PBS Ombudsman addresses holes in “Terror in Little Saigon”

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November 24, 2015

During the 1980s, several Vietnamese American journalists were brutally murdered. This was a crime that law enforcement agencies could not solve. Then came A.C. Thompson and his sensational investigative report which accused a prominent Vietnamese anti-communist organization (“the Front”) of running a death squad and committing the murders. The program depicted a trail of terror in the community and vengeful activists wanting to restart the Vietnam war.

While “Terror in Little Saigon” never mentioned Viet Tan or accused any of our members of wrongdoing, I was deeply troubled by the flaws of Frontline/ProPublica’s investigative report. To set the record straight, I wrote an open letter to the program editors and joined a petition to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler calling for an investigation into the sloppy reporting.

The good news is that Getler, who serves as an independent internal critic within PBS, has publicly responded and his comments cast serious doubt on the investigative practices in “Terror”. The response is very long as it summarizes the controversy around the report. Getler acknowledges the community petition along with the key points raised in the Viet Tan open letter. He points to the credentials of the producers/journalists behind the program as a source of validation.

His conclusion can be summed up as follows:

“If it were not for [retired FBI investigator] Tang-Wilcox, I think this broadcast’s focus on the murders of the journalists—and all the on-air interviews with alleged Vietnamese friends, suspects, former Front members and informers, plus the reference by Thompson to another former top front leader whose name could not be revealed but who is ‘certain’ that K9 killed the journalists in San Francisco and Houston—would not have stood up very well against the scrutiny it is getting.”

Despite promotional materials that touted “new” evidence, the program’s credibility rested on the personal view of a single FBI agent. It should be noted that the FBI concluded after years of working the cases that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with the murders. FBI agent Katherine Tang-Wilcox, featured so prominently in the film, was unable to provide her supervisors with evidence to support her hypothesis.

The PBS ombudsman also criticizes the use of hearsay and anonymous sources in the program:

“The flaws that I felt weakened the program’s presentation were as follows. A damning interview with an ‘old friend’ of the slain publisher is anonymous. Other former Front leaders say about the killings such things as: ‘I don’t hear but somebody told me…I don’t want to point the finger…that’s what I heard.’ Others denied involvement. A former Los Angeles Times reporter says ‘there was something close to a consensus…there were people who thought.’ All that may seem natural for an investigation such as this, but it doesn’t add much credibility to a story that was inconclusive at the outset.

Less than half-way through the program, Thompson says: ‘But after countless meetings, a handful of former Front leaders confirm the suspicions in the FBI files, that K9 was a secret unit the Front used to target its enemies.’

Where does that come from? What is the basis for that claim about former Front leaders confirming this? At that point, the only people who have said this on the program are the anonymous ‘old friend’ and former FBI Special Agent Tang-Wilcox. At the end of the program, Thompson tells the son of the murdered publisher that: ‘The Front had a death squad. It was called K9. Members of the group are telling us that K9 killed your father.’ That may be true, and as a viewer that’s what you think is true. But it seemed to me not to be nailed down in the broadcast with respect to what ‘members of the group’ had been saying on air.”

Finally, Getler critiques Thompson’s role as narrator in his own story which he feels “takes on the sense of a personal crusade and apology.” Like many people who watched the program, I felt this “crusade” is what motivated the reporter to selectively use evidence or take information out of context to support a preconceived narrative. In fact, Getler found this approach distracting and prevented the viewer from understanding “what was actually new and verifiable.”

Thompson is understandably troubled by the way American media had failed the families of the murdered Vietnamese American journalists. Unfortunately, he too failed the families by misleading them—concluding the program by providing false closure to the son of one of the slain journalists.

As I wrote to the son of Nguyen Dam Phong, I recognize the pain and grief that the families carried for many years. At the same time, I am deeply troubled that A.C. Thompson, in an effort to find an answer, had to use my colleagues and predecessors as scapegoats. Those of us who volunteer in Viet Tan and/or had a history of being part of Mat Tran are ordinary individuals fighting against injustice. We condemn the use of violence. We respect freedom of the press. We believe it is one of the fundamental rights for a just society.

Getler recognizes the value of the topic and investigation while publicly acknowledging the holes in the reporting of “Terror in Little Saigon.” I sincerely hope that responsible journalists and professional investigators will look into the unsolved murders and ultimately provide a measure of peace to the families of the murdered Vietnamese American journalists.

PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler’s critique of the reporting also supports what many have been demanding: Frontline and ProPublica should exemplify their commitment to professionalism and intellectual honesty by retracting “Terror in Little Saigon” and apologizing to those who were falsely accused in this program.

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