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Press: Smoking Guns, Secret Tapes

4 minute read
Janice Castro

A new skirmish in the war between CBS and Westmoreland

Although General William Westmoreland’s libel suit against CBS is not scheduled to come to trial until this fall, both sides keep trying to settle the case in the court of public opinion; time and again, each camp has claimed to have found a “smoking gun” that would demonstrate the other’s guilt. Last week this war without heroes continued with a new gun pointed at CBS: Westmoreland’s lawyers released a damaging interview with CBS News Executive Vice President Howard Stringer that had been secretly taped by former TV Guide Reporter Don Kowet.

In the interview, Stringer confides with startling candor his doubts about Producer George Crile, principal reporter for the 1982 documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, that prompted the Westmoreland suit. “We have our own suspicions about George Crile,” says Stringer, speaking supposedly off the record shortly after the broadcast. Speculating about whether Crile might have cut corners in his reporting, Stringer remarks, “I should have known I wouldn’t get fair journalism off him.” As executive producer of the show, Stringer is expected to be a key witness in CBS’S defense, but his taped words seem to contradict what he said about Crile in a deposition for the case. Under oath Stringer testified, “I think he’s a careful journalist.”

Stringer also said in his deposition that he thought Westmoreland “was a good general.” Yet when discussing with Kowet possible shortcomings in the CBS reporting procedures, Stringer concedes, “I must say I don’t feel desperately sorry, and this is an awful thing to say, because I think Westmoreland should have been fired years ago.” Said Westmoreland’s attorney Dan Burt last week: “The tapes show that Howard Stringer didn’t believe the show was accurate, and that he didn’t care because he wanted to hook Westmoreland.” CBS Lawyer David Boies disagreed, arguing that the quotes from Stringer were taken out of context. In deed, in the deposition, Stringer added that after working on the show he felt that “General Westmoreland was not as good as I had believed.”

Kowet conducted his interview in connection with a 1982 TV Guide piece that labeled the CBS documentary “a smear.” After an internal investigation the network concluded that the substance of the program was accurate but that some of the magazine’s criticisms about the methods used in producing it were valid. Kowet subsequently seemed to shift from being a reporter to acting as an advocate for Westmoreland. This month he published a scathing book about the program, A Matter of Honor, portions of which are poorly documented at best.

Kowet taped the conversation with Stringer without his knowledge. That practice, while not illegal in New York State, is a clear breach of journalistic ethics and is barred by most responsible news organizations. (Similar behavior by Crile was cited by CBS as a reason for suspending him last June.) In addition, Kowet turned over the Stringer tape, and 36 others, to Westmoreland’s attorneys. Kowet argues that the material had been subpoenaed by the general’s lawyers, and adds that he did not resist the demand because “I am not going to spend one red cent in defense of CBS.”

But journalists have long fought, usually successfully, to prevent their back ground materials from being taken for use as evidence in court trials because such involvement seriously impinges on the ability to gather news. Nor would Kowet have needed to spend his own money fighting the subpoenas: when he left TV Guide, his tapes and notes became the property of the magazine, which later refused a Westmoreland subpoena for them.

— By Janice Castro. Reported by Mania Gauger/New York

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