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John Sack (Continued)

(24 March 1930 27 March 2004)

James Stewart

Nicholls State University

...An excellent example of Sack's way of forming personal relationships is seen in his story on Lt. William L. Calley Jr. Among Sack's first projects after becoming a contributing editor for Esquire in 1968 was a three-part article on the U.S. Army officer sentenced to life in prison in 1971 (though he was later released) for killing unarmed Vietnamese civilians at the village of Mylai three years earlier.

Sack told Esquire editor Harold Hayes, who had already had three writers turn down the assignment, that before he could agree to write a story on Calley he had to meet him. Sack later explained to Schroeder that he needed to find out if Calley was "a homicidal maniac." Had that been the case, Sack said he would have had no interest in the story, as it would have shown little other than sometimes "homicidal maniacs get into the Army." At that first meeting in the spring of 1970 Sack began a friendship with Calley which would develop over the intervening months through the trial and would continue long after all the stories had been published. Sack even risked a jail sentence for refusing to help prosecutors in their case against Calley. Despite warnings from Esquire's attorney that he would not be protected by existing shield laws, Sack declined to answer questions by prosecutors when they called him to the stand, nor would he surrender his notes and sixty hours of taped interviews with Calley. Sack was subsequently arrested and indicted on federal felony charges for refusing to testify and refusing to deliver evidence. He did not go to trial because prosecutors, in their charges against Sack, swore that he had refused a direct order from the judge. Transcripts of the exchange between the judge and Sack, however, showed that the judge had never formally ordered the reporter to testify or surrender his notes or tapes. At risk of facing perjury charges themselves, prosecutors let the matter drop.

The articles, republished in book form in 1971 as Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story, are a sympathetic portrayal of Calley, which Sack wrote in the soldier's own voice. In Sack's description, Calley was not the cold-blooded monster depicted in the press, but was essentially a scapegoat for a system that ordered, or at least promoted, behavior such as Calley's.

However, the articles were sometimes misinterpreted as endorsement of Calley's deed, and Polsgrove reports that Esquire's coverage provoked criticism even within its own staff. The first installment, "The Confessions of Lieutenant Calley," was the cover story for the November 1970 issue. The cover photo was of a smiling Calley wearing his uniform and surrounded by four small Asian children. Some staff members were appalled by the cover and what they felt it suggested. Hayes' own secretary, Connie Wood, threatened to resign in protest.

According to Polsgrove, the magazine received criticism from outside sources throughout its coverage of the story. The first article cost the magazine $200,000 in lost revenues when some advertisers withdrew. Both Porsche and Volkswagen officials said they would never run ads in the magazine again, forcing Hayes, company vice president Jerry Jontry and members of the business staff to meet with Volkswagen representatives in an attempt to change their minds. Newsweek published an article that not only attacked the appropriateness of the cover but also questioned the morality of paying Calley for the magazine rights to his story. Acknowledging that other news organizations had paid murderers for their stories, it argued that Calley's pay was excessive, incorrectly reporting that he had received $50,000 instead of $20,000. The magazine and Sack also were later accused of perpetrating a publicity stunt by withholding discussion of the Mylai massacre itself until the third and final installment in the September 1971 issue.

Despite the attacks and accusations, the magazine stood by the story and its author. In response to the criticism and the volume of letters the magazine received following publication of the first installment, Esquire publisher Arnold Gingrich wrote a column defending the cover and story, arguing in the February 1971 issue that critics were allowing prejudices to cloud their judgment. Hayes denied claims that the magazine was waiting to publish the massacre story to coincide with the verdict in Calley's trial in an attempt to increase readership. Calley's lawyer had told him not to discuss the incident until the conclusion of the trial out of fear that Sack would be called to testify.

The story on Calley not only illustrates Sack's policy of forming relationships with subjects, but also reflects a thread which runs through much of his work in New Journalism. Though the reporter said he does not consciously seek out projects to expound a particular message, many of his stories, at their heart, deal with people he sees as good who do things he sees as bad.

Sack has been trying to understand how ordinary people can bring themselves to commit horrible acts since the late 1950s when he took a trip to Poland. While in Warsaw he met a young woman who showed him a wall where, when she was 4 years old, she had been lined up with a group of other civilians by Germans. The Germans then began to machine-gun them in retribution for an earlier partisan attack; an Allied air raid interrupted the slaughter, allowing her to escape. Sack remembered asking, with tears in his eyes, how anyone could justify to himself shooting at a four-year-old girl with a doll in her arms. If the act is committed by an unbalanced or evil person, it means little, Sack said. If, on the other hand, the person truly believes that he or she is doing the right thing, then broader societal values must be questioned. The story then becomes a "criticism of a society as a whole rather than a criticism of one bad egg," Sack explained.

With The Man-Eating Machine (1973), a book based on four of his Esquire articles, Sack in 1973 examined not only what he saw as the lunacy of the war in Asia but also its similarity to what was happening in America...  More

 

 

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Books by John Sack