ProPublica Responds to Critics, 'Terror in Little Saigon' Producer Responds To Red Baiting, Threats
Illustration by Rob Dobi
After weeks of meetings, discussion, and anger from parts of the Vietnamese-American community as well as red-baiting attacks against one of the documentary's associate producers, ProPublica has issued a formal statement on Terror in Little Saigon, the ProPublica feature / PBS Frontline doc / and OC Weekly cover-by-excerpt that follows ProPublica's two-year long investigation into five unsolved murders of Vietnamese-American journalists.
The letter refutes or explains many of the criticisms made in a statement by Viet Tan, a political organization founded by many of the original members of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, the group the FBI suspected to be behind the murders. I've excerpted parts of the Viet Tan letter at the ProPublica in an answer-response format after the jump. You can read the full Viet Tan letter here and the full ProPublica statement here. Also after the jump, a talk with Tony Nguyen, the associate producer who's being red baited.
1. Reliance on hearsay and so-called new evidence
The promotional materials claim that five former "Front" members implicated the organization for murder. But of the five former members interviewed, the only person who claims that "the Front" had engaged in murder is an anonymous source. Despite the report's inability to confirm the credibility of this speaker, this admission is treated as "new evidence."
ProPublica and Frontline's reporting included an unprecedented examination of the local police and the FBI investigations into the murders in California, Texas and Virginia. The police and FBI files had been secret for decades until we obtained them through the Freedom of Information Act. Now the American public, including the Vietnamese-American community, can begin to assess the substance and shortcomings of years of investigation.
2. Reality of the K-9 unit
The program alleges "the Front" operated an assassination squad, made up of members from each chapter. The report does not present a single piece of evidence, document, order, or corroborated fact to support this claim.
Thompson does not seem to understand or willfully ignores the origin of the name of the unit, K-9, leaving viewers to make their own associations with a loaded term in American English.
Mat Tran did have a chapter designated as K-9 but the truth is much more mundane. As a grassroots organization, Mat Tran had chapters around the world. They were each given a number based on their geographic region: "Khu" is Vietnamese for "region." US-based chapters were designated as Khu 1, Canadian chapters were Khu 2, European chapters were Khu 3, and so on. "Khu 9" (abbreviated as K-9) consisted of members who lived in areas without Vietnamese communities or didn't yet belong to a more formal chapter.
Viet Tan says that the Front never ran an assassination unit. The FBI's files, however, are laden with discussions of the Front and the unit, known as K-9 -- its suspected members and its catalogue of victims. These entries were built on in part accounts from former members of the Front. Katherine Tang-Wilcox, a retired FBI special agent who helped run the investigation of the Front, said it plainly, in the film and in the article: "K-9 was established as the assassination arm of the Front."
3. Preconceived narrative of this program
This ill-founded narrative confidently claims that "the Front's" "ultimate goal was to restart the Vietnam War." In the story, Vietnamese patriots are relegated to being vengeful veterans motivated by a loss of social status. This is a gross misrepresentation of the motivations of so many activists. This dismissive portrayal of Vietnamese Americans permeates the reporting and demonizes individuals who want to see a free Vietnam.
ProPublica and Frontline followed the reporting where it took us. Where it took us over and over again was to the Front. We in no way sought to demonize Vietnamese refugees, and the profound hardships they endured both during the war and in the exodus after. We exposed the work of extremists, and the facts are the facts: Although there may have been other aspects to the Front, it was founded with the express mission of toppling the Communist regime in Hanoi, and it raised money in the U.S. to mount such an effort. It created a makeshift fighting force and tried three times to get inside Vietnam. That such an effort would have held appeal for many displaced and traumatized refugees from a lost war is no surprise. It just happenedto violate American law.
4. Cultural prejudices
Beyond promotional materials with sensational overtones and imagery ("Terror in Little Saigon," "An old war comes to a new country"), the program reveals a consistent thread of cultural prejudice toward the Vietnamese community. The framing of the community as one stuck in the past is demeaning and suggests that the reporting team does not afford the story the level of nuance it demands, despite two years of research.
It's worth noting that we spent time with veterans of the former South Vietnamese military during the course of our reporting, at the cemetery on Memorial Day, at cafes, at their homes, and we are grateful to them for sharing their time with us. Two associate producers on the project, filmmaker Tony Nguyen and Jimmy Tong Nguyen, a translator and veteran of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, helped in our reporting and our understanding of the appropriate historical context and cultural sensitivity.
5. Facts from the 1994 libel case
Like many urban legends, the rumors about "the Front" originate from just a few "primary" sources but the hearsay is then disseminated, cross referenced, and made to appear like they are the viewpoints of many. In 1993, three senior Mat Tran members (Hoang Co Dinh, Tran Xuan Ninh, and Nguyen Xuan Nghia) sued the three individuals most directly associated with spreading the murder allegations: journalist Cao The Dung, author Vu Ngu Chieu, and magazine publisher Nguyen Thanh Hoang.
In a nutshell, these are some of the original "sources" for much of the subsequent hearsay against Mat Tran regarding the killing of journalists. The jury in this case did not rule in favor of libel because of the exacting legal standards for demonstrating defamation against public figures. However, the underlying facts are clear: if the reporting team had looked into the records from the libel case, they would have seen how flimsy and unsubstantiated the accusations against Mat Tran were.
In 1993, several Front leaders brought a libel lawsuit against Vietnamese-American journalists who had accused them of being behind acts of violence within the community. Viet Tan suggests that any reading of that case would support the idea that, in fact, the Front was not behind any violence. The claim by the Front plaintiffs that they had been libeled was rejected by a jury.
The story of a long-forgotten and unsolved spate of politically motivated murders and attacks may not have been the story Viet Tan wanted published nationwide, and indeed it is a grim, unresolved chapter in a vibrant community's rich history. But that is the story told by documents, investigators and interviews in the Vietnamese-American community itself. During our interviews, we were frequently told about additional violence that had never been reported to the FBI, and since the film and articles were published, we have received numerous notes from viewers and readers who want to share accounts of being similarly threatened and harassed.
In the meantime, Tony Nguyen, one of the film's associate producers and the director behind Enforcing the Silence, another documentary about the murder of a Vietnamese-American journalist, has become the target of a smear campaign trying to label him a communist sympathizer. At a community meeting last week, several people asked about his identity and whether he may have been tainted by Hanoi. A Vietnamese-language newspaper in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro in Texas took it upon themselves to do some digging earlier this week, discovering that Nguyen had told the LA Times that his film was funded by people from Vietnam (It was.. he Kickstarted $6,000, $20 of which came from the country. Most of the money came from the United States and Canada). He stands by the film, though, and hopes it's something the community can use to spur dialogue about a mostly unspoken about history.
"The critical response isn't something I'm new to," he told the Weekly. "I made a film several years ago that informed the Frontline piece. What the Frontline piece was able to do that I wasn't was include the voices of the family members of the murdered journalists, and I think that's a giant step. I hear a lot of the concerns about how the community portrayed, how the film with its title, how outsiders might view it. Frankly, I feel like this is an opportunity for the Vietnamese-American community to revisit a painful past here in America that's still with us. It's something not only family of the victims live with, but many deal with."
And despite the flak he's gotten (in addition to the article, some people have been posting a photo of him on Facebook, badmouthing him) and how much it worries his family, Nguyen notes that what's happening to him is very much along the same vein of what happens and has happened in the community.
"There's a photo of me with Vietnamese text saying that I was the one that tricked A.C. Thompson into making this piece," he says. "Some of the comments mentioned guns and suggested something negative could happen to me. It's been a concern to my family so that's not a good feeling."
"In terms of the threats that people were making, suggesting assassinating me -- more character assassination than physical -- it definitely just conjures up the story that Frontline was sharing with the general public. The threats that would happen before, the killings that happened. The first victim in 1981, I thought of his story."
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