WFTV’s Sensationalism Soils Solid Obama Sit-Down

Orlando reporter suggests recent Afghanistan killings comparable to My Lai

FLORIDA—Orlando WFTV reporter Greg Warmoth found himself standing in front of President Obama just a day after the world found out that 16 Afghan civilians had been murdered. The suspect: a U.S. soldier.

“Mr. President, back in 1968 there was the My Lai massacre, is this Afghanistan moment today’s modern day My Lai moment?”

That is how Warmoth started his interview with Obama on Monday. It was a provocative question, which Warmoth followed with, “What would you say to a Florida family that has a soldier there and they hear the word, retaliation?” Obama offered a predictably careful and appropriately concerned response.

Warmoth then moved on to questions about climbing gas prices (allowing Obama to tout the payroll tax cut, and pivot to his just-released energy report) and unemployment in Florida. His questions were brief and to the point. The interview lasted less than six minutes.

I have to admit, I flinched a bit at Warmoth’s comparison of the killings in Afghanistan to the slaughter of more than 300 Vietnamese men, women and children by the U.S. Army Charlie Company and Lt. William Calley. I did a lot more than flinch when I watched how WFTV used Warmoth’s question about My Lai and Afghanistan in one of the segments aired Monday night about the Obama interview.

Zooming into a front-page newspaper photograph of dead bodies from the My Lai massacre, and other war images of Vietnam, Warmoth described what happened back in 1968, adding, “a mass shooting of civilians at American hands during an unpopular war has happened before.” Cut to Warmoth asking Obama whether “this Afghanistan moment [is] today’s modern day My Lai moment?”

Obama replied, “No, I think it’s not comparable…it appears that you had a lone gunman who acted on his own.”

I have no problem with Warmoth asking the question, but pumping up the My Lai angle on air is over the top. There is no comparison at this point. The dramatic, sensational presentation suggesting an equivalence between My Lai and Afghanistan—it “has happened before”—was not bolstered by any source.

Would it have made any difference had Warmoth found an academic to wax poetic about the alleged similarities between My Lai and the Afghanistan shootings? Or if he had interviewed a military expert? Or a Vietnam War historian? Perhaps, but they would be responding to questions where they don’t really know the answers. We still know precious little about what happened in Afghanistan. And we certainly do not know enough to compare it to My Lai.

My Lai was an entire unit of men, led by Calley who claimed he was under orders, who leveled a village and slaughtered hundreds of innocent people. So far, early reports from Afghanistan are that a lone U.S. soldier, for reasons unknown, went on a killing rampage.

It is a shame that the producers at WFTV took the story in this direction. It certainly did not better inform their viewers, and it took away from the generally fine work done by Warmoth.

Warmoth’s interview was one of eight Obama gave on Monday to regional reporters. (See Jay Jones’s critique today of another of these eight sit-downs, with Univision’s Las Vegas-based station). The two other reports that I reviewed—KABC in Los Angeles and KDKA in Pittsburgh each led with an Obama reaction to the Afghanistan story—minus, mercifully, the My Lai comparison.

Overall, Warmoth did a solid job interviewing Obama during the very short and heavily managed period of time that the White House awards to regional reporters. Unfortunately for WFTV’s viewers, Warmoth and his producers opted to seize on and sensationalize one piece of it.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.