The Sad Failure of Jon Meacham and Company
‘The technological society is a system of domination.’
C. Wright Mills, “The Sociological Imagination”
By LADSON F. MILLS III
America is a technological society with domination having become it’s defining characteristic. We no longer attempt to convince but eradicate those with whom we disagree.
Sinclair Broadcast Group recently found itself under fire for a decision to direct its local affiliates to issue a statement concerning fake news bias; especially in social media. Sinclair’s statement made it clear their intent to concentrate less on editorializing and more on reporting.
One might safely conclude that such a move would be overwhelmingly welcomed especially by a professional journalist. Broadcast journalism currently opines too much with an overreliance on interviews with one another rather than original sources.
Journalist and respected author Jon Meacham response in a television interview went as far as to accuse Sinclair of pandering to President Trump and setting a dangerous precedent for a state-run media. This is a curious attitude from a man who during his tenure at Newsweek witnessed first- hand the dangerous and deadly consequences that can result from fake news.
In 1996 retired Army Lt. Col. David Hackworth, a highly- decorated war hero with a literary bent, was working at Newsweek as a correspondent specializing in exposing the military’s weaker admirals and generals. His sights became set on bringing down the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jeremy “Mike” Boorda.
Hackworth’s attempt to denigrate the admiral began over a small device known as the Combat V that when attached to a medal denotes personal valor by the recipient. The “V” is awarded for combat only, and the small attachment is held in the highest esteem by the warrior culture.
In the Army, it is not unusual for well-connected officers to receive high-status medals awarded for other than combat engagements. During the First Gulf War, a well-known politician and Army reservist was awarded a Bronze Star (typically given only to those serving in combat or under combat conditions) for his work in mobilizing others to go to war. While this raised eyebrows as smacking of political payback, without the attached “V” the award could be defended as appropriate but atypical. The Navy’s regulations, however, were less clear often resulting in confusion.
Admiral Boorda had received two medals while serving on a destroyer patrolling the Vietnam coast during the war, and for many years wore the “V” attached to his decorations. For Naval personnel serving in a war zone during this time, the wearing of the “V” would have been considered authorized and appropriate. But when the issue was raised, Boorda requested clarification from the Navy’s Award Board.
He was informed that under newer and updated guidelines his “V” attachments would likely not be rated. He removed them. Although they were removed as the result of a review he initiated, David Hackworth was in possession of old photos where the decorations were being worn. For Hackworth, this was another example of an undeserving officer in the rear with the gear claiming credit for things he had not done.
An interview was arranged between David Hackworth and Admiral Boorda, who was prepared to be candid concerning the confusion. Since the facts were clear and his actions had been above board he saw no reason for concern. Boorda and his staff were shocked to learn that Hackworth’s supervisor Evan Thomas, later to head Newsweek, believed this could lead to a big story and perhaps a scandal.
Evan Thomas along with his boss Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, had staff members advising them that Hackworth was in all likelihood overreaching. Evan Thomas would later admit that he had been pressured to continue his aggressive approach from correspondent Roger Charles, a man he describes as ‘a smart but with a slight tendency toward conspiracy theories.’ Further complicating the matter was the lack of military experience by either Evan Thomas or Jon Meacham. Their failure to rely on more knowledgeable staff would contribute to the mounting disaster.
John Barry, Newsweek’s senior defense correspondent was on record urging caution and stating, ‘that he would’ not have ‘initiated the story’ . . . That the changing Naval Regulations indicated the Navy’s confusion regarding the “V” device’ Whatever the criticism of Mike Boorda, he was never regarded as a liar or coward. Like many people during this time, he had been told he rated the attachments and wore them. When informed the awards might not be appropriate, they were removed.
On May 16, 1996, Boorda went home for lunch and shot himself. He left two suicide notes; the content of one which has never been revealed.
No one will ever know what ultimately led to this desperate act. The admiral was preparing for early retirement citing exhaustion from the continual infighting. He had become tired and disillusioned by politicians whom he regarded as more concerned with their careers than the country’s needs.
Compounding the tragedy was the revelation from former Chief of Naval Operation Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who headed the Navy at the time Boorda’s medals had been awarded. He stated that in his opinion they did, in fact, meet the Navy’s criteria for the Combat “V.” And in this view, Zumwalt is not alone.
The Newsweek story contained serious accusations against the most senior officer in the United States Navy. It demanded meticulous examination and the absolute assurance of accuracy. The result of its release would have needlessly destroyed Admiral Boorda’s career and reputation.
But even after such a horrendous experience, Jon Meacham appears to have no concept of what this did to an innocent man. His cavalier dismissal of fake news and the repercussions unmasks the arrogance and disconnect of the modern media.
Both Meacham and Thomas should have been fired yet there seems to have been no consequences despite their massive failure. David Hackworth had a theory which was unsupported by facts. Newsweek’s own expert had recommended against running the story.
Ten years later CBS would fire Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes for creating a story that could not be supported by facts. And while Evan Thomas at least addressed his role in Newsweek’s failure, it seems Jon Meacham has not.
Having outed the mainstream press as an emperor with no clothes, President Trump finds himself in a situation where no blame is too outrageous.
Just ask the family of Mike Boorda.
Ladson F. Mills III, a former Marine Corps Line Officer and Navy Chaplain, is the founder of Setebos-Sixpence Freelance Writing Ltd. He lives with his wife on Johns Island, South Carolina. He is a regular contributor to The Covert Letter and Virtueonline. Mills’ book, Abandoned Shipmate, The Destruction of Coast Guard Captain Ernie Blanchard, is scheduled for publication. This is a sad but true tragic story.
*Excerpts from Abandoned Shipmate provided the background for Admiral Boorda’s Story.