Frontline Doc on Slayings of Viet-Am Journos Causes Row in Little Saigon

Frontline Doc on Slayings of Viet-Am Journos Causes Row in Little Saigon
Illustration by Rob Dobi

Public life in Little Saigon can be a minefield. Whether you're a politician, a journalist, or a community activist, doing something that might challenge the popular narrative about the Vietnamese-American enclave (strong, resilient, successful), can be cause for outrage.

The latest target for community outrage? PBS Frontline and ProPublica. A joint Frontline/ProPublica documentary has caused uproar in part of the Vietnamese-American community after airing last week. Terror in Little Saigon, an excerpt of which ran as the Weekly's last cover story, followed ProPublica journalist A.C. Thompson's investigation into the murders of five Vietnamese-American journalists in the 80s that the FBI suspected were tied to the National United Front for the Freedom of Vietnam, a post-war organization of Vietnamese diaspora with a stated goal of toppling the Communist government.

The program examined thousands of newly declassified FBI documents and featured interviews with former Front members, but some Vietnamese-Americans are saying that the documentary featured deceptive editing and translation, was based largely on hearsay, and could potentially spread unfounded negative opinions about Little Saigon.

Yesterday, Garden Grove resident Tammy Tran, a former political staffer, published a petition directed towards PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler detailing complaints ranging from source misrepresentation to cultural bias.

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"We believe that Frontline and ProPublica should retract this program and apologize to everyone who was misrepresented and falsely accused," the petition reads. "The killing of journalists is a grave injustice and reporter A.C. Thompson should be held accountable for a sloppy program that tars many Vietnamese American activists and the overall community."

Her petition quickly reached its original 500 signature target, currently sitting just over 700. In addition to the petition, others in the community have taken to formal means to voice their displeasure. The petition links to a website registered to the spokesperson of Viet Tan, a political party in exile founded by many of the original members of the National United Front. The website,, features multiple op-eds. A community forum about the documentary will be held Saturday, November 14 at 1. p.m. at the Rose Center in Westminster.

Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the United States, has also published a series of interviews with people involved in the making of the documentary. One of the sources interviewed on camera, who Thompson told the Voice of OC that he was involved in meetings discussing the assassination of legendary Vietnamese-American newspaperman Yen Do, has claimed never to have made that statement.

"Without even going into detail, the title itself is offensive," Tran says "I'm someone who grew up in Little Saigon and a big part of my job is to serve the community, and I've never known terror or associated terror with Little Saigon."

Paramount, Tran feels that the documentary might bias viewers who aren't part of the community against Little Saigon.

"The documentary is throwing out these accusations, but they don't have a suspect," Tran said. "They have a group, but there are no names. A person who's not part of the community, when they see this, they're going to walk away with a conclusion that's wrong and harmful and dangerous."

Not everyone in the community shares these criticisms, however. Though not as numerous as those decrying the documentary, several activists have gone on record supporting its airing, saying that it reveals part of Little Saigon history not many know and displays real issues in the that to some extent still exist.

"This is part of our history, and it deserves to be talked about," says Julie Vo, a community organizer. "I understand the concern about what some non-Vietnamese folk are going to think, but there's so much concern about how it affects the image of the community. My concern is there's so much concern about putting up this image of who we are. I think the image that we're this resilient, successful refugee community is one dimensional and ultimately harmful, and it covers up real issues."

"I actually appreciated [the documentary]," says Jacqueline Dan, a civil rights attorney. "It validated some of my experiences. When you try to do community work, it can be really challenging. You're always afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting attacked. ... I felt like it was important that this aired."

Thompson, who's spent much of the past few days fielding requests from local Vietnamese-language media, stands by the reporting.

"I apologize to people who feel the documentary and stories are not sensitive to the culture of Vietnamese-Americans," says A.C. Thompson. "At the same time, there were Vietnamese-Americans involved in every aspect of production, and these were hard questions. I think that's what happens when you ask people hard questions -- they get uncomfortable."

"It's disheartening to me that people are focused on stirring up controversy about the project rather than sympathy for the families of the people who were killed or bringing people to justice."

Tony Nguyen, the filmmaker behind 2011's Enforcing the Silence (a film about slain Vietnamese-American journalist Lam Duong) and a consulting producer on the Frontline documentary, has faced similar criticism before, and his response remains the same:

"A few years ago during a panel where I was criticized for my film about Lam Duong, I responded that my film or any other shouldn't be considered the definitive piece," Nguyen says. "I encouraged others, especially Vietnamese-Americans, to look into the murders of our fallen journalists and community workers in America and to see where leads and evidence take them."

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Email: Twitter: @charlesnam. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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