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Speaking Truth to Power: PBS Frontline Tackles Journalists’ Murders in ‘Terror in Little Saigon’
November 3, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Who would want to be a journalist?

Terror in Little Saigon, ProPublica investigative reporter Adam Clay Thompson and filmmaker Richard Rowley’s harrowing, eye-opening film for PBS’s Frontline documentary showcase, lays bare some hard truths about a series of unsolved murders of Vietnamese-American journalists across the U.S. between 1981 and 1990. It airs, Tuesday, November 3 on PBS, 10 p.m., ET (check local listings.)

What began as a relatively straightforward reexamination of a single unsolved murder  — the August 1982 killing of Vietnamese political journalist Nguyen Dam Phong in his Houston, Texas home — would take on a life of its own. Thompson found himself facing unanswered questions about not one murder but five, and not just in Houston but in cities from San Francisco to Fairfax County, Virginia.

The victims had a number of things in common. They were all Vietnamese-American. They were all journalists. And they were all known to have antagonized anti-communist groups with connections to the former government in South Vietnam, or Republic of Vietnam as it was then known.

A seemingly simple look into a cold case from the ‘80s would metastasize into an all-consuming investigation of multiple murders involving secrecy, lies and conspiracy. Thompson found himself peering into the dark underbelly of a political subculture, where silence is the rule and wealthy, connected individuals are determined to keep fighting a war that, for all intents and purposes, ended decades ago, at an incalculable loss in both American and Vietnamese lives.

And for what?

“We tell ourselves that our work matters,” Thompson (left) says in the opening moments of the Frontline film. “We tell ourselves that it’s worth the risk, that it will be remembered. When another journalist is killed, we rush to tell their story and to say to the world that their life was not wasted.”

The most important — and dangerous — form of journalism is speaking truth to power, but what does it matter if no one is listening, or cares? Any time you write the truth, Thompson says, and you offend powerful interests, you put yourself in harm’s way.

For Thompson, the worst part is that no one is asking questions anymore. Cold cases are often cold for a reason. Out of sight, out of mind. Once cold, they tend to stay that way. As he stands over Phong’s tombstone (top) in Terror’s early moments, he knows that law enforcement, federal agencies, prosecutors and even fellow journalists are too busy, too overworked and distracted by what’s going on in the here-and-now, to concern themselves about something that happened decades ago.

And yet . . . lives matter, Dam Phong’s life matters.

Terror in Little Saigon is the best kind of documentary filmmaking, and a credit to what is turning out to be a fine season for Frontline. It asks uncomfortable questions, doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable answers and reveals larger truths while telling a simple, personal story of one man’s untimely death, and how his dying affects his family and friends to this day.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long to get here,” Thompson says. “Over 30 years late I’ve arrived at Dam Phong’s grave. His case is three decades old, without a conviction or an arrest. Just his headstone telling us that he died for journalism.”

It’s as if Phong’s (right) story is frozen in time, without an ending.

Thompson is determined to find that ending, though, even if puts himself in harm’s way in the process.

“A Vietnamese guerrilla group meeting above a restaurant, a hit squad made up of former South Vietnamese soldiers — it’s all hard to believe,” Thomson says later in the film, when it starts to dawn on him that he’s taken on more than he realized at the start. “But when I start looking into [the conspiracy], it’s clearly more than just a fringe group in Houston.”

And Terror in Little Saigon is more than just a film about a quickly forgotten incident in the not-too-distant past.

It asks why some choose journalism as a career, even when they know it can be dangerous to both themselves and those they love.

It asks whether silence — silence from the authorities tasked with finding the truth, silence from fellow journalists who choose not to ask the questions that need asking, the silence of co-conspirators who just wish the whole thing would go away — can be just as bad as a lie.

Frontline is having an impressive season. In just three short weeks Frontline producer Ken Dorstein’s éxposé of the Christmas 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, My Brother’s Bomber, has led to the reopening of the case, and shone the legal spotlight on two previously unnamed suspects in the case.

Last week’s Inside Assad’s Syria (left) veteran correspondent Martin Smith’s timely, first-person account of what’s really gong on in previously thriving cities with hard-to-remember names like Homs and Aleppo. showed in painstaking, personal detail why hundreds of thousands of terrified families are fleeing their home for the chance of an uncertain, tenuous new life in Europe, even though many of them know they will die along the way.

And now Terror in Little Saigon aims to reopen another case of unsolved murder, and open the audience’s eyes at the same time to the reason some young people, with their entire working lives in front of them, choose a profession that, as University of Oregon journalism professor Héctor Tobar recently wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, is widely reviled, poorly compensated and often dangerous.
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Michael Mara Strauss
Frontline has been so good for so long I actually read all the credits. Hats off to David Fanning and crew. I have learned so much and often find myself passing on this valuable information to others. May PBS continue to thrive. Thank you. MS
Nov 2, 2015   |  Reply
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