CBS Reports documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,
which aired on 23 January 1982, engendered one of the most bitter
controversies in television history. The 90-minute program spawned
a three-year ordeal for CBS, including disclosures by TV Guide that
the report violated CBS News Standards; an internal investigation
by Burton (Bud) Benjamin; and an unprecedented $120 million libel
suit by retired U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland.
sued producer George Crile III, correspondent Mike Wallace, and
others for alleging that Westmoreland participated in a conspiracy
to defraud the American public about progress in the Vietnam War.
The suit was dropped, however, before reaching the jury, with CBS
merely issuing a statement saying the network never meant to impugn
the general's patriotism.
subsequently lost its libel insurance. The controversy was also
drawn into the debate over repeal of the financial interest and
syndication rules. CBS chairman Tom Wyman twice admonished his news
division in 1984 for hindering broadcast deregulation. In part as
a result of the controversies, fewer CBS documentaries were produced
than ever before.
lawsuit generated an abundance of literature, as well as soul-searching
among broadcast journalists regarding ethics, First Amendment protection,
libel law, and the politicization of TV news. Unlike the case for
a similar, but lesser, controversy over The Selling of the Pentagon,
The Uncounted Enemy failed to uplift TV news, and instead, contributed
to the documentary's decline.
program states that the 1968 Tet offensive stunned Americans because
U.S. military leaders in South Vietnam arbitrarily discounted the
size of the enemy that was reflected in CIA reports. Former intelligence
officers testify that field command reports withheld information
from Washington and the press, ostensibly under orders from higher
military command, and that a 300,000-troop ceiling was imposed on
official reports to reflect favorable progress in the war. This
manipulation of information was characterized as a "conspiracy"
in print ads and at the top of the broadcast.
The first part of the documentary chronicles the CIA-MACV dispute
over intelligence estimates. Part two reports that prior to Tet,
infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail exceeded 20,000 North Vietnamese
per month. Again, the report alleges, these figures were discounted.
The last segment charges that intelligence officers purged government
databases to hide the deception.
most provocative scene features correspondent Mike Wallace interviewing
Westmoreland. An extreme close-up captures the general trying to
wet his dry mouth as Wallace fires questions. The visual image in
conjunction with other program material suggests that Westmoreland
engineered a conspiracy and, as viewers can see, he appears guilty.
Westmoreland publicly rebuked these claims and demanded forty-five
minutes of open airtime to reject The Uncounted Enemy assertions.
CBS refused the request.
In the spring of 1982, a CBS News employee disclosed to TV Guide
that producer George Crile had violated network standards in making
the program. The 24 May story by Sally Bedell and Don Kowet, "Anatomy
of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the Rules and 'Got' Gen. Westmoreland,"
stipulated how the production strayed from accepted practices. Significantly,
TV Guide never disputed the premise of the program. The writers
attacked the journalistic process, pointing out, for instance, that
Crile screened interviews of other participants for one witness
and then shot a second interview, that he avoided interviewing witnesses
who would counter his thesis, and that answers to various questions
were edited into a single response.
News president, Van Gordon Sauter, who was new to his position,
appointed veteran documentary producer Burton Benjamin to investigate.
His analysis, known as "The Benjamin Report," corroborated TV
to a report in The American Lawyer, several conservative
organizations, such as the Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation, the
Olin Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation, financed Westmoreland's
suit in September 1982. One goal of the Smith Richardson Foundation
was to kill CBS Reports. Another was to turn back the 1964
New York Times vs. Sullivan rule, which required that public
officials prove "actual malice" to win a libel judgment. The
Westmoreland case went to trial two years later and was discontinued
in February 1985.
One of the significant by-products of the controversy is the "Benjamin
Report." Benjamin's effort remains widely respected within the journalistic
community for revealing unfair aspects of the program's production.
Some observers, however, criticized the report for having a "prosecutorial
tone," for failing to come to terms with the producer's purpose,
and for measuring fairness and balance by a mathematical scale.
In his conclusion, Benjamin acknowledges the enduring value of the
documentary: "To get a group of high-ranking military men and former
Central Intelligence Agents to say that this is what happened was
an achievement of no small dimension." The production flaws, however,
overshadowed the program's positive attributes.
The Uncounted Enemy helps explain an aspect of Tet and gives
voice to intelligence officers who were silenced during the war.
But the program tried unsuccessfully to resolve a complex subject
in ninety minutes, and it fails to convey the context of national
self-delusion presented in lengthier treatments, such as the thirteen-hour
PBS series, Vietnam: A Television History or Neil Sheehan's
book A Bright Shining Lie. CIA analyst George Allen, who
was interviewed in the documentary, explained in a letter to Burton
Benjamin in June 1982 his belief that the intelligence dispute was
"a symptom of a larger and more fundamental problem, i.e. the tendency
of every American administration from Eisenhower through Nixon toward
self-delusion with respect to Indochina." Allen reasserted his support
for The Uncounted Enemy as a valid illustration of the larger
issue and subsequently used the program as a case study in politicized
many works disprove the conspiracy charge, General Westmoreland
did subsequently acknowledge the potential significance of a public
disclosure of intelligence information prior to Tet. Appearing on
the NBC Today show in May 1993, Westmoreland explained: "It was
the surprise element, I think, that did the damage. And if I had
to do it over again, I would have called a press conference and
made known to the media the intelligence we had."
General William C. Westmoreland cross-examined by David Boles. Mike
Wallace is at right.
Courtesy of Marilyn Church
George Crile III
23 January 1982
Sally, and Dan Kower. "Anatomy of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the
Rules and 'Got' Gen. Westmoreland." TV Guide, 24 May 1982.
Burton. Fair Play. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
CBS Benjamin Report. Washington, D.C.: The Media Institute,
Jack. "Goldwater Points a Loaded Gun at CBS." Variety (Los
Angeles), 25 August 1982.
Walter, and Miriam Schneir. "The Right's Attack on the Press." The
Nation (New York), 30 March 1985.
A Documentary Collection--Westmoreland v. CBS. Microfiche. New
York: Clearwater, 1985.
Broadcasting System; Documentary;