On Tuesday, June, 4, 2007, The Capital Times ran a frontpage story entitled "Man Of His People." The story recounted how many Hmong people idolize General Vang Pao for his work on their behalf. The story included considerable criticism of UW-Madison historian Albert McCoy, but no rebuttal by McCoy to the accusations.
The story prompted McCoy to write the following letter to The Capital Times.
The full text of this letter follows, while McCoy's comments to the school board and a memo documenting his concerns with the naming are available at right.
Dear John Nichols & Dave Zweifel:
What did I do to merit a full-page character assassination in today's "Capital Times"? Does reporting the truth about a controversial figure really merit such a sustained, biased attack in your paper?
In case you doubt the basis of my complaint, there is a ironic twist that exposes the irresponsibility and bias of the front-page coverage in today's edition of the "Capital Times." Just as your paper's celebratory article on Vang Pao was going to press under the hagiographic headline, "Man of His People," the AP wire carried the news that Assistant US Attorney Bob Twiss was indicting that same Vang Pao on terrorism charges in a California court. "We're looking at conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people at one time," Assistant Attorney General Twist said in court. The AP article on the arrests notes that Madison is about to name a school after a man who was simultaneously plotting the murder of thousands of innocent Laotian civilians.
When I spoke to the Madison School Board last month, I stood before the people of this city to warn that an embarrassment such as this would occur if Madison went ahead with its plans to name school after a man who, according sustained coverage in responsible regional and national newspapers, was guilty of summary executions of enemy captives, fraudulent collection of funds from Hmong-Americans to support his "resistance" to the Lao government, forced conscription of child soldiers, and drug trafficking. To assist your paper in dealing with this difficult issue, I am attaching a memo detailing coverage of these issues in journals such as "New York Times," Minneapolis "Star Tribune, St. Paul "Pioneer Press," and others. To that long catalogue of crimes, one must now add Vang Pao's own indictment on charges of plotting terrorism and murder.
In my short address to the School Board on May 7, I said, in words that ring true in light of today's arrests in California : "Rather than fading with time, these controversies surrounding General Vang Pao seem to be increasing with a steady drum beat of critical reportage in reputable regional and national publications... Your decision to name a school after General Vang Pao could prove, in the not-too-distant future, a major embarrassment to this city and community."
Under the circumstances, your newspaper owes me an apology. First, your reporter, Susan Troller, failed to observe the most basic rule of balanced journalism by calling me for comment, even though her article was loaded with column after column of spurious, one-sided criticisms of my attempts to explain what I know, from numerous reputable sources, about Vang Pao's dark history. From prior contact by phone and email, Ms. Stroller had all my phone numbers and email address but made no attempt to contact me. For example, if your reporter had called me for comment about why I left the School Board meeting after nearly two hours and after hearing several Hmong attendees speak, I would have told Ms. Troller that my wife called urging me to come home and help with a family matter. After hearing several people speak on the issue and assuming that most of the speakers would dealing with the heated Marquette-Lapham issue, I left. But since the roster of speakers was not published and was unknown to everyone present, clearly no offense was meant and, for any rational person, none should be taken. In short, Ms. Troller chose to trash my character and, essentially, accuse me of racist insensitivity, rather than ask basic questions any decent reporter would ask before running such a piece.
Line after line, paragraph after paragraph for a full inside page, the criticisms of me on points large and small continue without any balance, any critical distance, or any attempt to report another side. Instead of commending me for coming forward on a sensitive, but important, issue, your reporter has instead published a biased, one-sided attack that is tantamount to character assassination if not slander.
More importantly, that coverage fails to take cognizance of serious issues, such as financial fraud, that speak directly to the advisability of naming a school after such a controversial figure as Vang Pao. For example, your coverage failed to note a recent 2005 decision by the Minnesota state attorney general to liquidate the "Vang Pao Foundation" after its chief officer, Vang Pao's son Cha Vang, could not account for $500,000 in missing funds. Apart from making a partial restitution, the settlement bars Cha Vang from serving in any charitable organization in the state for life. In what should have been a red flag for your paper, Minnesota bans the "Vang Pao Foundation" for fraud while Madison announces ground breaking for the "Vang Pao School."
Tragically, as my attached press summary shows, these funds for this and the many similar associations affiliated with Vang Pao are collected monthly from poor Hmong-American welfare recipients, in part, to support the very terrorist activities which have led to Vang Pao's arrest. At a time when Vang Pao has become an increasingly divisive figure in the Hmong communities of Minnesota and California, the naming of a school for him here in Madison was an acutely political act, with the aim of shoring up his failing reputation and facilitating these fraudulent collections which, if not taken for simple graft, would go to support terror activities in Laos.
Indicative of this political reality, one of the nine indicted today in California is Lo Cha Thao who was Senator Gary George's aide back in 2002 when the two led an effort to name a Madison park after Vang Pao and I was attacked then, as I am now, for having written the truth about the general. For weeks, Lo Cha Thao stood outside my office with a bull horn leading busloads of Hmong in demonstrations for my dismissal, for a book I wrote 30 years ago, and organized a day-long conference in the capital under Senator George's patronage to attack my scholarship, before he moved on to falsify hundreds of Hmong names on Gary George's nominating petition for governor.
In both cases, park and school, there have been political forces at play far beyond simply recognizing the contributions of Hmong Americans. And in both cases, the force of state and Federal law has interceded to expose the cynical political realities involving in these local naming efforts -- in 2002, when the state election board's reprimanded Lo Cha Thao for nominating-petition fraud and Federal courts jailed Senator Gary George for graft; and now, in 2007, with a Federal indictment against Vang Pao himself on chargers of plotting murder and terrorism.
I would hope after this sharp reminder of the damage that biased, irresponsible reporting can do to the truth, your paper would contemplate appropriate disciplinary action for the reporter who failed to observe basic journalist standards, thereby insuring that others in this community are not similarly victimized, as I have been, by the power of your press. If your paper has that same sense of integrity and fair play that you demand of others in your daily editorials, you should apologize in a lead editorial placed right where the original offending article appeared -- on the front page of tomorrow's edition.
I look forward to speaking to you.
Alfred W. McCoy
J.R.W. Smail Professor of History
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Many of his points were subsequently made in a follow-up story on Tuesday in The Capital Times: "UW Prof: I Tried To Warn School Board."