Beneath the Waves

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, May 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

Beneath the Waves


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


A full accounting of how NEWSWEEK handled the allegations that led to Admiral Boorda's tragic suicide--and what this case tells us about how he press really works

THE CALLS AND LETTERS ARE POURING INTO NEWSWEEK. "Please tell me you have more important issues to investigate than whether or not an individual should have worn a bronze `V' measuring 3 mm by 4 mm," wrote Theron Lee Cohen of Tustin, Calif. "Cancel my subscription." "I hold you directly responsible for the death of Admiral Boorda," wrote I. V. deChellis of New York. "Shame on you."

The tragic suicide of Adm. Jeremy (Mike) Boorda last week as two NEWSWEEK reporters waited to question him about his medals shook not just the military but American journalism. Beyond the tragedy itself lies a startling gap between the views of the media and at least some of the public. Reporters were more shaken by Boorda's death than the press-haters imagine. "I feel sick about this," says Evan Thomas, NEWSWEEK'S Washington bureau chief. But neither Thomas nor any other journalist contacted last week believes that NEWSWEEK bore responsibility for Boorda's suicide. Many other Americans obviously disagree. The issues of journalistic accountability are these: What was the magazine's news-gathering process? Did NEWSWEEK act ethically? Even if ethical, did the magazine exercise good judgment in pursuing the story of valor awards that the admiral had apparently ceased wearing? And finally, what does the story tell us about the way the media contribute to grinding down public officials?

A chronology: NEWSWEEK'S Editor Maynard Parker first heard about the story on May 11, five days before the suicide, when David H. Hackworth, a part-time contributing editor and highly decorated retired army colonel, reported that he had been working on it for weeks and had secured an appointment with Boorda. Hackworth believed that wearing an undeserved combat valor pin was a grave matter of honor in the military, "the worst thing you can do," and at one point he mused to his assistant that if it were known "he [Boorda] might just put a gun to his head." NEWSWEEK editors didn't learn of that comment until after the suicide. Questioned about it by Managing Editor Mark Whitaker, Hackworth said: "I was in total disbelief when I heard the news [of the suicide]. It was the remotest thought. I never thought he [Boorda] would do it, or I would have told Evan Thomas." NEWSWEEK editors say that had they known of even musings about suicide, they obviously would have approached the story differently, although even Boorda's associates now say they never noticed any signs of instability.

Because Hackworth had to undergo oral surgery in Montana that prevented travel, Thomas decided that he and NEWSWEEK national-security correspondent John Barry would question Boorda about it. But first they arranged a meeting with Hackworth's friend and source, a retired marine corps officer named Roger Charles. Thomas acknowledges that he was wary of Charles, who is a reporter for a small Washington outfit called the National Security News Service, because Charles had been "too conspiracy-minded" on an earlier story he had worked on with NEWSWEEK. (Charles has also assisted ABC News and other news organizations.) "Outsiders generally make me nervous. They're not our own people. Hackworth makes me nervous; I think of him as more of a soldier than a journalist. I wanted to have the [full-time] correspondents I most trust involved," Thomas says. Hackworth says that Thomas is usually turf-conscious about Washington, but when first told of the reporting, Thomas thought it could be a "big story."

The meeting with Charles went well, and Thomas agreed to give the National Security News Service some credit for the story (no consulting fees were involved). Charles produced documents from 1995 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and intriguing photos. One picture from the 1970s showed no "V"s on Boorda's chest. …

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