothing in assets, save the computers and telephones its reporters use. Yet with the First Amendment shield it from the government and UPI out of the picture, it has achieved, in effect, a unique status—that of a constitutionally protected, tax-exempt monopoly. And it wields great power. By deciding what to publish and what to ignore, the AP, perhaps more than any single news outlet, can define what is news. If it speaks loudly enough, it cannot, by itself, be ignored.
It also decides what places are newsworthy enough to keep reporters on hand. It is, for instance, today the only Western newsgathering organization with a full-time bureau in Korea.
In New York in 1998, I was the AP’s special assignment editor, given the job three years earlier of leading a new team of national writers devoted to investigative projects. I worked for the executive editor, who answered to the AP’s president. It was a gritty place to work, with more than its share of petty rivalries, egos, and squabbles. It was a place filled with excellent journalists, but unfortunately for me, it was a place whose leaders seemed not the least bit interested in the pursuit of investigating reporting for the good of democracy. At the AP, the emphasis is on simple stories and neutrality.
The day before my moment of reckoning at the AP, I had quietly shipped off my investigative team’s researcher to the National Archives complex in College Park, Maryland, a gigantic warehouse of mostly military records, to check out a war atrocity claim being pressed—nearly fifty years after the fact—by a couple of dozen South Korean citizens. I say “quietly” because I didn’t want my bosses to know what I was doing—or what it might likely cost and how long it would take to do it. I assumed they would shut it down. A few days earlier, a local hire, as the AP calls its nonunion foreign laborers overseas had transmitted an eight-hundred-word feature from our bureau in Seoul to the busy International Desk in New York. The writer was Sang-hun Choe (pronounced “Shay”) a young Korean reporter, well though out and backed up by the editing of a veteran bureau chief, Reid Miller. Tom Wagner in Tokyo, the AP’s chief of Asia news, had read the piece, considered it significant and was prepared to devote more resources to it.
Choe described the latest of several futile legal hearings in the saga of a war reparations claim that had remained hidden within South Korea for decades. The claim had begun making local TV news after a newly elected president began to end the suppression of free speech imposed by previous regimes. The French wire service, Agence France-Press, had noted the case briefly on its wires some months earlier, but the AP had yet to move a word on it. And the story was no trifling matter. It was an accusation from supposed eyewitnesses that U.S. warplanes and U.S. soldiers had deliberately gunned down some four hundred South Korean civilians—women, children, babies, and old men—in the fifth week of the Korean War. The AP’s deputy international editor, Kevin? Noblet, had given me Choe’s copy, with a request: Anything we can do here, meaning within the United States, to confirm this? Noblet was looking for results he might publish within a week or two.,
As I sat in my office that evening, my hands trembled as I banged out an answer to a sketchy e-mail from my researcher, Randy Herschaft. He was at his laptop, working late, too, at the miserable Best Western Motel in College Park, checking-in after a hard day.
His persistence paid off. “Fax me the thing,” I told him. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
That day, Herschaft had leafed through dozens of boxes dilled with mundane military paperwork from the Korean War, material routinely declassified when it became more than thirty years old, yet never closely studied by anyone—some of it was still bundled in its original brown wrapping and twine as when it was shipped from Japan decades earlier.
There, he found the most remarkable memorandum issued July 27, 1950, by a U.S. Army commander—in the fifth week of the Korean War, the very time when, our South Koreans alleged, U.S. forces had gunned down scores of their fellow villagers. 1 In the memo, Maj. Gen. William Kean, referring to a map that highlighted more than one hundred square miles of central Korea—including the site of the alleged massacre, behind the U.S. front lines—instructed his twenty-fifth Infantry Division thusly: “All civilians seen in this area are to be treated as enemy and action taken accordingly.” Herschaft had seen more explicit documents describing similar orders authorizing the shooting of civilians, including a radio message from commanders of the Army’s First Cavalry Division recorded as “No refuges to cross the front lines. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children.”
Herschaft had nailed down another critical fact.
The complaining South Koreans had been surprisingly specific in their accusation. Not just any soldiers, they said, but the Army’s First Calvary Division had machine –gunned their kin at a railroad bridge on certain dates. In a written denial of their claim, the U.S. Army had been equally specific, saying there was no “evidence to show the U.S. First Calvary Division was in the area where the shooting allegedly occurred.”2 Well, not so. Herschaft found that units of the First Calvary Division were all around the area where the shooting had allegedly occurred—and this according to the army’s official history from that period of the war, a bound reference book that would be a schoolboy’s first stop in checking the day-to-day whereabouts of an army unit during the war.
Could it possibly be, I thought, what it appeared to be? 3
I knew it would require a massive commitment of time and resources to nail down a worthwhile story, and one suitable for the AP wire. An army division consists of thousands of men, and we had no idea what unit—what regiment, what battalion, or what company—might have veterans who would remember, much less discuss anything. My only reference point for weighing the value of such an effort was the My Lai massacre.
I was forty-three. I had grown up with Vietnam on television constantly. I had watched my cousin, Gerry Gouchlan, head off to that undeclared war and then seen his photograph in Life magazine on my mother’s coffee table. He was carrying the bloodied body of this buddy from the jungle. It affected me. In high school, I had read Seymour Hersh’s stories exposing the My Lai massacre—fully a year after it had occurred. To me, Hersh was a war hero. The army was a threat to our national security—more so for trying to keep My Lai secret, then for letting it happen.
Bias has no place in good journalism, but neither does blind patriotism, and I’m not ashamed to acknowledge I make moral judgments as an investigative journalist. The death of innocent in war is one subject where I believe journalists owe it to their readers to ferret out facts, precisely because the deliberate killing of the innocent is so wrong. I believe the execution of civilians for the convenience of battle, particularly in a war over ideology, as Vietnam was, is especially heinous, inhuman, and evil. It is un-American and Nazi-like. To judge any individual’s acts in wartime, particularly those of the lowly foot solider, is a dangerous game of second-guessing, but massacres, as events, are to be learned from and studied—not hushed up—so that we all might avoid the mistakes of history.
That was my state of mind as I approached this story. If this made me more advocate than journalist—a charge I heard repeatedly in my tenure at the AP—I plead guilty, but I don’t think it did. I can write an objective news account. I do admit it, though: I am politically opposed to having soldiers kill babies in secret. Do you know anyone who is in favor of that?
Here, from the forgotten war in Korea, another undeclared Asian conflict, we had more than just Lt. William Calley terminating suspected Viet Cong sympathizers. We had documents reflecting orders to kill civilians, and these orders were issued by generals to thousands of young soldiers in retreat, who would have been expected to unthinkingly obey. I had served a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Air Force, albeit in the peacetime after Vietnam. I knew how the military worked. My God, I thought. What kind of hell was this war in Korea? I had read nothing of this in history class.
I knew we needed to do considerably more reporting, but I don’t believe in coincidence, such as a secret instruction to shoot refuges having no connection to refugees who independently assert from the opposite side of the planet that they were being shot. And how, I wondered, could the army be so dead wrong in its formal rebuttal to a massacre allegation. Indifference? Negligence? Deception, perhaps? Is there another explanation?
Only a fool, it seemed to me, or someone biased by loyalty to country—someone who couldn’t conceive of the U.S. military doing anything wrong or someone who didn’t wish to encourage a discussion of it—would not see this as news: archival evidence that bolstered, even if it did not confirm, a claim of massacre clung to by South Korean peasants all their lives. We had unearthed documents, inaccessible to historians for decades, showing that entire army divisions were told to kill civilians on sight, an apparent large-scale violation of the law of war. This alone struck me as newsworthy. Those documents were unprecedented pieces of U.S. military history, we would soon learn from a West Point professor who teaches the subject of war crimes to army cadets. And we had the army, confronted with a specific allegation of refugees being shot, publishing a defense that was demonstrably false.
I ask you: If that isn’t news, even forty-eight years later, then what is?
I also recalled that it was actually the AP, not Hersh, which first transmitted news of the My Lai incident. A description of the killing was filed to the AP’s “B wire”, which carries non-deadline news and mostly features. It moved not too long after My Lai occurred. But the news was played down, lacking in detail, and no one particularly noticed it in the crush of other news from Vietnam.
The AP, it seemed to me, had failed in its duty to its readers once before.
I decided to put everything I had—if necessary, every dime left in my $100,000-a-year budget for investigation—and what little staff I could spare into this one story. I decided to pursue the project full bore, to try to answer every question that could practically be answered.
There was one problem: the people who ran the AP. The people I worked for. I knew they would not share my enthusiasm. It turned out to be even worse.
What followed—four months of intense reporting and writing, then more than a year of argument over whether or how to publish the story—because the most frustrating experience of my career.
Some seventeen months later, in September 1999, to its credit, the AP finally published the story of “The Bridge at No Gun Ri.” For their efforts, the reporters received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, the only investigative Pulitzer in AP’s history.
Yet, before the series had hit the wire, I, the editor who had launched the project, nurtured it, and become its relentless proponent within the AP’s executive news staff, found myself out of a job. My position and my department were dissolved. Not sure the AP would ever run the story, I resigned in June 1999. I had been transferred to the AP’s communications department. I was demoted to a position that could be best described as chief computer repairman for the newsroom.
What’s worse, four years at the AP—with every project I proposed meeting constant internal resistance, even while my staff’s work won award after award—had eroded my idealism as an investigative reporter and editor. The AP’s president wasn’t letting me hire anyone. I had been forced to accept a sad reality of the American news business today: Some of our biggest, most trusted news organizations simply lack the courage, the will, or the leadership to consistently do the work necessary to expose the truth about the most controversial subject in out world, the AP’s belated publication of “No Gun Ri” not withstanding.
The truth is, to publish “The Bridge at No Gun Ri”, the AP had to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way. Attacks on the story that came later, orchestrated by army veterans with ruffled feathers, have left many people thinking it was somehow made up, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Armed with intriguing documents, in May 1998, I sent Herschaft and my best reporter, Martha Mendoza, back to the National Archives to comb through every shred of paper available. We obtained military maps from the war, had them copied, and coated the office walls until the Special Assignment Team suite looked like a war room. Radio logs and other records, which recorded dates, times, and coordinated, were used to pinpoint the whereabouts of dozens of different army units. The maps made it clear that one of four army regiments had to be the one at No Gun Ri when any shooting of refugees would have occurred. The unit turned out to be the seventh Calvary—the regiment of George Custer and Wounded Knee.
We used veterans groups and eventually unit rosters obtained form the National Archives personnel records in St. Louis, Missouri, to build a catalogue of veterans who might know anything about No Gun Ri. Noblet and the AP's international staff sent Choe searching Korea for more interviews and more details. The international staff tossed in the best reporter and writer it could offer: Charles Hanley, the AP's senior foreign correspondent.
Hanley and Mendoza began phoning veterans cold. Within days they hit upon people who remembered bits and pieces about No Gun Ri. I put them on airplanes to visit anyone who would talk and to and to question the commanding officers we had located. I wanted face-to- face interviews, and I wanted each reporter to be a separate witness to each other and to what was said. I required interview notes to to be typed into a database we all shared. I sent Herschaft to any library that might have anything-the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and many more trips to College Park. He read He read every newspaper, magazine, and book from the period he could locate, spending days in front of microfilm machines at the New York Public Library.
It was a massive undertaking. It was beginning to cost a bundle, and yet I was managing to keep the scale of our efforts below my boss' radar. Within a few months, we had burned through more than $30,000 in travel and computer research expenses. So long as any one trip stayed below $5,000, I was authorized to sign off without the executive editor's okay. He seemed to care little about the details of what we were doing. By late July 1998, we had produced a draft of the main story, with several veterans on the record acknowledging that they had shot hun- dreds of South Korean refugees at a railroad bridge. Some recalled the orders that no one was to cross the front lines. One machine gunner gave a chilling account of shooting into the crowd. There were, predictably, conflicts in their specific recollections, though on the essential events, they agreed. I gave the draft of the story to my boss, the executive editor, Bill Ahearn. We held a meeting. It quickly grew into an argument.
Ahearn challenged every fact-just what we expected and wanted. But he began to question the nature and the newsworthiness of the subject. Hanley, Ahearn said afterward, was "in love with the story" and could not be trusted. The memories of soldiers would likely never be reliable material for an AP piece, he said. Still, Ahearn was willing to see more.
With nearly each week, another veteran with knowledge of No Gun Ri was located. Experts weighed in. By August, a second, cleaner draft was in Ahearn's hands. He ripped into it. It was too definitive in stating what occurred. He challenged every assertion of anything resembling a massacre. He eventually demanded to review all interview notes, then misinterpreted many of them - statements from soldiers who were nowhere near the shooting, people we had called while searching for people who knew something-to be evidence refuting the story. I asked to send my two reporters, who by now wanted to see the scene and compare the accounts of soldiers to those of survivors located by Choe, to Korea. It was a trip that would have cost a few thousand dollars at most, money I had in my budget. I thought it prudent. Ahearn refused to allow it.
Mendoza began to lose patience. She had moved to New York to work for me but was finding the cost of living in Brooklyn too high for her husband and two sons. The pay at the AP in New York City is among the worst for journalists there. I begged to get her a raise, something only possible with approval from the AP's president. I got no response. Mendoza asked to transfer to an opening in the AP's San Jose, California, bureau, near her husband's family. I had lost my best reporter.
I was accused of practicing "gotcha journalism." Hanley, the lead writer, was made to revise the No Gun Ri story sixteen times under Ahearn's direction, mostly in ways that played down or obscured what we had found. We were ordered to give the story a feature lead and tone. By Thanksgiving, Ahearn appeared to be stalling, going for weeks at a time avoiding me, not answering e-mails, and not returning telephone calls. When pressed for some word on the story's fate before Christmas 1998, following one stretch of silence, he began yelling at me furiously, accusing me of trying to pressure him into releasing the piece before it was ready.
It became clear to me that he didn't think what we had belonged on the AP wire. Instead he seemed to see it as big trouble.
Through late summer of 1999, newspapers were filled with news of attacks on a Cable News Network (CNN) report on Operation Tail- wind. By fall the subject was fodder for journalism trade magazines. The CNN report, meant to launch a new evening news show, had been narrated by Peter Arnett, a former AP correspondent in Vietnam claimed that Special Forces in Vietnam had used deadly sarin nerve gas in a secret operation to rescue prisoners held in Laos -a stunning revelation, if true. It turned out the story didn't hold up under independent review.
It seemed clear to me that CNN's story was nothing fell far short of our own. It seemed clear to me that CNN's story was nothing like what we were doing and that its reporting methods fell far short of our own. We had startling official documents. I had insisted everything be on the record. None of that mattered. Heads were rolling at CNN. It was time to keep your head down at the AP.
I learned that Ahearn carried ghosts from a war of his own. He'd been an army captain in Vietnam. I asked him if he'd ever killed civilians. Without answering me directly, he described how men would hear a sound at night in a nearby swamp and fire into the darkness, only to find it was a family hunting for frogs to eat. He stared out into the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. I dropped the subject.
fter Christmas 1999, I prepared a detailed report with an analysis and summary of our research, including maps and photographs. I attached documents, interview excerpts and the names, birth dates, addresses and telephone numbers of a dozen veterans, plus the names of a dozen Korean survivors speaking about the shooting on the record. I had all but given up. I was weary of trying to explain our investigative effort to editors unwilling or unable to take the time to absorb the complexity and difficulty of the information. I wanted something I could distribute inside the AP-or outside if it came to that-to let others with no prejudice toward our work size it up for themselves. Ahearn said he would give me a decision, but he wanted to consult Lou Boccardi, the president of the AP.
After studying my report, without explanation, Ahearn ordered the story killed. When I appealed to Boccardi, he informed me by e-mail that he agreed with his executive editor's assessment. When I met with him, he summoned Ahearn, who said nothing during a long conversation. Boccardi said he felt the story, as written, belonged in Rolling Stone magazine. He said to be suitable for the wire, it needed to lose its prosecutorial tone and be reduced to one story of nine hundred words or less. He said a paragraph needed to be inserted high in the copy describing atrocities committed by North Korea during the war-a subject we had summarized in a sidebar. He said that once reduced to that extent, it wouldn't be much of a story, and he'd be in favor of just dropping it.
"You make these soldiers look like criminals," Boccardi said during the meeting. I had seen it differently. If anything, I thought we had made generals, or perhaps America's Cold War-foreign policy in general, look criminal - and done so by presenting facts, documents, and the statements of witnesses and experts.
"This is the kind of story," I said, "the New York Times would put on its front page."
He was unconvinced. I warned him that his reporters were ready to take their work elsewhere and that this story would eventually come out. He said that if other reporters did the story and hosannas fell upon them, that would be fine with him. I said that if he killed the project, I would not be able to defend his decision. I suggested a solution. Bring in a totally fresh editor, who knows nothing about the sub- ject and who is agreeable to everyone involved, to rework the copy until he, Boccardi, and the reporters reached consensus.
Let's think about it a day was Boccardi's reaction.
It's the last conversation he and I have ever had. The next day I learned that Jon Wolman, former Washington bureau chief, named by Boccardi the previous fall to be the AP's new managing editor, would take charge of the story. Wolman and I discussed who could be a fresh editor. It took weeks to learn it would be Noblet, who, Wolman announced to me, would rework the project while continuing his duties on the International Desk.
Months of rewriting and rereporting began anew. Reporting to Wolman, Noblet rewrote the main story using the reporters' notes and documents, occasionally asking questions. The reporters were barred from seeing his work until top editors cleared it. Hanley was enraged. When he and Mendoza saw the copy, it told a story they felt made it appear no one was sure what had happened at No Gun Ri. Hanley said it was dishonest and unacceptable. Noblet was caught in the middle. Hanley became a pariah, avoided by management and left to guess for long stretches of time what would happen to his months of work.
I learned my fate. Wolman announced a reorganization of the news staff. His place for me: systems editor. I would be in charge of editing terminals in New York. I had built up considerable skill and a reputation for using computer records in investigative projects, but this seemed dumb. To stay employed, I agreed. I had begun looking for another job in journalism. I resigned a month later. Leading up to publication, and after, the AP's top managers refused to even speak to Hanley, one of the wire service's most respected reporters worldwide-the author of its 150th anniversary history book-even as they rewrote the words under his byline. Noblet was forced to play intermediary. Hanley would speak to Noblet, who would carry his message to Wolman. Wolman would respond to Hanley 's issues through Noblet. Hanley would e-mail or phone Boccardi. Boccardi wouldn’t respond. Ahearn was being marginalized as Wolman was groomed to take his place. The atmosphere was surreal, but Hanley pressed relentlessly on.
Every AP bureau chief from Tokyo to Paris knew the AP was sitting on a major story. It became gossip. Hanley was ordered to reinterview anyone who would be quoted with an editor listening-in on his conversation - the first time that practice was ever employed in the AP's history. Before publication, Wolman tried to order the AP's Web site to remove images of documents, maps, and videos of interviews that had been produced to bolster a special presentation of the story there. The Web site's editor, Jim Kennedy, refused. The Web version of the story later received Columbia University's Online Journalism Award.
Boccardi, Ahearn, and Wolman had made clear the word "massacre" would be censored from all AP copy - though dozens of news- papers using the story, including the New York Times, instinctively turned to that word to write their front-page headlines. Even when government officials, such as Secretary of Defense William Cohen, uttered the word in the context of "massacre" being an allegation, as opposed to a proven fact, the word was banished from the AP wire in connection with No Gun Ri. Soldiers who were there and who called it a massacre saw their quotes left unused. And when the AP ultimately won its Pulitzer, in the wire service's own story announcing its award, Boccardi, a member of the Pulitzer committee himself, personally sat at a news terminal and deleted every occurrence of the word used by the story's writer, who had taken it from the language of the Pulitzer committee's official press release.
In the end, the leadership of the AP could agree with its reporters on only one thing about the No Gun Ri story -the opening phrase of its lead, an artful sentence composed by Noblet that was as telling as he could make it. His words, "it was a story no one wanted to hear," were an intentional double entendre: "It was a story no one wanted to hear: Early in the Korean War, villagers said, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians, under a railroad bridge in the South Korean countryside."
It often occurred to those of us working on this story what a thin thread had even made it possible: the AP's presence in Korea. A young reporter's curiosity. An investigative team ready to handle complicated research using military records. Having the time and the money to undertake in-depth reporting.
Today, there is no Special Assignment Team in New York and no special assignment editor. And what troubles me is this: What other stories like No Gun Ri are waiting out there to be told? And who at the AP will be working hard to tell them?
1. U.S. Army Inspector General, "No Gun Ri Review," U.S. Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., January 2001, 37.
2. Charles Hanley, Martha Mendoza, and Sang-Hun Choe, "The Bridge at No Gun Ri," The Associated Press, New York, 29 September, 1999.
3. Roy E. Appleman, United States Army in the Korean War: South of the Naktong, North to Yalu (June - November 1950), Center of Military History (1961; reprint, U.S. Army: Washington, D.C., 1992.
History News Network: Did the Associated Press Misrepresent the Events that Happened at No Gun Ri?