Monday, September 7, 2009

The Failure

In 1994 the Internet and the ability of a scholar to find sources and to check facts was still in its infancy. That is when I found my PLA Major General and began talking, or rather listening, to him tell his incredible tale. He was angry with his fellow CMC members and he was more of a hard liner than they were. He let me tape, often, but took the tapes with him each night. Then the opportunity arose for me to duplicate them. He left with his set of tapes and I had mine.

At that time I thought his story of Chinese arms trading both in the US through Keng's Firearms Specialties in Georgia, which specialized in selling rifles easily made into illegal automatic weapons in the US, and in the Middle East, was incredible and important. In fact one of my great unpublished stories is my lengthy talk, on tape, with Sean Keng, proprietor of the outlet that dealt in surplus Chinese made rifles for the American market. I will transcribe and provide notes of that soon.

Anyway, I called the editor of Life magazine, at that time, David Friend. Now with Vanity Fair. I'd written for Life and for David in the past and I read him some of what I had. He immediately sent Roy Rowan, a top Time/Life staffer and legendary Asian correspondent to California to work with me on the story. The idea was, Roy said, to make the story of the General the cover of Life. Roy stayed at a local Holiday Inn about two blocks from where I was living at the time. I introduced him to my source in his hotel room and my source, our source, brought along a sheaf of photographs as verification. Roy was impressed and called David Friend.

But our source kept saying that we were utterly silly, that the story would never ever see the light of day. Neither Roy nor I could believe this. The story was far far too important and there was too much information to be skeptical of it. Still the source said we Americans are naive, very very naive, as well as doomed, and that we had no idea how deeply Chinese intelligence had penetrated critical places in the US. He assured us that there would be some way, someone, who would prevent our story from ever being published. Roy who spoke daily to David Friend assured me this was very big and very important and would not be blocked.

David was worried about liability. Arms manufacturers and arms dealers have very deep pockets and very large legal departments. So every fact had to be checked and double checked. Every name and every date had to be absolutely right.

Then, panic! About two weeks before the cover story was to go to press, David called Roy and said the deal was off. We would get a kill fee for our time and work. It was a generous kill fee, believe me. But the story itself with pictures on the cover of Life would be a lot bigger.

So we checked on what had spooked the managing editor of Life. It seems the chief fact checker told Friend that he could "find no record that an aircraft carrier named the Shangri-la ever existed."

I remember hearing this, on the phone with David, and found it incredible. Just incredible. The Shangri-la, an Essex class carrier, was one of the many famous WWII carriers in the US Fleet. How could someone say it had not existed? I ran to the library, xeroxed several pages about the Shangri-la and sent them to NY but it was too late. The doubt about the ship had done the trick and had scuttled our story.

Our source laughed out loud. He was amused by your optimism in the first place. He felt even more free to talk. When we, I, expressed disappointment, he suggested I ask the managing editor of life the nationality of the fact checker assigned to the story.

So, I did. It was an awkward and politically incorrect question, but I felt it worth asking in private. The answer I got was, "since the story is about China, our fact checker is, of course, Chinese."

The Shangri-la museum, celebrating the record and the crews of the famous carrier, is currently on board another Essex class carrier, the famous USS Hornet, anchored in Alameda, California. But for a short and critical moment, a fact checker at Time/Life managed to convince editors that such a ship never existed.

End of that story.

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