Question: I remember the whole 60 Minutes controversy that became The Insider, but if I recall, that wasn't the first time the show had a fight on its hands. Wasn't there a lawsuit with Gen. William Westmoreland, too? What was that about?
Answer: It wasn't actually 60 Minutes that was involved in the Westmoreland lawsuit, Lee. It was Mike Wallace, a correspondent for that show, who worked on a 1982 CBS News report titled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The main thrust of the report was that Westmoreland, the former commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam, oversaw a military-intelligence effort to trick President Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the American public as to how well we were doing in Vietnam by underreporting the size and strength of enemy forces in that conflict to make it look like our side was doing better than it was.
Westmoreland complained loudly that he was treated unfairly and demanded an apology. CBS refused. Then TV Guide put together an in-depth investigative story on how the special was reported and assembled, and Wallace and CBS didn't come off looking so good.
Among the conclusions of the TV Guide story (hey, our guys already listed them more succinctly than I ever could):
"CBS began the project already convinced that a conspiracy had been perpetrated, and turned a deaf ear toward evidence that suggested otherwise.""CBS paid $25,000 to a consultant on the program without adequately investigating his 14-year quest to prove the program's conspiracy theory." "CBS violated its own official guidelines by rehearsing its paid consultant before he was interviewed on camera." "CBS screened for a sympathetic witness in order to persuade him to redo his on-camera interview the statements of other witnesses already on film. But CBS never offered the targets of its conspiracy charge any opportunity before their interviews to hear their accusers or to have a second chance before the cameras." "CBS asked sympathetic witnesses soft questions, while grilling unfriendly witnesses with prosecutorial zeal." "CBS misrepresented the accounts of events provided by some witnesses, while ignoring altogether other witnesses who might have been able to challenge CBS' assertions." "CBS pulled quotes out of context, in one case to imply incorrectly that Westmoreland was familiar with a meeting where estimates of the enemy were arbitrarily slashed a familiarity that was crucial to proving the conspiracy." "CBS' own paid consultant now doubts the documentary's premise of a Westmoreland-led conspiracy."
Or, as Westmoreland himself reportedly said to the CBS Reports producer working with Wallace on the special while a tape was being changed during an interview: "You rattlesnaked me."
Now TV Guide's piece was careful to point out that those who researched their story didn't know whether CBS was right or wrong on the conspiracy story. But they maintained that the program was "often arbitrary and unfair in its approach to a subject that surely demanded all the objectivity and thoroughness that the journalists of CBS News could muster."
Westmoreland agreed with the latter part, and sued. The case was settled, and Wallace never had to testify, but he was embarrassed by the revelation that the producers did most of the legwork on the show and came off looking like more of a talking head in that context.
Wallace sank into depression over the matter but got help for it, apologized for the mistakes made, and bounced back only to later deal with the fight with his bosses detailed in The Insider.