George Crile: CBS News Loses A Part Of Its History
CBS News and much of the journalistic community learned yesterday of the death of George Crile, longtime investigative reporter for CBS News and author of a bestselling book detailing how earlier CIA efforts in Afghanistan helped set the stage for Osama bin Laden. Crile produced many investigative reports on foreign topics – from an award-winning documentary on the CIA's efforts to oust Fidel Castro to in-depth reports about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. You can read all about Crile's career here.
Crile's most recent work will reportedly be making its way to the big screen. His book, "Charlie Wilson's War" is being turned into a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks. But remembrances of his journalism career will always include his role as producer of a controversial documentary that spurred an internal investigation at CBS News and helped change the public's perception of the media.
In 1982, CBS News aired "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," a documentary claiming that top U.S. military commander Gen. William Westmoreland engaged in a "conspiracy" to provide lower estimates of enemy troop strength in Vietnam in an effort to convince civilian leadership and the public that the war was being won. After the story aired, Gen. Westmoreland sued CBS News for libel and sought $120 million in damages. The story was also the subject of a TV Guide article titled, "Anatomy of a Smear: How CBS News Broke the Rules and 'Got' Gen. Westmoreland" which alleged that the documentary violated journalistic standards.
Westmoreland dropped the lawsuit and settled after some 18 weeks in trial, just as the case was about to go to the jury. Westmoreland received no money in the settlement but CBS News did issue a statement saying the network did not intend to leave the impression that Westmoreland acted in an unpatriotic or disloyal manner. Both sides claimed victory in the lawsuit, but it was one that came with a price for CBS News.
In response to the TV Guide allegations, CBS News conducted an internal investigation, led by then-senior executive producer Burton Benjamin, which concluded that the story was largely accurate but also found five violations of CBS News standards. The report resulted in the creation of a new position at the network to oversee news practices. Among the violations found: Crile re-shot an interview with one key subject to improve upon the initial interview; Crile allowed the same subject to watch footage of others who had been interviewed for the documentary; one interview subject was not identified as a paid consultant on the story and the word "conspiracy" was used but was not proven.
Unlike the "Memogate" episode which resulted in the firing of producers involved and played at least a part in the eventual exits of the CBS News anchor and the president of the news division, the Westmoreland story resulted in no direct casualties. But observers at the time saw longer-term damage from the story and resulting lawsuit. Many saw the story as essentially a way to re-fight the Vietnam war. It put CBS News in the crosshairs of burgeoning conservative criticisms of the media. And others feared the lawsuit, and the potential for more, would result in fewer and less aggressive investigative stories.
Crile went on to do many more important and groundbreaking stories for the network and his career is capped by his critically acclaimed book. His passing is an opportunity to remember his contributions to journalism and to reflect on the importance of investigative reporting. But any discussion of his distinguished career would be incomplete without mentioning Crile's role in one of the most controversial and difficult episodes in the history of CBS News – and journalism as a whole.