Westmoreland v. CBS -- a one-sided view of a convoluted case; A Matter of Honor: General William C. Westmoreland Versus CBS, by Don Kowet. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 317 pp. $16.95.
Publication of this book heaps fresh fuel on a controversy that has been crackling since Jan. 23, 1982, when CBS aired its documentary ''The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.''
The premise of that broadcast was that the United States high command in Vietnam, headed by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, conspired to under-report the numbers of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in the field. The purpose, allegedly, was to make the war effort appear more successful than it was and thus win political support back home.
General Westmoreland was incensed with the show. In his view, it had painted him as a liar, deliberately deceiving President Johnson and the American people. His immediate response was to rally to his side military and CIA experts who roundly denied the allegations made by the experts CBS had assembled. Eight months later the general sharply escalated his counterattack with a $120 million libel suit against CBS. That suit is scheduled to come to trial this September.
Don Kowet, author of ''A Matter of Honor,'' is no newcomer to this controversy. He entered the fray shortly after the documentary aired as half of a two-reporter team investigating the program for TV Guide. The resulting article was a scathing indictment of the network's methods in preparing the broadcast. The TV Guide report led in turn to CBS's own probe of the documentary , which ended up supporting many of the magazine's charges.
What Kowet has now done is build his TV Guide research into a book-length account. In essence, he provides a chronology of events from the time the network hierarchy gave producer George Crile the go-ahead to pursue the Vietnam project through the beginnings of the laborious ''discovery'' process of amassing evidence for the coming trial.
''Chronology,'' however, is too neutral a term. Kowet's work is permeated by his firm conviction that CBS is guilty of gross breaches of ethics, if not libel. He excoriates producer Crile and correspondent Mike Wallace for practicing what he calls ''vigilante journalism'' on General Westmoreland. Bad piloting by Crile was the main source of the documentary's journalistic shortcomings, says Kowet, describing his bosses at CBS as either too preoccupied with bureaucratic changes at the firm, or too taken with the show's conspiracy premise themselves, to supply the needed correctives.
Unfortunately for his book, however, Kowet recently shed even a pretension of objectivity in the matter. In May he voluntarily gave tapes of an interview with CBS executive producer Howard Stringer to Westmoreland's attorney, thus aligning himself with that side of the lawsuit. The tapes indicated that Stringer, too, had had serious doubts about Crile. (Incidentally, Stringer had been taped by Kowet without his knowledge - a lapse of ethics for which CBS had earlier suspended Crile.)
Ethical lapses aside for the moment, Kowet weaves his story together skillfully. Readers are whisked from one tension-filled juncture in the making of ''The Uncounted Enemy'' to another. Crile, film editor Ira Klein, and a varied cast of other CBS personnel are followed in and out of editing rooms, executive offices, and screening sessions. The author often seems to know the full text of what was said at such gatherings - and even the expressions on faces. It makes for a compelling tale.
And that, according to CBS, is just what it is - a tale. The network has mustered a massive counterattack of its own, enlisting a top public relations firm to flood reviewers and books editors with letters and excerpts from affidavits charging that Kowet failed to check facts with key figures in the book or, in some cases, failed to get in touch with them at all. The network charges, further, that Kowet's sole source was the disaffected film editor, Klein, whose views, it claims, could hardly be termed disinterested. In effect, CBS asserts that the author produced much of the book from whole cloth, violating all canons of sound journalism.
The sheer volume - in both pages and decibels - of the CBS rebuttal may arouse as many suspicions about the network's motives as it does doubts about Kowet's findings. But the charges can't be written off as desperate maneuverings by a company faced with a libel suit. Even a mildly skeptical reader is going to wonder how Kowet came by his detailed knowledge. He often seems to know what was being whispered in the hallways of ''Black Rock,'' CBS's corporate headquarters in New York.
The inevitable conclusion is that Klein, who plays a kind of conscience-plagued good guy to Crile's ambition-driven bad guy, is indeed the source of Kowet's insights. As other critics have noted, the book's ''you were there'' style obscures the sourcing of information. The reader is frequently left with his own best guesses.
Whether it's Kowet's methods under examination, or Crile's, the questions are the same: Were the stories reported with fairness and balance? Was there a genuine effort to contact, and if necessary re-contact, relevant sources, whether or not they were likely to back a producer's or a writer's major theses?
In the case of CBS, the evidence points to a ''no'' on both counts. The network's own investigation of the Vietnam documentary, undertaken by respected CBS producer Burton Benjamin, listed 11 principle ethical lapses in the making of the program. Included were the ''coddling of sympathetic witnesses,'' selective interviewing designed to bolster the conspiracy thesis, and failure to clearly identify one key source, ex-CIA analyst Sam Adams, as a paid consultant to CBS.
And Kowet's book - could it pass an ethics test? Given the author's patent bias against the network and the lack of clear documentation, one has to read the volume with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The next act in the Westmoreland/CBS drama may well be played out in a courtroom (barring the unlikely event of a pretrial settlement). The issues will then shift from the relatively straightforward concerns of journalistic ethics to the subtleties of libel law and, it seems probable, the intricacies of intelligence gathering in Vietnam.
One might have hoped, perhaps, that the controversy could have remained one of journalistic ethics and of honest differences over what happened on the intelligence front during the war. Concerning the latter issue, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has pointed out that the libel action transforms a legitimate debate over national policies into a legal imbroglio.
''How can you have open debate on issues of fundamental public policy,'' he asked in a column last fall, ''if critics fear that their views will be reexamined in libel suits?''
And what of the equally chilling effect on journalistic self-criticism if, as seems inevitable, the investigative report by CBS's Benjamin becomes a tool in the hands of the plaintiffs?
Before it's over, countless lessons will be drawn from this controversy. But perhaps the most crucial one, and one that's deceptively simple given the pressure of deadlines and a journalist's urge to be first, is: Do it right the first time. Added to that might be a paraphrase from the Bible: Do it the way you'd have someone else do it to you.
What a lot of agony those two simple ethical guidelines could have saved.