Lessons from Journalism Class

Mar 23, 2020

In 1967, top secret Operation Combat Skyspot controlled bombing of North Vietnam and other aerial ordinance drops in SEA. Today it can be found on Wikipedia.
Credit Ray Bowers, U S Air Force / Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

As entertaining and enjoyable as I found Gene Fowler’s “Border Radio” my senses perked up at two different tones of voice on two different stories. One story seemed to have only a single source and the other numerous source documents. One made me suspicious that facts were invented and the other made me suspicious that facts were mangled.

Lesson 1 - Single Source  In the tale of Al Scharff, the lack of multiple sources can provide a lesson for a journalism class. The claim of German U-boat warfare in the Pacific during World War I, causes me to ask an immediate question for which I found no verification. There were Germans in the Pacific during the second world war, as part of Monsun Gruppe, in the same seas as the Japanese, their allies for that war. But not in the first world war. Nor does it make a lot of sense. And along with that is the source author’s abundance of clearly wonderful fictional sea adventure stories. I wondered whether Al Scharff took the opportunity to embellish his role to an eagerly credulous Garland Roark.

This tale also takes us into the sordid gunboat diplomacy of the United States toward Mexico. It is important to remind us that the USA has not always been a good neighbor, and has kept its own population in the dark, though often willingly

A side note: At the same time, I am reminded that the US has been, and remains, in many places where we are not, supposedly. In November 1967, one year before I entered the Air Force, people in the geodetic survey squadron to which I would be assigned in May 1969, were in Laos in total contravention of diplomatic agreements. The people I would later work with went into a far north east corner of Laos, jutting into North Vietnam, to establish geodetic positions (latitude, longitude, elevation and azimuth to various points from those positions and maybe gravity measurements) as the mathematical gunsights for the most accurate radar controlled bombing of North Vietnam, and other aerial ordinance drops in SEA, for Operation Combat Skyspot. Even the name was secret, though now you can find it on Wikipedia. On the 10th of March 1968, that Skyspot station, LS-85, was wiped out by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), killing most of the staffers who occupied jobs for which I would be in training a year later. Think of LS-85 as a kind of “Guns of Navarone” with the USA in the role of the Germans and the NVA and collaborators in the Hmong, as the heroes of that movie.

Lesson 2 – So Many Sources. The obverse of that journalism lesson about sources is in the many, many sources for stories of Dr. Brinkley and his goat glands which would appear to copy each other. The lesson should be to attempt to find source zero, and maybe source #1 and #2. It is all too common to find regurgitated material about a subject, especially an entertaining one. One of my peeves about much of online journalism is the amount of copying with an attempt to sound original. In the process, details often get smashed or turned around. Especially as the process of referencing goes down the line.

Some of the vagueness in the goat-gland accounts by the time it gets into Gene Fowler’s “Border Radio” probably comes from slight variations in the source stories, as each source writer attempts to sound original, causing a slight loss of original details. You can almost feel Fowler doing a little sidestep and splitting the difference to retain the color while not being flat out certain which details are solid.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR’s Radio Reader’s Book Club

Some References:

New York City (look at demographics): 

Germans in Mexico and US Gunboats in Veracruz reference links:
German saboteur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lothar_Witzke
Zimmerman Telegram: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zimmermann_Telegram
CBP page on Scharff: https://www.cbp.gov/about/history/did-you-know/contrabandista
WWII Germans in South Seas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsun_Gruppe
Garland Roark: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garland_Roark

Operation Combat Skyspot reference links:
LS-85  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lima_Site_85
1st Geodetic Survey Squadron   http://www.geodeticsurvey.mysite.com/