Westmoreland Takes on CBS

The controversy raised by “The Uncounted Enemy” bore no relation to its success as a television program: it ranked last in the ratings for the week. The relatively small number of viewers did not stop General Westmoreland from holding a news conference in Washington a few days after the broadcast. Surrounded by former senior officials and military officers, Westmoreland flatly denied the premise of the program. While initial media reaction to the program was largely positive, some began to question its accuracy and fairness. In particular, TV Guide magazine ran an article by Dan Kowet and Sally Bedell, in which they accused CBS of sloppy journalism and bias.

In response to the article, CBS appointed senior executive producer Burton Benjamin to conduct an internal investigation of “The Uncounted Enemy.” Benjamin interviewed CBS employees who worked on the program, screened all the videotape of the interviews, and investigated the process of making the show. Benjamin found multiple flaws in the program. For instance, nine former officials appeared in the program to accuse the general of have conspired to undercount the enemy. Although many people could have disputed the charge, only Westmoreland and General Graham appeared in the show to rebut the allegations.

Violations of CBS Standards

Benjamin found several violations of CBS news standards, including its failure to identify the former CIA official Sam Adams as a paid consultant, which might have led some viewers to question the credibility of his allegations because of his financial stake in the program. Also, former CIA official George Allen was interviewed twice after Crile was disappointed with the first take because he felt Allen looked ill at ease. Obviously, Westmoreland was not given the opportunity for a second interview in which to reformulate his answers.

The program “in its execution…was seriously flawed…a ‘conspiracy,’ given the accepted definition of the word, had not been proved.”The Benjamin Report

Benjamin also found that the CBS interview technique made Westmoreland look guilty. Benjamin wrote that Westmoreland was “shot in extreme close up — what cameramen call a choker, under the chin and up to the hairline.” The General was seen to be sweating and licking his lips, “the personification of a man ill at ease and growing angrier.”1 In contrast, Wallace was filmed from an angle further back, and appeared more at ease. Benjamin also found that there had been factual errors and sloppy editing of interviews in which people were seen to respond to different questions from the ones they were actually asked.

In his final report completed in July 1982, Benjamin concluded that “the basic story, the premise…could not be dismissed,” but the program “in its execution…was seriously flawed.” He further concluded that “a ‘conspiracy,’ given the accepted definition of the word, had not been proved,” and that “friendly witnesses had been coddled in the interviews, while those opposing the thesis—Westmoreland and Graham—had been treated harshly.” “What was involved,” Benjamin wrote, “was the essence of good journalistic practice—fairness, accuracy, balance.”2 In releasing Benjamin’s conclusions, CBS stated that, despite the criticisms of the program contained in the report, the network stood by its broadcast, but within weeks CBS would be faced with the prospect of defending “The Uncounted Enemy” in court.

Westmoreland Files Suit

After CBS refused Westmoreland’s demands for monetary compensation and a full retraction to be aired on the network, the general in September 1982 filed a $120-million dollar libel lawsuit against CBS and those involved in the program, including Adams, Crile, and Wallace. The lawsuit, first filed in Westmoreland's home state of South Carolina, was eventually moved to New York City, where CBS had its headquarters. CBS filed a motion in May 1984 to dismiss the lawsuit on several grounds, including that the First Amendment to the Constitution protected CBS “from a libel action brought by a high public official challenging commentary on his performance of the duties of his office.” On September 24, 1984, Judge Pierre Leval rejected the CBS motion because of several of the mistakes in the program that raised “triable questions of knowing or reckless falsity.”3

At this point, it was clear to Judge Leval and many observers that CBS had committed several mistakes in “The Uncounted Enemy.” Whether these mistakes amounted, in legal terms, to “a reckless disregard” of the truth that libeled the general would never be determined before a settlement was reached in the lawsuit. However, evidence presented at the trial before the settlement would raise important and controversial historical issues concerning the antagonism between the military and the media in Vietnam and the military’s underestimation of the strength and effectiveness of the irregular militia forces of the Communist enemy.

1Burton Benjamin, Fair Play: CBS, General Westmoreland, and How a Television Documentary Went Wrong (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 12.
2Benjamin, 159-60, 163, 164.
3William C. Westmoreland v. CBS, et al., No. 82 Civ. 7913 U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (24 September 1984) 2, 6.