Joe Mahr, Mike Sallah and Mitch Weiss
from The Toledo Blade
How The Toledo Blade came to win a Pulitzer for a story that was 37 years old
SHOWCASE | May 08, 2004
The Toledo Blade, circulation about 146,000, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, and other national awards as well, for a stunning, authoritative series on atrocities committed in 1967 in Vietnam by the Tiger Force, an elite American fighting unit. Following is an email interview of Ron Royhab, executive editor of The Blade, done by Barry Sussman, the editor of niemanwatchdog.org.
Q. This was an extraordinary series and would have been a major undertaking for any news organization, let alone a regional one like yours. So what persuaded you to embark on it?
Royhab: The size or location of a newspaper should have nothing to do with the quality of its journalism. The Blade is the premier source of news and information in northwest Ohio, but has always had a passion and reputation for international journalism and investigative reporting. When we realized what we were dealing with, it was a no-brainer. We had to pursue the story and certainly had to publish it. It was a story that the U. S. Army kept hidden from the public for more than three decades. Our reporters discovered that the Army spent 4-1/2 years investigating an elite U.S. platoon called Tiger Force whose members murdered, tortured then mutilated the bodies of civilian men, women and children in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
Army investigators concluded in 1975 that 18 platoon members committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty between May and November 1967, but no charges were ever filed and the final investigative reports were quietly buried until October 2003 when The Blade published its four-part series, "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths." The series uncovered conclusive proof of Tiger Force war crimes.
The newspaper's investigation started in February of 2003 when The Blade obtained 22 pages of classified Army records from the files of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. These records, while incomplete, indicated that atrocities had been committed by members of Tiger Force, but the records did not provide enough information for a credible news report.
Mike Sallah, The Blade's national affairs writer, was the first reporter assigned to the project. He spent several weeks conducting a preliminary investigation that led to more probing. He was joined by state editor Mitch Weiss and later a third reporter, Joe Mahr.
They searched through volumes of historical data published on the Vietnam war, but found no mention of Tiger Force atrocities. Even Vietnam historians interviewed for the series said they were unaware that Tiger Force members had committed such crimes. This information had never been reported.
We undertook the project because the public has a right to know that American soldiers committed atrocities, and that our government knew about it and kept it from the public. We would have been party to a cover-up if we had knowledge of these war crimes and did not publish the story. Wrongdoing on this grand a scale is always significant.
Q. How big is the editorial staff at the Blade, and how many people in all did any substantial work on the stories? About how much time did each of the reporters spend on them?
Royhab: We have a newsroom staff of 145, including journalists and support staff. Two reporters, Sallah and Weiss, worked on the project for more than eight months. A third reporter, Mahr, joined the team in the last several months. We also sent photographer Andy Morrison with Sallah and Weiss to Vietnam for 16 days to locate, interview and photograph family members of villagers who were the victims of Tiger Force soldiers more than three decades ago, and to interview village officials. In addition to the top three editors involved in the project — Ron Royhab, executive editor; Kurt Franck, managing editor, and Luann Sharp, assistant managing editor — projects editor Dave Murray did the hands-on editing. Others who contributed to this effort include Douglas Koerner, the project designer; Wes Booher, art director and Sean McKeon, artist, who handled maps and graphics; Larry Roberts, director of photography; Darrell Ellis and David Cantor, picture editors, and copy editors Ann Weber and Todd Wetzler.
Q. Have you heard from any of these men, or from their relatives, since the series ran? If so, what kind of things did they have to say? Were they supportive of the stories, or were they mostly critical?
Royhab: After the series was published, Rion Causey, a former Tiger Force member who was interviewed for the series, told The Blade that he was contacting the Army to offer his eye-witness account of atrocities committed by some members of Tiger Force. Mr. Causey, who was not a suspect in the case, commended The Blade series and said he has waited 30 years to tell his story. He said he and others have lived many years with this information and that reading the articles has helped him in his healing process. Mr. Causey was interviewed by the Army after the series was published.
Bill Carpenter, another Tiger Force veteran, told The Blade that he cannot argue with the accuracy of information in the stories, but he wished the newspaper would have tried to understand the kind of pressure U.S. soldiers were under from their commanders and the frustrations they experienced from being ambushed day after day in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Former Sgt. William Doyle, who was accused of murder by Army investigators, wrote a letter to reporters saying that he did not dispute the facts of the story, but that he felt he had a right to kill unarmed civilians who refused to go to relocation camps.
Q. This wasn't exactly what a reader in Toledo might have expected to see when opening the local paper. Can you tell us a little about the reaction there?
Royhab: Our readers are used to seeing significant locally produced investigative stories and special reports on our front page. We were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 with a series of articles on how the government and the beryllium industry kept from the public the dangers to workers who produced the metal beryllium that is used to make military weapons, among other things. The Tiger Force project, however, was undoubtedly the biggest project we have undertaken so far.
We received immediate reaction from readers on the first day of the series and the majority questioned why we would write about something that happened so long ago. But we also received reader response supporting the project, including calls from military veterans who said they are saddened by what happened but understand why it is important to write about it. One veteran, for example, said his unit in Vietnam did not do these things and those who did should not get away with it. Within days, however, the reaction locally and from around the world was overwhelmingly positive.
Q. How about reaction elsewhere? What have you heard from the Army, for example, and from anyone else in the government?
Royhab: An Army spokesman told The Blade that he could not explain what happened to the initial military investigation or why the matter was dropped after 18 soldiers were accused of committing war crimes, or who ordered it dropped. The spokesman told news services after the first-day story was published that there were no plans to reopen the case. Later, the Army said it would conduct an "active review" of the case to review all files. The active review was expanded after pressure from members of Congress to interview some of the Tiger Force veterans and the Tiger Force chief investigator, who is now retired. The process is ongoing.
As a result of the series, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked Acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee to oversee this review and to find out why the case never reached a military court.
Q. Aside from the stories themselves, you have quite a multi-media package on your Web site. Was that difficult to create, and to date about how many people have clicked on that package?
Royhab: The Tiger Force package was established on toledoblade.com on Oct. 22 and has received 385,500 page views as of April 5. The file contains 25 articles, a photo slide show, 35 photographs, a map of Vietnam (PDF), and seven MP3 audio files of interviews with three former Tiger Force soldiers.
Q. The Blade and the reporters have won the Pulitzer Prize and a number of other awards, including a prestigious one for fairness in reporting for the Tiger Force investigation. What special steps did you take to strive for fairness in this very difficult kind of reporting?
Royhab: It was important to point out that the atrocities were committed by a small group of men, and we wanted to put this into perspective. For example, we produced two sidebars, one to explain what the experts say about such abnormal behavior of some soldiers, and the other about how today's Army differs from the Army of more than three decades ago.
Our series pointed out that while some soldiers went out of control, others tried to stop the atrocities. We interviewed military officials, Tiger Force veterans and the Vietnamese families of victims of Tiger Force abuse. We wanted to be fair to everyone — the Vietnamese victims and their families, the American soldiers, and the U.S. military. We also interviewed former Tiger Force veterans, some of whom are still having problems dealing with what they had done, and others who still believe they did nothing wrong. We gave them their say.
We were also sensitive to the fact that our country is currently at war in Iraq. The obvious question is why are we running the story now? There is never a good time to write and read about war. The Blade's investigation had nothing to do with today's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We published the series now because we recently discovered evidence of the atrocities and the truth has never been told. As I said earlier, if we had the information and did not report it, we would have been party to a cover-up.
Q. Can you tell us a little about Army records having disappeared?
Royhab: Some key pages of witness statements taken during the Army's original investigation are missing from files in the National Archives, but The Blade obtained this information from confidential sources. The National Archives cannot explain what happened to the missing records. The Army still has the original case files, but the duplicates supplied to the National Archives are incomplete. Throughout The Blade's investigation, the Army declined to provide the entire Tiger Force file for review.
Q. What kind of play did these stories get internationally?
Royhab: The reaction to the Tiger Force series was immediate and worldwide. We received hundreds of emails while the series was being published. It was summarized by the Associated Press, Scripps Howard News Service, Reuters, and an untold number of Web sites, and is posted on toledoblade.com. It appeared in many major American newspapers, and in newspapers and on television and radio broadcasts across Canada, Asia, Europe, South Africa, and China. It was on page one of The International Herald Tribune.
Ironically, The New York Times, which owns The Tribune, initially ignored the story and later tried to discredit the findings by reporting that atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam were not uncommon. [nw.org editor's note: Daniel Okrent, the public editor of The Times, substantiates this criticism. In his Sunday Times column of Feb. 1, 2004, he wrote that The Times had attempted "to diminish or disregard" the series. And when The Times finally weighed in, Okrent wrote, it did so with "a sizable helping of skepticism."]
The complete series ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Blade's sister paper. It appeared in some form in The Washington Post, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Knoxville News Sentinel, Arizona Daily Star, and in other American newspapers.
While Blade reporters were interviewed on National Public Radio, on the radio/TV program "Democracy Now," and on British and Canadian radio and television stations, the series was virtually ignored by American television networks. That changed, however, when Seymour Hersh, who broke the story on the My Lai massacre more than 30 years ago, wrote a column in the Nov. 10, 2003, New Yorker Magazine questioning why the major networks and The New York Times hadn't picked up the Tiger Force stories.
After reading the Hersh column, Peter Jennings sent a film crew from "ABC World News Tonight" to The Blade to interview reporters Sallah and Weiss. ABC also sent a crew to Vietnam to interview witnesses and survivors of Tiger Force atrocities. The story was aired in two parts on World News Tonight and on Nightline and became the subject of public dialogue. In late March, The Blade series was featured on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
Q. Are you and your reporters able to move on easily enough, or do you find you are living this story over again almost every day?
Royhab: Reporters Sallah and Weiss are on a leave of absence writing a book about Tiger Force. Reporter Mahr continues to monitor new developments, but is also working on other stories. The next step is what the Army intends to do after it completes its review of the Tiger Force case and interviews with Tiger Force veterans.
Barry Sussman is the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project. He is the author of The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, now in its fourth edition.