Toronto Media, false balance, and the lack of evidence for claims about MIA vet John Hartley Robertson

Is there any evidence for the claim?

The short story: very little. Many skeptical of the claim have a very hard time believing a person can forget to speak English. Oddly this is the most believable and easy to verify of all the claims made by the movie. First language attrition is a real phenomenon. Anecdotally, my mother’s first language is French but she has completely lost the ability to carry on a conversation in French. The man in the movie is described as only having a “pidgin” English ability. In my travels through East Asia (Korea, China, Japan), most people I encountered had a pidgin English ability.

Language experts point out if you return to your native speaking country, the language does slowly come back. Some believe the film captures initial stages of that phenomenon when the man in the film is in the pure English environment of Canada.

Did he?

French and Korean are most certainly not my first languages. The former I learned in French immersion in Quebec and the latter I acquired to a “pidgin” level when living in Seoul for four years (2003-2008). Pressed, I could probably not cobble together a coherent sentence in either language today. However, during a trip to Paris back in March 2013, I noticed some of my second language abilities in French bounced back more and more. When I holiday in Korea, again, my Korean skills start to bounce back. It’s surprising how much of the local language you start to recall (and, tellingly, absorb) when you discover you need to eat and find bathrooms. Was the man in the film exhibiting signs of rebounding first language skills or rebounding second language skills that happen when “in country”.

Don Bendell's comments to Stars and Stripes.

Don Bendell’s comments to Stars and Stripes.

Curiously, in the Stars and Stripes comment section, Green Beret Don Bendell alleges the man in the film “speaks fluent French”. I can find no source on this other than Bendell’s claim. But if true, it’s evidence against the man being JHR. Remember, the DPMO claims the man is a Frenchman. French was certainly not a language the Vietnamese would have taught widely after the fall of their much hated colonial rulers. You would certainly keep it under your hat in a country under the thumb of the Viet Cong and not teach to your Green Beret husband you’re trying to pass off as a Viet citizen. But it would be a language you would speak fluently if you were, as the DPMO claims, a former Frenchman who lived in Vietnam before the fall.

The man in the film could easily be tested for an ability to read French. You might wonder how you can test a person who might deny they know a language. “Speak Korean!” “I can’t!” “Speak it!” “I really can’t!” Approached that way you could go around in circles for hours, if not days.

There is, however, an interesting test of a knowledge of a language you might deny you can understand. It’s called the Stroop Effect. If I showed you a Korean word that was printed with red ink but the Korean word was the word for green, as a non Korean you could very quickly say “those characters are red”. It would be trivial to look at meaningless lines and circles and tell me what color they are. However, if you were reasonably fluent in Korean, it would take you a bit more time to say “red”, because your first impulse is to read “green” aloud. The delay can be measured and obvious. And it would be clear evidence such a person has reading fluency.

But scammers ask for money, right?

Brian Johnson in his follow on Maclean’s article tries to cast doubt upon the notion the man in the film is running a scam or perpetuating a hoax.

“Finally, if this 74-year-old enigma is a scam artist, it’s one strange scam. ‘A scam implies you’re out to get something,’ Jorgensen told me….She said to him ‘What do you need? Do you need money?’ And he said, ‘Nothing. I just wanted to see my family one last time.’”

The implied claim seems to be scammers only want money, and since he doesn’t want money, the only reasonable option left to us is he is telling the truth. Johnson and the filmmaker advance a classic “argument from ignorance”. Simply because Jorgensen can’t think of any possible scam, therefore there is none and the safe money bet is he is who he claims to be.

It is known the man in the movie has two children (or more) by his Viet wife. People in Asia (and pretty much the rest of the world) will go to great lengths to get their kids American citizenship. They will arrange holidays in the USA shortly before giving birth, have the child on US soil, and procure the baby citizenship that way. Koreans will even pay retired couples in the USA to adopt their kids for the educational opportunities. (I don’t want to make it seem like I’m picking on Asians or trying to paint them as dishonest. Heck, I would go out of my way to have a child born on US soil. Having lived in Asia, I simply have a much better familiarity with some of the local news.)

We see possible hints about this in Faunce’s own blog:

“John told us over and over he wanted to return to America, that he was an American Soldier. He also pointed to his son and daughter in regard to their safety and possibility of them going with him.”

According to the Fake Warriors page, the man in the film was first paraded around by a heroin smuggler. If true, it’s possible there are drug smugglers behind him who think they could benefit from American citizenship for him or his children.

drugsmug

In the minds of drug smugglers, with him or his kids as mules, it would make for much easier passage across SE Asian borders. Having traveled a lot in Asia, I can tell you how quickly you are waved through South Korean and Chinese customs when you have a Canadian passport. My American friends in Korea report similar hands off treatment flashing their American passports. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t place much credence in that scenario. I merely mention it to show the vast range of possibilities Jorgensen and the Maclean’s writer didn’t even begin to consider. Curiously, the filmmaker, in no news report I’ve read, ever mentions the man in the film has been controlled and shopped around for years by some dark characters.

Others suggest he simply thinks there’s a big pay day involved: 44 years of back pay and retirement benefits. There are some that claim he would not be owed such benefits. He might even be prosecuted as a deserter. Even if true, the man in the film might be simply unaware there is no payday waiting for him. Heck, forget the shadowy drug lords. Maybe there’s a whole village pulling for him to hit payday. After all, the pensions the British military pays to their retired Gurkha warriors help keep whole villages afloat.

In the CBC As It Happens interview (opens an mp3) the filmmaker and the niece underscore the point that they kept pressing the JHR claimant to take money if he needed it. He kept refusing. He never asked for money. This simply can’t be about money. Right? Has the filmmaker has never heard of the “long con”?

The Sister recognizes him

The emotional climax of Unclaimed is the meeting between JHR’s sole remaining sister (80-years old) and the man claiming to be her brother. From all reports this is a powerful, emotional scene. If this truly is JHR, one would have to be more than heartless not to be moved to tears by such a scene. These are two old people, in the final years of their lives, and this is likely their last meeting ever.

The sister is adamant the man she met is her brother. According to the Star she commented:

“There’s no question. I was certain it was him in the video, but when I held his head in my hands and looked in his eyes, there was no question that was my brother.”

Would a sister not be able to recognize her own brother? For many that believe in the film, the sister’s confirmation is enough. As (heartless) skeptics we’re all too aware of the power of wishful thinking, the power of suggestion, and the effect great passages of time (44 years) have on memory. You’re told, or it’s intimated, a good Christian missionary (a term I do not use sarcastically), a fellow brother-in-arms, and an award-winning filmmaker have found your brother after making heroic efforts.

theguardian

If you still have your doubts, consider the real life story of Frédéric Bourdin. My friend Richard Murray quickly noticed the similarities and pointed it out to me. This French scammer was able to convince a family in Texas he was their long, lost son. Remarkably the US government even issued him a passport based solely on his “sister” swearing an oath that it was her brother. Note my earlier comment about maybe the man in the film simply wants to get a passport for him and citizenship for his children. It is, or was, apparently this easy. (I found it curious Maclean’s film critic after making so much hay about the sister making a positive ID, didn’t see parallels with 2010′s The Chameleon, a film based on Bourdin. He also missed 1982′s The Return of Martin Guerre. Another true story about a man claiming to be soldier and fooling the wife and kids.)

It’s comforting to see that many people who have not seen the movie and not influenced by the documentary’s emotionally compelling structure, quickly see what’s missing in this story and are quick to voice the plot hole on various comment boards. No DNA test. The filmmaker does not open the box and show you, indeed, there is a dragon in the box. If we take Jorgensen’s word for it, and I have no reason not to, the choice was with the sister and the sister was confident. She didn’t feel like she had to prove anything.

That’s, of course, her right. For my part, if I had a niece and nephew in Vietnam and taking a simple test could put them on the road to American citizenship and the benefits that would come (Vietnam, despite some people’s perceptions, has excellent relations with the USA and a passport would give any resident a leg up in this rollicking nation of international traders) I would do this in an instant.

Since the film’s Hot Docs release and the story hitting International news, the word is the family is now looking at getting a DNA test. The box may be opened eventually. Just in time for the DVD release?

Plot Holes

As you dig into this story, you find, curiously, JHR’s supposed survival story changes from newspaper to newspaper. Aren’t they working from the same press packet?

The Star says he was released after being tortured for a year:

“Robertson says he was confined to a bamboo cage in the jungle by North Vietnamese captors and, accused of being a CIA spy, was tortured for a year. Confused and badly injured, he was released and married the Vietnamese nurse who helped care for him.”

We’re somehow asked to believe the North Vietnamese would torture the captured Green Beret for a year and then release him (a man trained in unconventional, behind-the-lines warfare) to wander Vietnam during war time? Barnard never stopped for a minute to question this utterly unbelievable plot element? I remind you, she is a movie reviewer. Why did such a plot hole miss her attention?

Stars and Stripes changes the story. He was tortured for “years”, sent to work in the fields, and then escaped:

“He recalls being taken prisoner by communist forces and tortured for years in a series of prisons, both above and under ground. The man says after four or five years in captivity, he was put to work in the fields where a local nurse helped him escape and start over under a false identity. They later married and have children, who also looked like westerners.”

Maclean’s sticks with the escape story but seems to change the field element to a place where he was found after hiding in the woods, not a place where he was put to work:

“He says he escaped after four years, hid in the woods and was found in a field by a woman who nursed him back to health and would become his wife.”

The New York Daily News switches out the North Vietnamese for the Viet Cong:

“Now 76, the onetime Green Beret’s American family says that he does not remember English, his birthday or American children’s names — all he recalls is that he had an American family before the Viet Cong captured him. The man believed to be Sgt. John Hartley Robertson was locked in a bamboo cage mid-1968 and tortured for a year until his release.”

SFgate goes with the “released” angle but adds he was tortured not just for a year, like Barnard claims but, “years”:

“How the North Vietnamese captured him after his helicopter crash, how they trapped him in a bamboo cage and tortured him for years. Eventually, his captors released him, physically and mentally broken. A widowed woman found him lost in the jungle, nursed him back to health and eventually married him.”

In Faunce’s blog he adds a Buddhist sanctuary in Laos. He makes no mention of him being captured and tortured in a cage. JHR supposedly battled his way out of Laos, into Vietnam, and met the nurse. No paper makes mention of this or the dramatic battle and river boat escape:

“I do not know how he escaped, except that somehow he was found and stayed in some Buddhist sanctuary for a while in Lao. What we gathered is that he had tried to escape back into Vietnam to reach a US military outpost to try and return home. They informed us that he and some other Vietnamese encountered a battle. They were on a river in a boat and again had to escape for their lives. It is at this time how he met his now wife. They have been up in the hills ever since.”

Jorgensen himself, in the CBC As It Happens interview (opens an mp3), settles on the JHR claimant being tortured for a year (not years) and spent four more years in prison. In the interview the filmmaker does not clear up if he was released or escaped. Oddly the filmmaker admits the man claiming to be JHR gets the number of men on his own helicopter incorrect.

If you go with the escape from imprisonment story, one does wonder, how a man imprisoned for four years, tortured for a year, and requiring nursing care, manages to escape and avoids being re-captured by better fed men familiar with the terrain? Oh yeah, he also found a village the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong did not think to search for an escaped POW. One also wonders why villagers would not suddenly notice the nurse’s husband returning from the dead with a distinctly American appearance. Finally, given the utterly brutal treatment the Viet Cong gave to villages they believed were collaborating, why anyone in the village would remain silent and not turn the escaped POW in?

But you never saw the movie!

The story discrepancy is likely explained by different reporters watching the movie and cobbling together the survival story from their own memory. The movie might present an “official” story. Many people have been critical of skeptics of Unclaimed (me, the raft of Green Berets cited above, POW/MIA NGOs) because we have not seen the movie. The point is moot, however. The filmmaker has made it clear the intent of the film was not to establish the factual identity of the man. In Jorgensen’s CBC As It Happens interview (opens an mp3) he states he’s “not set out to prove that this was John Hartley Robertson.”

The film’s PR people agree:

“In producing Unclaimed, Myth Merchant Films’ intent was to chronicle the story of Tom Faunce, whose determination to uncover the true identity of the man claiming to be John H. Robertson was inspiring, very moving and met with roadblocks at every turn. The film was not produced to help perpetrate fraud of any kind or misrepresent anyone’s identity, but merely follows one man’s struggle to help another. It is the filmmaker’s hope that after watching the film, viewers will perhaps be inspired by Tom’s actions to help others in even small ways.”

So, Jorgensen has clearly stated he and the film do not set out to establish who the man is. If the filmmaker tells me that is not the point of the film, it sure seems like seeing the film will bring one no closer to the truth. I’m more than happy to take his word for it and not see his movie. I have no interest in arriving at truth via emotional manipulation. I’m interested in arriving at the truth of a claim via the scientific evidence.

The film’s PR statement (quoted above) followed reports by the UK press that the man in the film was a fraud. Some saw the caveat as the filmmaker backing off claims they found JHR. I have no desire to guess at motivations. As Penn Jillette notes, the difference between a skeptic and a cynic is cynics question your motivations for arriving at your conclusions, skeptics look at what facts you used to arrive at your conclusions. I believe Jorgensen did not set out to make a documentary about a scientific investigation. I believe Faunce has risked a lot to bring out a man he truly thinks is a brother-in-arms. I believe all concerned (Jorgensen and Faunce) have had noble intent. But even those with the most noble of intentions can arrive at the wrong conclusions.

Although, admittedly, if the filmmaker opened the box and found there was no dragon in it, he wouldn’t have much of a film. Would he?

Tooth evidence

The film does, as far as I know, offer one line of scientific evidence. In, apparently, a rather visually uncomfortable scene the man in the film has a molar extracted by a Vietnamese dentist. The tooth is sent to a forensics lab to test isotopes in the tooth enamel. And this is where being a skeptic pays off. You learn a lot. Who knew about tooth enamel testing? It’s actually a fairly new science, used both by archeologists and forensic scientists. It works like this. As your adult teeth are formed (around ages 3-12), the tooth enamel preserves oxygen and strontium isotopes found in the drinking water and food you consume. These isotopes remain fixed and constant in your enamel for your entire life. They are a good indication of where you grew up. Your baby teeth also preserve these isotopes but we, of course, lose these teeth. Baby teeth could, theoretically, point to where you were born (versus where you grew up).

Scientists have two methods for determining where you grew up from the isotopes in your teeth. They can compare your tooth isotopes to drinking water reference samples. (“Karl says he grew up in Montreal.” YANK! “Yep, his tooth tests the same as Montreal tap water.”) Scientists are also creating isotope maps (isoscapes) for North America, Europe, and probably the rest of the world. You don’t have to drive to Montreal to get a sample. These isoscapes are not only important as a tool in crime fighting but also figuring out the provenance of things like milk and champagne. (Does the water in the champagne come from the water in the Champagne region?)

Isoscapes of Oxygen isotopes

Isoscapes of Oxygen isotopes

The filmmaker says the tooth analysis has established the man in the movie grew up in the USA based on isotope testing. However, the filmmaker has not published the analysis for peer review. One poster on the Unclaimed Facebook page ridiculed this suggestion, noting forensic evidence at trial is not subjected to peer review. Though true that in a court it’s not subjected to peer review in the “I want this published in Nature” sense, it is subjected to peer review in the sense I was using it. The technical experts for the opposing side can examine the full analysis and can argue the conclusions being put forward are not supported by the science in the report.

As skeptics, we frequently see lay people miss the important caveats and nuances of a scientific analysis and claim firm conclusions that simply are not present in the full analysis, conclusions the original scientist would not make. Creationists are brilliant examples of this.

Of course, as a lay person, even if Jorgensen did publish the full report, I’m unable to properly interpret such a document myself. However, there are certainly many peers quite capable of rendering opinion.

My immediate suspicion about the positive tooth test was we have no idea what question Jorgensen asked the lab to answer. Did they ask “could this be a tooth from an American?” Or did they ask “could this tooth ONLY have come from an American?” They are very different questions. As noted above, the DPMO claims the man is a Frenchman. Is it possible a person growing up some place in France could have a match within error bars? (I have no reason or desire to question the tooth’s chain of custody.)

The filmmaker has posted a brief clip from the movie. The researcher notes it is very unlikely JHR was from France and very likely he lived his young childhood in the United States. I was struck by the lack of specificity. Like someplace in the USA but nothing more specific? We should have a good idea where JHR spent his childhood. If they got a match on that region, that would be highly compelling. Why hand wave to all of the USA? And how do you eliminate all of France?

I contacted a researcher at the University of Calgary who has written several peer reviewed papers on this science. I sent her known details and a link to the video. I reproduce her full email to me here:

Dear Mr. Mamer:

Since the man is alive, the best evidence of identification is DNA and fingerprints.  MtDNA is not as specific as nuclear DNA however if the fingerprints match and the mtDNA matches maternal relatives then I would not be skeptical about the determination that the man is JHR.  The Ehrlinger lab is very reputable and they indeed have isotope maps (isoscapes) of the U.S.  Oxygen isotopes are indicative of local surface waters and there are probably some similarities in oxygen isotopes between some parts of the U.S. and some parts of France. I would have to look at maps, which can be found on-line.  Strontium isotopes are specific to underlying bedrock and diet.  It does seem vague to say someone is from the U.S. but not from France, given the size and complex geology of both countries.  I suspect the lab could be more specific if asked, but the more important point is that isotopes give a range of possible locations and can rule out some locations, but fingerprints are specific to an individual and mtDNA is specific to maternal lineages. 

It might also be possible to match up points on the photos of the two men where there are bony landmarks – chin, angle of the jaw, cheek bones – which will not change much with age, but this is also much less specific than fingerprints and DNA.  Photographic superposition (matching up these landmarks) is normally used to rule out possible matches of photos and missing persons.

Thanks for the diversion.

The bold emphasis is mine. My understanding of what she emailed me is the oxygen isotope test is less specific (allowing for more false positives) and the strontium isotopes are more specific. My guess is if you look at the intersection of oxygen and strontium, there might be only one area in the world with the geography and geology that could produce both measures.

One major assumption of this test is the person grew up in the same location. A way to test this is you compare two different teeth (one that formed earlier and one that formed later). If they both have similar isotope ratios you can assume the person remained in the same location while forming his/her adult teeth. However, the filmmaker tested only one tooth (the subject apparently did not have many teeth left).  I have no idea if the researcher controlled for the possibility that man in the film might have moved a lot as a child. Possibly his parents were diplomats, merchants, or his dad was a soldier. Moving  to different regions would contribute different amounts of both isotopes and confound the reading.

Whatever, the case, we can’t determine anything from this belief clip. The test has some degree of specificity but none related in the clip. Why?

I emailed the researcher in the clip for comment. She politely responded but noted she couldn’t reveal specifics about any particular case. Understandable. I have no doubt, however, about the researcher’s honesty and skill. She seems to have an impressive publication record.

No, I am not a paid stooge

I spent considerable amount of time on the Unclaimed film’s Facebook page trying to balance arguments for authenticity. Most commenters siding with the film based their assessment on what we skeptics would quickly realize as the alt med “consumer testimonial” gambit. But so many found it emotionally compelling!

Members of what appear to be the missionary’s family (a Joe Faunce who I gather is the cousin who aided Tom Faunce in Cambodia and a Stephen Faunce whose relationship is unknown) quickly joined the Facebook discussion. Both questioned my motivations for my skepticism. Stephen claimed “[Karl Mamer] is out for his own gain he could care less about the real Truth.” Joe Faunce assessed I was “probably hired to write these posts by we know who”.

To both I responded:

“I’ve stated quite clearly in several places that I’m a skeptic, not a cynic. I have no desire to question the motives of the film makers or Faunce. I assume only the best motivations, the one the film maker has labored to elucidate. I do question the evidence that Faunce’s claim is more likely true than false. One can be of the purest heart and still come to the wrong conclusions from fallacious reasoning.

You’re free to question my motives. My own gain is I learn a lot about MIA issues and the science behind it. You’re entirely free to, without evidence, attribute any motivation you wish to me, of course. I’m happy to take Faunce’s motivation (but not his facts) at face value. I’d only ask you (a professed Christian?) to do the same. But it’s not required.”

To each of their credit, they admitted they had a better picture of where I was coming from and have not returned to the old “paid stooge” argument. I should, at this point, give a nod to the PR people handling the movie’s Facebook page. They have been extremely patient and open in allowing debate like the above to take place. One might think, with an expensive movie on the line and headlines in major papers singing “fraud”, they would be inclined to shut down dissenting opinions and facts. They have, however, handled the debate quite masterfully. I can’t say Jorgensen picked his topic well, but he picked his social media people well.

Conclusion

For the record I would LOVE if this man is JHR or even an American left behind. I would never be so happy to be wrong. I also appreciate the good work the Faunce family has done in SE Asia, helping the poor and digging wells. You won’t find my lazy ass digging wells, and keyboard jockeys like me benefit from the charitable works and sacrifice of people like Faunce.

The man in Unclaimed could be JHR. The DPMO could be incompetent, lying, or simply missed something important. Many who believe the man is JHR, discount the DPMO’s analysis simply because it comes to a conclusion they do not like. Despite repeated requests of those who discount the DPMO’s analysis, no one has volunteered specific reasons why the DPMO should not be trusted, beyond “the government lied before, so they are probably lying now”. (Oddly, no one ever seems to assume the government is lying when it issues you a tax refund check. We’re happy to take a check and assume it’s an honest monetary instrument.) On the contrary, I think I’ve shown the DPMO, the Green Berets, and MIA groups who have worked this mystery have been fair and extremely knowledgeable actors. We are to believe, and I do, that Faunce (former military) has sacrificed a lot to bring who he believes is a brother-in-arms home. However, when the military people who staff the DPMO also espouse the same “no man left behind” ethic, those moved by Unclaimed see the DPMO’s words as hollow?

My position, which I’ve labored to cover in what might be the longest series of blog posts in Skeptic North history, is when I see lots of Green Berets and on-the-ground journalists saying “whoa whoa! scam!” I feel we should give them voice and reserve judgment until a DNA test. In science, many times two camps form. Both look at the same data and come to very different conclusions. Eventually both sides agree to run an experiment that will decide the issue either way and then live with results. I feel those on both sides of Unclaimed could benefit from this tried and tested approach. A DNA test by a lab without a dog in the fight would settle the matter.

The Toronto media itself was both credulous and failed to properly balance this story and challenge Jorgensen’s seeming low level conspiracy mongering. To be fair, Jorgensen may not be conspiracy mongering and merely highlighting what he thinks is governmental incompetence. As they say, a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail to be pounded down. As the host of the Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, I see conspiracy mongering when the filmmaker states the military is lying and he underscores MIA conspiracy themes like “We don’t want them to come back”. Whatever Jorgensen’s interpretation is, the media has certainly platformed it in a conspiratorial way. The Toronto media failed to recognize there is a factual claim about who the man is wrapped up in the story. They failed to recognize this claim is independent of the film yet perpetuated by the film and the media. The Toronto media should have questioned the story more, especially knowing the ramifications of headlines like “Unclaimed finds a Vietnam veteran left behind for 44 years” and not qualified headlines like “Unclaimed film alleges…”.

There are most certainly people, who have given sons/daughters/husbands/wives to war, who will never be able to see this film and understand the nuance of the filmmaker’s expressed intent. Canadian documentaries rarely get shown in places like Kentucky and Arkansas. They do not have the luxury of subscribing to Netflix.  But these people may well see  recklessly unqualified hope-inducing headlines like:

“Unclaimed finds a Vietnam veteran left behind for 44 years”

“Canadian doc ‘Unclaimed’, premiering this week at Hot Docs, finds a lost American soldier with almost no memory of his past”

“Unclaimed: Mystery of a lost – and found – Vietnam vet”

The bit after the final credits

To double check that someone like me (not at all a professional journalist) was seeing an angle to this story that wasn’t there, I asked Time/The Economist journalist Cain for his assessment on the Toronto media’s reporting on the film and the issues surrounding it. I reproduce Cain’s assessment below in full. I also sent his assessment to the Star reporter who broke the story Linda Barnard for comments. Her comments will follow. (And please let me say, despite the criticism I heap upon Barnard’s approach, she has been extremely patient with me the last few weeks via email. I have zero personal issues with her and would be happy to buy her a beer anytime. As I’ve noted, good people with good intentions can arrive at different conclusions. And I’ve had the benefit of weeks to research. Real journalists work under real time constraints.)

From Cain:

Yes, I lived in Vietnam and Cambodia for a while and speak some Vietnamese. Basically, I’ve been following war-legacy topics like these as a reporter — the MIA remains issue, the Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal, etc.

Here’s the problem with the reporting on Robertson. At first the Star and several other papers just published this allegation as fact — with no corroboration outside the filmmaker’s personal supporters, and no clarifiers such as the word “claimed” to leave open the possibility that the documentary couldn’t be fully verified.

A quick Google search would have revealed to all these reporters that, since the end of the Vietnam War, there have been hundreds of similar conspiracy theories about live MIAs left behind. They all have a similar story: mysterious sightings of Caucasians eking out livings as rice farmers and villagers. Some of these people are half-French Vietnamese. The Pentagon and several independent organizations have investigated these claims over and over and have found no evidence to support them. The newspaper articles didn’t mention a shred of this backdrop.

If these journalists and investigators wanted to go further with their research, a phone call to the DPMO or the private non-profits working on this issue would have cleared up a lot of misinformation.

What’s also interesting is that, after the DPMO published its statement on this documentary, most newspapers published follow-up stories with the angle “MIA documentary causes controversy.”

This statement too is highly misleading and has stirred up even more poor journalism. In this case, the media’s concept of “balance” is interfering with its ability to investigate and publish truth. One side is bringing forward extraordinary claims with minuscule evidence — and none that would pass scientific scrutiny. The other side can back up its debunking of the documentary with a decade of investigations. Yet both sides are getting equal weight?

Barnard’s response:

I stand by my story, which is about a documentary film, Unclaimed, that you and the others commenting here have not yet seen – and please correct me if I am wrong in that you have indeed seen Unclaimed since we last emailed.

Not as of this writing. But as I noted, I’m concerned with establishing the factual claim Jorgensen admits his film does not resolve. But he probably should have, given so many people are desperate to believe in dragons.

3 Responses to “Toronto Media, false balance, and the lack of evidence for claims about MIA vet John Hartley Robertson”

  1. Tom Stoneburner says:

    Karl,

    Thanks for the 3-part series. What jumped at me the most was the idea that he only tried ONCE to return to the American military. This smacks more of an attempt to patch holes in the story than how a Green Beret would act. Now he can say he tried to return. However, no American military man would try once and quit because of a rough encounter.

  2. jim demers says:

    what about the former special forces guy that was trained by jhk? He met ngoc and said it is his former instructor. did i miss something? let me know at the above email thanks

  3. Karl Mamer says:

    Hey, Jim. Thanks for the question. And sorry for the long delay in responding. I only got a notification about your comment just now.

    I didn’t really mention him (Ed Mahoney, who was trained by JHR) as I felt his testimony fell into the same category as that of JHR’s sister. Both are trying to ID a man 40 years later and they’re both subject to the same types of biases (wishful thinking, power of suggestion, etc.) Presumably the sister’s positive ID is the stronger line of evidence in the film. If her positive ID has inherent doubt, then a man who might have only spent two years with JHR offers a weaker line of evidence.

    Further, none of the articles mentioned

    1) Mahoney sent a photo of Ngoc to JHR’s widow and she failed to ID him.
    2) Another NCO who served with JHR failed to ID him via photo.
    3) Billy Waugh served in MAC-V/SOG for 7 years, vetted Ngoc, and determined he was a fraud

    I should also point out Major Mark “Zippo” Smith (himself a POW in Vietnam) first encountered Ngoc when he was claiming to be an entirely different MIA vet.

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