Inside Media: Hoover and the Media

November 15, 2008

Guests: William Beecher and John Fox

At a time of Cold War tension and domestic upheaval, an exclusive New York Times story about top secret, saturation bombing in Cambodia by the United States rattled the White House. It seemed to contradict President Richard Nixon’s earlier assurances that he wanted to honorably end the war in Vietnam.

The White House responded quickly. William Beecher, who wrote the May 1969 report for the Times, soon learned he was being investigated by the FBI.

"The FBI was doing what they were told to do, but they were treating me as if I were some sort of criminal and really trying to put me out of business as a reporter," he said.

John Fox, the FBI’s historian, explained that the bureau was following White House orders when it began wiretapping White House personnel and a number of journalists, including Beecher, that year. The White House assumed that one of the few people who knew of the secret bombing had leaked information to Beecher.

"That assumption was wrong," Beecher said. He described piecing together his story after seeing connections and drawing conclusions based on limited information from numerous sources.

Unlike Beecher’s reporting, the FBI’s wiretapping did not lead to any clear conclusions.

"A lot of investigation is very tedious, just like a lot of reporting can be," Fox said. "You’re looking for those fine details, and you’ve got to cover a lot of territory and then sift through that information."

Although trusted sources persuaded him a few times in his career not to run stories for national security reasons, Beecher said he had no ethical doubts about publishing his Cambodia bombing story.

"This isn’t legitimate security when the enemy knows what’s happening, and the only people who don’t know are the Congress and the public," he said. "If I could get it accurately, I would write it, and did."

Beecher recounted one time he chose not to report a story. In his second of five reporting assignments in Vietnam, a helicopter he rode in came under enemy fire, which wounded people sitting on his left and right and barely missed him. He debated whether to write about it.

"There was no national security involved, but I had a wife and three little girls at home. I had just started a three-month assignment in Southeast Asia and I was afraid they might go bonkers if I wrote the story," he said. "So I didn’t."

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