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The silent treatment regarding Vietnam POWs

COMMENTARY | October 15, 2008

Sydney Schanberg has been trying for many years to get the press to look into the fate of American POWs who weren’t accounted for at the end of the Vietnam war. He says John McCain has played a central role in suppression of government files—but even that’s not enough to get reporters or editors interested.

By Sydney Schanberg

This being a free country, as they say, the press has a right to ignore any story it chooses to. But there’s a risk that goes with that: the public may begin to notice, especially when the story is of some obvious importance.

The mainstream press, otherwise known as the national press or the biggies, are doing this ignoring thing right now in the heat of a crucial contest for the presidency. The biggies are doing it by omitting key parts of John McCain’s military record as a mediocre, reckless pilot and  by ignoring completely his hard-to-explain record of pushing through legislation that suppresses to this day critical government files about American POWs who, unlike McCain, were not returned by Hanoi after the Vietnam War.

It’s the POW story that I am versed in and have written about off and on for many years. In all those years, the national press – except for Newsday, where I was a columnist for a decade under editors Anthony Marro and Don Forst – refused to touch the subject. No explanations were given. Just silence.

Now, though a presidential candidate played a central role in this cover-up, the press biggies continue their silence. This can be interpreted in a number of ways – as arrogance, say, or laziness or a superiority complex or embarrassment -- none of which are flattering.

My latest article on McCain and POWs – an 8,000-word investigative piece – was published three weeks ago by The Nation in an abbreviated form. The complete story is posted here. It caused something of a ruckus; click here for letters to the editor, including ones that were highly critical, and my response to them.

Before The Nation accepted it, I tested the mainstream waters to see if the boycott had possibly been eased. The piece was rejected by everyone from The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine to prominent Web sites like Salon and Talking Points Memo. One magazine editor said that because I had written on the subject before, it was “a retelling”and thus unsuitable. Others said they were too stacked up with McCain stories for the campaign season. None of the brush-offs were any more convincing than that. I appealed to them to tackle the story with their own reporters to set the historical record straight. Silence again. 

Once the piece appeared, I began e-mailing again, seeking to crack the national press’s glass walls. Urging them to do their own reporting and publish something about this issue, I wrote personal notes to the editors of The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. No response. I did the same with other editors and reporters and columnists and ombudsmen at those papers and many more. Also to television news and commentator shows and to press-beat reporters like Howard Kurtz. The list has grown now to more than 100.

I can recall only four responses. One was a whiny e-mail from a magazine writer who ducked the issue. A campaign reporter in Washington told me on the phone that he thought it was appropriate for McCain to suppress the POW files to “protect the privacy” of the missing men and their families. Only a rattled, embarrassed reporter could say something as foolish as that. A respected columnist responded to me and is considering writing something. Finally, one reporter at a major paper was seized by the story, immersed himself in the issue and pitched it to his editors, who blew him off saying there wasn’t enough time to research the story and, besides, they said, they had questions about its credibility.

That last excuse was a corker. If you acknowledge you haven’t done the research, then do it now. Election Day isn’t the cutoff point. Even if John McCain doesn’t make the White House, he’ll still be in the Senate, suppressing POW files.

If any reader – editor, reporter, layman – would like links to my earlier writings on this issue or guidance on where to go for more information, please first read my article linked above -and then e-mail me at: sydneyschanberg@yahoo.com.

This discussion is not about me or my dismay at not being able to garner mainstream press attention for my article, which has received  more than 350,000 Web site views. It’s about the national shame that happened when we left those men behind, thus dishonoring them and their families. And of course it’s about John McCain for turning his back on them while pretending to care about our soldiers. And then there’s the press, which brought shame on itself by pretending, even now, that the story doesn’t exist.

If the mainstream press wishes to debate this, let them first respond by telling us why they are so determined not to research and do this story. What are they afraid of finding? Their own delinquency?

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