Fact check: Sinclair's A POW Story contained errors, only some of which were rebutted

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

On October 22 at 8 p.m. ET, Sinclair Broadcast Group aired a program titled A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media that consisted of more than thirty minutes focused on Senator John Kerry's Vietnam War record, followed by less than four minutes purporting to examine President George W. Bush's service during the Vietnam era, and a final segment on the media. Parts of the anti-Kerry film Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, as well as segments from a pro-Kerry film titled Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, were shown during the broadcast. Kerry attackers and the program's host, Jeff Barnd, made a number of factually false statements, some of which were rebutted by Kerry defenders while others were left uncorrected. The overwhelming evidence that Bush shirked his Texas Air National Guard duty was glossed over: Viewers were told only that questions remain about whether Bush completed his required service.

Sinclair opened and closed the broadcast with a patently false statement that was not rebutted: the assertion that the "news program" has generated enormous controversy. At the end of the program, Sinclair urged viewers to contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to express their view that it was appropriate for Sinclair to air this "news program." But it was not this program that generated such controversy. Rather, A POW Story apparently represented Sinclair's attempt to repair the damage wreaked on its stock price in the wake of an October 9 Los Angeles Times report that Sinclair was "ordering its stations to preempt regular programming just days before the Nov. 2 election to air a film [Stolen Honor] that attacks Sen. John F. Kerry's activism against the Vietnam War." Following a massive grassroots advertiser boycott effort, threatened shareholder litigation, and numerous other actions taken to stop Sinclair from airing Stolen Honor, the company announced on October 19: "Contrary to numerous inaccurate political and press accounts, the Sinclair stations will not be airing the documentary 'Stolen Honor' in its entirety." Rather, the broadcast group, said, it would run A POW Story, "a news special [that] will focus in part on the use of documentaries and other media to influence voting, which emerged during the 2004 political campaigns, as well as on the content of certain of these documentaries."

FALSE CLAIM #1: The Los Angeles Times reported that Sinclair "urged" its stations to air Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal; but Sinclair had not yet determined the broadcast's content or format

From A POW Story:

JEFF BARND (program host): It started nearly two weeks ago, after The Los Angeles Times reported that Sinclair Broadcast Group urged all 62 of its stations to air the documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal. ... Sinclair had yet to determine how the documentary would be presented over the public airwaves.

FACTS: The Los Angeles Times reported that Sinclair was "ordering" its stations to air Stolen Honor according to "network and station executives familiar with the plan." And Sinclair's intention to broadcast the entire film was made clear not only by news reports, but also by television listings; Sinclair vice president Mark Hyman defended the company's decision to air the film.

In an October 9 article, the Los Angeles Times reported that Sinclair "is ordering its stations to preempt regular programming just days before the Nov. 2 election to air a film that attacks Sen. John F. Kerry's activism against the Vietnam War, network and station executives familiar with the plan said." On the October 22 edition of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown, Washington Post staff writer Howard Kurtz said, "About ten days ago, one of its [Sinclair's] executives told me they planned to air the whole 42-minute Stolen Honor."

In news reports, Hyman defended Sinclair's decision to air the film. According to an October 11 New York Times article, Hyman "said the film would be shown because Sinclair deemed it newsworthy." The Washington Post reported on October 12 that Hyman "said Monday that the show would contain some or all of the 42-minute film as well as a panel discussion of some sort" and that he "defended it as a [sic] legitimate news." On the October 12 edition of CNN's American Morning, Hyman stressed: "This is news." He told The Washington Post for an October 11 article: "'This is a powerful story. ... The networks are acting like Holocaust deniers and pretending [the POWs] don't exist. It would be irresponsible to ignore them.'"

While current Yahoo! TV listings show Sinclair's plan to air A POW Story, journalist and blogger Joshua Micah Marshall noted on October 19 that the listings showed that Stolen Honor was indeed scheduled to air on Sinclair stations. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen noted the program change on October 21: "Sinclair's program, originally titled Stolen Honor: The Point Special Edition, was scheduled to first air tonight on Pittsburgh's WCWB. Just this week the program's content was revised and the show was retitled 'A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media.' It will now have only one broadcast at 8 p.m. Friday on [Pittsburgh TV station] WPGH."

FALSE CLAIM #2: Kerry labeled all veterans war criminals

From a clip of Stolen Honor aired during A POW Story:

KERRY VOICEOVER AND ON-SCREEN TEXT: "They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam."

JAMES WARNER (former POW): The interrogator went through all of these statements from John Kerry, he starts pounding on the table, see here, this Naval officer, he admits that you are criminal and that you deserve punishment.

LEO K. THORSNESS (former POW): The things he said were just devastating because he was talking about, he used words like "war criminal" and that kind of stuff. As a prisoner of war, we were being told we were war criminals, and we would be tried for war crimes, and unless we confess and ask for forgiveness and bad-mouth the war and take their side of the war, we'll never go home.

KEN CORDIER (former POW): And for someone to do that, willingly, and, and to, for someone to pass himself off as representing all veterans in Vietnam and saying these outrageous things that were totally untrue. It just -- to me it's the measure of the man.

ON-AIR CORRECTION: RICHARD KLASS (president, Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy): There are some inaccuracies that have been portrayed here. Number one, if you go to the VeteransInstitute.org website, you can read John Kerry's actual testimony. There was one paragraph in six pages reporting on what was said in the Winter Soldier exercise [Investigation], reporting other people's words and you can see it in context and make your own judgment.

FACTS: In his 1971 testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee, Kerry was simply relating the personal experiences of other Vietnam veterans who came home and testified to their personal experiences at the Winter Soldier Investigation hearing in Detroit earlier that year, which was organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Kerry, who testified in his capacity as spokesman for VVAW, focused blame on the leaders at that time -- not the soldiers -- for the atrocities they claimed to have committed or witnessed.

A POW Story aired the portion of Stolen Honor that misleadingly omitted key parts of Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony to make it sound as though he was accusing all veterans of atrocities. A POW Story did not show the parts of Kerry's testimony in which Kerry made clear that he was relating the stories of those who had testified at the Winter Soldier Investigation. The clip of Kerry's testimony that was shown began as follows: "They had personally raped." That sentence of Kerry's testimony actually began: "They told the stories at times they had ..." [emphasis added]

Here is what Kerry said in his April 22, 1971, testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee:

KERRY: I would like to talk, representing all those veterans [VVAW members], and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

[...]

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

FALSE CLAIM #3: Kerry's actions worsened the POWs' treatment when under interrogation

From A POW Story:

JEFF BARND (program host): His [Kerry's] words would have a profound effect on our POWs.

From a clip of Stolen Honor aired during A POW Story:

WARNER: The interrogator went through all of these statements from John Kerry, he starts pounding on the table. See hear, this Naval officer, he admits that you are criminal and that you deserve punishment. Well, look, they told us this is a camp for punishment. We are in solitary confinement. When the guy starts pounding the table and, and you can spot this and then when the voice starts to rise, the face gets red, that's usually a sign that something bad is about to happen.

LEO K. THORSNESS: The things he said were just devastating because he was talking about, he used words like "war criminal" and that kind of stuff. As a prisoner of war, we were being told we were war criminals, and we would be tried for war crimes, and unless we confess and ask for forgiveness and bad-mouth the war and take their side of the war, we'll never go home. I mean, you talk, and then here's a guy at home, he's been in Vietnam so he has some respect for a person whose been over there, and now he swaps to the other side and he's saying the same things we are being tortured to say. That was a very difficult time.

KEN CORDIER: Well, my reaction to the Kerry testimony, the perjurous testimony in front of that Senate hearing committee in April of 1971, I was outraged, and still am. That he willingly said things which were untrue. The very same points that we took torture not to write and say. They tortured us and made us write a war crimes confession to be used later, where we admitted, confessed to committing war crimes and that we condemned our government's policy for being in Vietnam. And that we ask their forgiveness. And there was gall in my mouth to write these words but I couldn't take any more of the torture. And for someone to do that, willingly, and, and to, for someone to pass himself off as representing all veterans in Vietnam and saying these outrageous things that were totally untrue it just -- to me, it's the measure of the man.

FACTS: Recent remarks by two of the film's featured POWs -- James Warner and Leo K. Thorsness -- contradict the claim that Kerry's actions worsened the POWs' treatment when under interrogation.

As Washington Dispatch managing editor Shane Cory noted in an October 15 editorial, Stolen Honor interviewee and former POW James Warner wrote in a July 2004 editorial for the military magazine Soldier of Fortune that "the last torture that we knew of had taken place in September of 1969." That was two years before Kerry's 1971 testimony. Also, in the same editorial, Warner recounted an instance in which Kerry's name was used for interrogation purposes against him, but then noted that the interrogation occurred "without torture."

Cory also documented that Thorsness -- who claimed POWs were "tortured to say the same thing that he [Kerry] is saying" -- had actually admitted in a published bio that the use of torture had decreased by the time Kerry testified. On March 3, 1997, Thorsness conveyed to the Missouri nonprofit group the POW Network that the amount of torture to which he was subjected had declined dramatically by the time Kerry returned from Vietnam to protest the war: "He [Thorsness] was held six years [1967-1973]. Three years were brutal and the second three years were 'boring' as torture eased because of pressure in the U.S. from family members." As the Detroit Free Press noted on July 19, 2003, the POW Network is "a nonprofit in Skidmore, Mo., [that] has compiled about 5,000 pages of information from public records and published news accounts on missing military personnel and posted them on the Internet."

NBC News correspondent David Shuster noted in his "Hardblogger" coverage of the presidential election for MSNBC.com that he found no evidence Kerry's name was used in the interrogation of all American POWs in Vietnam: "[T]he film only features POWs who say John Kerry's name was invoked by north Vietnamese prison guards. But we've spoken to dozens of POWs who spent years in Vietnamese prison camps and say they never heard John Kerry's name mentioned once."

FALSE CLAIM #4: The Winter Soldier Investigation has been discredited: "those guys he was with were frauds"

From a clip of Stolen Honor aired during A POW Story:

PAUL GALANTI (former POW): When he [Kerry] came back and told those lies about these atrocities that he personally witnessed, and ears being cut off -- he never saw anybody's ears being cut off -- he knew, or should have known those guys he was with were frauds, they were just outright frauds.

ON-AIR CORRECTION: GEORGE BUTLER (director of pro-Kerry film Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry): There are inaccuracies in the film Stolen Honor, one of which is that the soldiers who honorably testified at the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit were lying, and there's never been any evidence of that. It also declares that they were imposters; there's no evidence of that whatsoever.

FACTS: As MMFA has previously documented, conservative historian Guenter Lewy claimed in his 1978 book, America in Vietnam, that a Naval Investigative Service report into the Winter Soldier allegations had discredited many of the witnesses and accounts, and that, in some cases, impostors had assumed the identities of real veterans who were not present at the investigation. But Naval Criminal Investigative Service public affairs specialist Paul O'Donnell told the Chicago Tribune: "We have not been able to confirm the existence of this report, but it's also possible that such records could have been destroyed or misplaced." And Lewy himself admitted to The Baltimore Sun that "he does not recall if he saw a copy of the naval investigative report or was briefed on its contents." Apart from Lewy's allegations, an MMFA search uncovered no other reports of evidence that any Winter Soldier witness was an impostor (though one witness claimed in September that he lied in his testimony).

FALSE CLAIM #5: Kerry had secret meeting with North Vietnamese in Paris

From A POW Story:

MIKE CRONIN (identified by A POW Story host Barnd only as a former POW): He [Kerry] went to Paris and privately met with Communist negotiators.

Cronin is, in fact, chairman and director of the newly formed group Vietnam EXPOWS, created in September 2004 "to do whatever we can to oppose the election of John Kerry as president."

FACTS: Cronin's claim echoes recent anti-Kerry Swift Vets and POWs for Truth TV ads that have claimed Kerry "secretly met with enemy leaders" in Paris. But as MMFA and The Washington Post have noted, the meeting was not a secret.

In 1970, after his honeymoon in Paris, Kerry met with Nguyen Thi Binh, who was then foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government and a top negotiator at the peace talks. Kerry describes the trip as a "fact-finding mission." He spoke about the meeting in his 1971 public testimony before the Senate, Kerry stated: "I have been to Paris. I have talked with both delegations at the peace talks, that is to say the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government."

As the Los Angeles Times reported on March 22, Kerry never supported formal meetings between North Vietnamese officials and American anti-war protesters: "Kerry recalled his opposition to VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] leaders meeting with North Vietnamese officials. 'I thought that would be disastrous to the credibility of the organization,' he said, 'to the people we were trying to convince about the war.'"

• A POW Story on Bush's National Guard service:

In the section devoted to the controversy surrounding Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, Barnd claimed: "There are questions over whether he [Bush] fulfilled his duties." Barnd and Craig Demchak (anchor and reporter at Sinclair-owned WBFF-TV in Baltimore)treated the question of whether Bush fulfilled his contractual obligation to the Guard as though it was still under debate. In fact, U.S. News & World Report and The Boston Globe have laid out the extensive evidence that Bush did not fulfill the terms of his six-year military service obligation.

From A POW Story:

BARND: George W. Bush enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard in May of 1968. He trained to be a pilot. But he never served in Vietnam. News Central's Craig Demchak reports.

DEMCHAK: Those facts most everyone will agree on, but that's pretty much where it ends. Some say Mr. Bush signed up for the Air National Guard to avoid the draft, and there are questions over whether he fulfilled his duties. And people want to know why he never went to Vietnam.

FACTS: U.S. News & World Report and The Boston Globe consulted independent military experts who examined Bush's record and determined that Bush did not fulfill his obligation.

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