Glenn Beck stated that an alleged incident in which a protester supposedly spit "at the ground near" a wounded Iraq war veteran -- Beck asserted that the veteran was "spit on" -- was a "reminder to all of us about a promise we made to ourselves, or should have" and repeatedly suggested that the incident echoed similar actions toward Vietnam War veterans returning to the United States," despite contradictory accounts of the incident and a lack of evidence that similar incidents did, in fact, occur during the Vietnam War.
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On the January 31 edition of his CNN Headline News program, Glenn Beck stated: "A protester reportedly spit on an Iraq war veteran," during the January 27 anti-war protests in Washington, D.C., apparently a reference to an alleged incident reported first in an unsourced January 28 New York Times article that a protester spit "at the ground near" Cpl. Joshua Sparling, a wounded Iraq war veteran, an article that Sparling later contradicted. Despite later appearing to acknowledge that there are questions about the incident, Beck stated that the alleged incident was a "reminder to all of us about a promise we made to ourselves, or should have" and repeatedly suggested that the incident echoed similar alleged actions toward Vietnam War veterans returning to the United States."
Moreover, Beck twice claimed that a protester reportedly "spit on" an Iraq war veteran -- a claim that neither the Times nor Sparling himself made. The Times article, which has given rise to several unanswered questions, reported that a protester "spit at the ground near Mr. Sparling" and that Sparling "spit back." By contrast, Sparling said on the January 29 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes that he did not spit back at the protester. Beck himself appeared to acknowledge questions about the incident, but claimed that the alleged incident was important nonetheless: "Whatever the claims, the details of the story, it's not really about this incident. This incident is a reminder. It is a reminder to all of us about a promise we made to ourselves, or should have."
In addition to peddling a questionable report that originated in the Times, Beck asked: "Have we learned nothing from Vietnam?" invoking claims that Vietnam veterans were spit upon when they returned to the United States, which, according to a May 2, 2000, article, by Slate.com editor-at-large Jack Shafer has been "reduce[d] ... to an urban myth." Shafer returned to the topic on January 30 in a short piece about Newsweek's "resuscitat[ion of] the vet-spit myth." From Shafer's May 2, 2000, article:
Although Nexis overflows with references to protesters gobbing on Vietnam vets, and Bob Greene's 1989 book Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned From Vietnam counts 63 examples of protester spitting, Jerry Lembcke argues that the story is bunk in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. ... Lembcke, a professor of sociology at Holy Cross and a Vietnam vet, investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed -- the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody's uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place.
While Lembcke doesn't prove that nobody ever expectorated on a serviceman -- you can't prove a negative, after all -- he reduces the claim to an urban myth. In most urban myths, the details morph slightly from telling to telling, but at least one element survives unchanged. In the tale of the spitting protester, the signature element is the location: The protester almost always ambushes the serviceman at the airport -- not in a park, or at a bar, or on Main Street. Also, it's not uncommon for the insulted serviceman to have flown directly in from Vietnam.
The myth persists because: 1) Those who didn't go to Vietnam -- that being most of us -- don't dare contradict the "experience" of those who did; 2) the story helps maintain the perfect sense of shame many of us feel about the way we ignored our Vietvets; 3) the press keeps the story in play by uncritically repeating it, as the Times and U.S. News did; and 4) because any fool with 33 cents and the gumption to repeat the myth in his letter to the editor can keep it in circulation. Most recent mentions of the spitting protester in Nexis are of this variety.
As press crimes go, the myth of the spitting protester ain't even a misdemeanor. Reporters can't be expected to fact-check every quotation. But it does teach us a journalistic lesson: Never lend somebody a sympathetic ear just because he's sympathetic.
From the January 31 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck:
BECK: You know, I read something earlier this weekend that really disturbed me. It was at this anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. A protester reportedly spit on an Iraq war veteran. This is a guy who risked his life. He lost a limb in the name of his country.
Let me be clear. Have we learned nothing from Vietnam? You know, before the Iraq war started, I organized a tour around the country called "The Rally for America." Liberal media marked it as a war rally; it wasn't. It was a rally for our troops. It was a time for us to get together and promise each other something. Tens of thousands of people came from all around the country. We were there to make a promise to ourselves and to our troops. And it is a promise that I stand by today, and I believe you do, as well.
It was a promise that we learned our lesson well in Vietnam, that no matter what, we would stand by our troops. We would support them through this war, you know, that we would be there as they fought with everything that they've got and we've got, and we wouldn't handcuff them. That we would get the job done quickly, and we would bring our men and women home.
You know, I want you to really think about this tonight. What would you do if somebody handed you a gun and told you to put another human being in the crosshairs and squeeze the trigger? That is what we ask our soldiers to do in our name every day.
We ask them to go against everything that they were taught as children, to go against everything that they stand for, as we stand for, as human beings, all in the name of this country and our security. And in exchange, we tell them that they have our support and what they're doing is OK.
You know what? I can't imagine what it's like to have to kill another human being. Not just one, but many. And I refuse to allow anyone to put these men through any more hell than war because of politics. Like it or not, we asked them as a nation to go and do this. And guess what? We're in it. So let's stand by their side.
This weekend, thousands of Americans marched on Capitol Hill to protest the war in Iraq. You know what? Anti-war protesters, you have a right to speak out. This is America. Speak out.
But a young veteran, who was at that rally, there to support our troops, says that someone spit on him.
Whatever the claims, the details of the story, it's not really about this incident. This incident is a reminder. It is a reminder to all of us about a promise we made to ourselves, or should have.
Listen, and listen well. You can disagree with this war. You can -- you can support the war or not support. You can yell from the highest mountaintop that you don't want this to turn into another Vietnam. Well, you know what? None of us do. I don't, you don't, none of us. Why would we want to turn a war into another national nightmare?
I'll support your right to speak out, but I will not support your right to spit on our soldiers or in any other way hurt their morale. You start taking apart our soldiers, and you've got to come through me and millions like me.
It is time to draw a line in the sand. We need to win this war, bring our troops home. When they come home, we need to celebrate them, throw parades in their honors, and welcome them as heroes. We will not humiliate them. We will not mistreat our soldiers again.
Back in a minute.