Jan. 5, 2001
No job is more important for the press in this country than to confront the amnesia of the powerful. When the lights go out in California, we need to look at who thought deregulation was such a great idea and, if they are still in office, suggest they pursue a different line of work. When Washington tells us that intervening in the Colombian civil war is in our national interests, the press should dust off the Pentagon Papers and the experiences of Vietnam and El Salvador, and remind people where such things are likely to lead. There are always people who want us to forget uncomfortable historical facts like slavery, Wounded Knee and My Li. But we in the press should know that we absent these things from our history at grave peril to our nation’s future.
Fifty years ago a terrible thing happened at a railroad culvert in the opening weeks of the Korean War. For three days American forces strafed, bombed, and machine-gunned hundreds of defenseless civilians at a place called No Gun Ri. While the event remained seared into the memories of both Korean and American survivors, it vanished from public knowledge until the Associated Press (AP) uncovered the story in 1999, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.
Score one for the press, right? Except that ever since the story broke in September, 1999, the most powerful newspapers in this country have campaigned to undermine the AP report and, rather than investigating the facts surrounding the tragedy, have joined with the powerful in obscuring U.S. responsibility for the massacre. In doing so, the press has revealed a deep undercurrent of racism and national chauvinism that is profoundly disturbing.
The AP story, initially generated by the wire service’s Seoul office, was reported by a team of three reporters, two in the U.S., one in Korea. The team researched U.S. military documents and conducted interviews with almost 50 U.S. veterans and Korean survivors.
When the story first appeared, the Pentagon denied everything: The unit involved, the 7th Battalion of the First Cavalry Division wasn’t at No Gun Ri (it was); There were no orders to fire on civilians (there were and AP produced them); there was no “massacre” (somewhere between 100 and 300 people died). Finally, the Army attacked the testimony of the GIs themselves. It turned out one of AP’s sources was never at No Gun Ri, and another might or might not have been. As for the Korean survivors? U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera dismissed their memories as “unreliable.”
Okay, so we have a good old-fashioned firefight here, made to order for the watchdog press, right? We know the drill: double check the documents, interview AP’s sources, and try to develop some independent material. Find out the truth. Is that what the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and New York Daily News did? No. Instead they focused on the GI who wasn’t there, and didn’t bother to interview a single Korean survivor.
Like the massacre 50 years ago, the victims were simply erased, this time with the concurrence of the press. Does the press really think that 78-year-old Lee Sok-Jo forgot the death of her son? That Chung Koo-ho, 61, doesn’t recall the death of her mother? Or that Park Sun-yong doesn’t remember she lost her five-year-old daughter and her two year old son? That Cho Byong Woo fanaticizes about being strafed by U.S. aircraft?
There is an old saw in journalism: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” a saying editors and reporters like to toss around to demonstrate their commitment to seek out the truth. So did the press go talk to the Lees, the Parks, the Chungs and the Chos? No, and the only conclusion one can draw from that is they didn’t because the sources are Koreans.
Can you imagine the press talking to the Serbian army, but not Kosovo Albanians? To SS soldiers, but not concentration camp survivors? To Hutus not Tutsis? But in the avalanche of articles attacking the AP story (U.S. News and World Report did a 10 page special titled “Doubts about a Korean “massacre’”), not a single reporter bothered to interview a Korean No Gun Ri survivor.
While the press puts quotes marks around it– the U.S. cannot even get itself to use the word massacre–Army Secretary Caldera said, “I think there was loss of life there, and that is regrettable,” says Army Secretary Caldera. When British troops killed five men on March 5, 1770, American historians had no problem calling it the “Boston Massacre.” Rather than apologizing and offering compensation, the U.S. is proposing to build a memorial to all civilian deaths in the three-year war and fund a scholarship in memory of the No Gun Ri victims.
The Koreans, to put it mildly, are more than a little unhappy. “There is only one truth,” says Chung Koo Do, a survivor and spokesperson for the No Gun Ri victims, “but they (the U.S.) are making two ‘truths’.”
Aided and abetted, I would add, but the nation’s leading print media.