A Face Behind Pulitzer: Charles J. Hanley

As one of the three Associated Press correspondents, who reported that American troops massacred Korean civilians under a railroad bridge near a hamlet about 100 miles from Seoul in the fifth week of the Korean War in 1950, Charles Hanley became forever linked to the name of the village where the tragedy took place: No Gun Ri. Upon publication, the story immediately prompted a parallel investigation by the US and South Korean governments which had ignored the survivors’ claim for half a century. In April 2000, the story won the wire service’s first Pulitzer in investigative reporting.

One survivor, whose two young children were brutally killed in the massacre, said in tears that September 29, 1999—the day the AP story was published—was the happiest day of her life.

For the past two decades, Hanley worked as a correspondent with The Associated Press’ International Desk in New York, reporting from more than 70 countries. In 1992, he was named a special correspondent, a title awarded to only a handful of AP journalists.

Hanley provided me with comprehensive information about No Gun Ri through email correspondence. At times, he threw in rather self-deprecating remarks—“You’re awfully kind to think that I’d be worthy subject of a profile, considering that I’m really a dull character,” for instance—and it nurtured an image of him not unlike that of a kind professor, whose office is always full of too many books and papers and students, and who wouldn’t care if someone spilt coffee on his carpet. A few times we spoke on the phone, I found that he had a deep voice and a calm way of speaking. “I’ll talk your ears off,” he said once. “Don’t let me do all the talking.”

I met Hanley for the first time at his high-rise apartment, next to the United Nations Headquarters. After going through two doormen and an elevator man, I got to his floor, where he was waiting with his apartment door ajar. About 5 feet 10 tall, Hanley, 54, was slender and much more in shape than I had expected. He wore a white polo shirt and matching pale-colored pants. His face looked the same as it did in the photograph of his book jacket—balding with a well-groomed white mustache and watchful eyes—but I didn’t see any of the friendliness I had projected. He seemed like he would care if someone spilt coffee on his carpet. I saw his eyes quickly studying me, and the two gigantic plastic bags I was carrying. They were full of No Gun Ri documents, which we were to go over together.

Hanley’s apartment was spacious with perfectly clean and white wall-to-wall carpet. Colorful abstract paintings hung on the white walls. The bay window at the south end of the living room looked out to the United Nations and the East River. The view was breathtaking and I wondered how much a special correspondent with The Associated Press’ foreign desk makes.

“I thought you were just bright, but you are also so pretty!” Hanley said, as I was about to compliment the view. It was one of the things he would say to any female graduate students, or maybe to any younger women. Hanley apologized for not inviting me for lunch in advance and asked if Chinese would be all right with me.

In May 2000, a month after the Pulitzer award, U.S. News & World Report published a story disputing the validity of the AP report, formerly launching an extensive attack on AP and its three correspondents. Titled, “Doubts About a Korean ‘Massacre,’” the US News article accused the AP reporters of writing their story based on non-reliable witness testimonies. According to Joseph Galloway, the author of the US News story, three of the nine veterans quoted by AP might not have been in No Gun Ri at all at the time of the alleged massacre. Five others, when re-interviewed by US News, Galloway wrote, did not support the AP story. Major news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, ran similar stories.

Edward Daily, who provided extraordinary details about the massacre, had in fact lied, not only to the AP reporters, but also to many others, including Tom Brokaw who had flown to No Gun Ri with him. Although he served at the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, the unit involved in the killing, Daily was not in No Gun Ri when the killing occurred. This raised doubts, because in The New York Times’ rewrite of the AP story, Daily’s highly descriptive testimony—“On Summer nights when the breeze is blowing, I can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming”—was taken out from the original 56th paragraph and inserted into the 8th paragraph, the front page of the newspaper. The Times also trimmed several hundred words of material from the original AP story, giving Daily’s testimony much more weight.

“The Times has committed many crimes against good journalism when it comes to No Gun Ri,” Hanley declared. He also reminded me that the newspaper did not review his book, “The Bridge in No Gun Ri: Hidden Truth of the American Conduct in Korean War,” which he wrote with the other two AP correspondents.

I asked Hanley how he felt about the award. His international reporting had won many awards, including ones from The Associated Press Managing Editors association and Brown University’s Feinstein media awards program. But wasn’t Pulitzer journalism’s highest honor?

“Do you know how many Pulitzer awards are given out every year?” he said and shrugged his shoulder, as he took plates out of the cupboard in his kitchen. “There are so many of them.” When I pointed out to him that there was only one Pulitzer in investigative reporting, he smiled in agreement. “That is true.” He started taking the food out of the delivery bag into two plates. I asked him if people were jealous of his receipt of the prize. He stopped, looked at me and said, “You are very perceptive.”

Hanley was born in Brooklyn, New York, and went through a “very Roman Catholic” upbringing. After graduating from St. Bonaventure University with a degree in journalism, he joined the AP in Albany in 1968. There he became a political correspondent and then the bureau’s news editor. From 1969 to 1970, he served as a US Army journalist in South Carolina and Vietnam. When he was named a special correspondent in 1992, he had been the deputy managing editor of AP for five years.

Sang-Hun Choe, one of the three recipients of the Pulitzer who works at the AP’s Seoul bureau, once told me that Hanley had the memory of a giant filing cabinet. “If you ask him if he remembers when he sent you a document containing a certain topic, he will tell you to look at which paragraph of which page of which attachment he sent to you on what date.” Choe believes such a feat is a product of years of journalistic training.

Hanley insists that it is the years of experience that enabled him to become a good journalist because he is by nature neither gregarious nor talkative. “But my mother is extremely sociable,” he said. “We were riding a ferry once in the Mississippi river. She disappeared while my wife and I were on the deck. When we found her in the engine room, she had been talking to one of the workers for ten minutes and already knew everything about his life.” Perhaps it was helpful that she was a woman, I suggested. “Women definitely get more people to talk about themselves,” he agreed. “Many great journalists are women.”

We—or Hanley alone—talked as we sat over the Chinese food. He didn’t eat much. He also ate slowly. The conversation, or the fact that I understood what he was telling me, seemed more important than lunch. “Never forget,” he said, “the flaw was that Daily was passing along second-hand information, instead of first-hand.” What Daily told the AP reporters was essentially true because he had learned about the refugee killing from other men. It was after that that he apparently lied in placing himself at the scene. It later became clear that the other two GIs, also accused of lying, were in No Gun Ri at the time. Hanley didn’t forget to tell me that Joseph Galloway was an honorary member of the 7th Cavalry and that he was recently let go by U.S. News & World Report.

“Some of the former GIs were stunned at the worldwide reaction to the story and began to look for ways to retreat from the truth,” Hanley said, “even if subconsciously.” He watched me listening to him. “US News called them up and said, ‘Those AP people say you guys committed a massacre; you weren’t responsible for a massacre, were you?’” That kind of approach, he argued, would certainly elicit different responses.

On January 13, 2001, the US Department of Defense and the South Korean Defense Ministry released their independent investigative report on No Gun Ri, in which they affirmed the heart of the AP story. The Pentagon report, however, concluded that there were no orders directing the GIs to shoot at refugees. President Clinton expressed “deep regrets,” but did not give a formal apology or offered compensation as requested by the survivors.

Hanley’s copy of the Pentagon report had hundreds of tiny post-its stuck to its 300 pages, marking “deceptions, omissions, untruths of various kinds, designed principally to hide the fact that high-ranking US commanders repeatedly ordered refugees shot in 1950, and almost certainly did in No Gun Ri.” The Pentagon whitewash on No Gun Ri is monumental, according to Hanley. It covered up, for instance, the key passages in the “Turner Rogers memo,” in which a top Air Force officer noted—the day before No Gun Ri—that the Air Force was, indeed, attacking civilian refugees, at the Army’s request. The survivors and former GIs testified that there was air strafing preceding the shooting. “This was one of the most unashamed cover-ups,” Hanley noted, “but only one reporter wrote about it.” He added that the reporter was not with The New York Times.

Hanley talked for hours, going over maps and numerous documents about No Gun Ri, the Pentagon report and the attacks on the story. His stamina was admirable and his attention to details impressive. He remained collected, or perhaps distant, even when he used words like “outrageous” to describe the media assault.

Almost three years have passed since the AP story was published, yet the attacks are by no means over. When I met Hanley at The Associated Press’ headquarters in New York, Robert Bateman, an officer with the 7th Cavalry Regiment and associate professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, had just published a book on No Gun Ri, in which he baselessly refuted everything about the AP story. Hanley was wearing a tie, and looked taller than I had remembered him. He seemed somewhat subdued.

The Associated Press was full of hundreds of men and women— but more men than women—hunched over their computers. Televisions buzzed everywhere. As Robert Port, the special assignment editor who resigned from AP over No Gun Ri, said, it was “a factory of news that beamed an endless stream of words and pictures by satellite into nearly every newspaper and television station in America.”

When Hanley recently returned from his two-year leave of absence, someone else had taken his desk and the working area that has a nice view of the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Hanley was now in the quiet and isolated backroom, which he shared with two much younger reporters. His “uninteresting work area” between two cubicles comprised a computer and a small desk facing the wall. A few journals—Foreign Affairs was one of them—and books were stacked on the desk. There was a television channeling news right above his cubicle. He took his coat and said we could have lunch at the Rockefeller Café.

Had he not told me he was really upset about Bateman’s book and the never-ending harassment, I wouldn’t have known he was disturbed by them at all. “I don’t lose my temper and start screaming or anything like that,” Hanley said. “But I wrote this long and very detailed letter to the publisher [of Bateman’s book] pointing out everything Bateman got wrong.” Apparently, a reporter with The San Francisco Chronicle heard about the letter and wrote a story on how Charles Hanley, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for revealing a 50-year-old Korean massacre, tried to exercise “priority restraint,” hindering the First Amendment right of the publisher.

Hanley took those accusations personally.

“It’s really very sad that one angry man could cause as much havoc as he has over No Gun Ri,” Hanley said on Bateman. His voice was calm as usual. “The energy he put into empty attacks on us evil journalists and evil Koreans could have been used to conduct some more professional research into the documentation of ‘kill’ orders.”

“I sort of stopped caring about all the criticisms against us,” Choe said, “but Charlie is more sensitive to them, I think.” The hostilities against the No Gun Ri story began within The Associated Press. The story sat on a shelf collecting dust for 14 months before it was published in September 1999. Port was the editor who oversaw the project and ended up resigning because he was frustrated with how the top managers at AP steadfastly tried killing the story.

“Charlie is a special correspondent,” Choe said. “So he has a voice. If he hadn’t pushed for it, the story would have never seen light.”

“I called everyone I knew and even those whom I didn’t know,” Hanley spoke of his “campaign” to get the story out. “It was the external pressure that eventually got the No Gun Ri story published. Other news organizations were calling AP and asking why it wasn’t publishing the story.” He couldn’t stand by and watch the story being killed. Such behavior, he said, would betray his conscience as a journalist.

“No Gun Ri is complex,” he said to me once, “and I am very committed to spreading the truth as much as possible.” I wondered whether he was referring to the truth about the massacre or the truth about the tribulations he had been through since.

“At first they were going to fire Martha [Mendoza],” the third reporter who was in the No Gun Ri team. “Then they dissolved Bob [Port]’s special investigative unit and made him a systems editor of the communication department. So Bob left. They wanted to fire me as well, but I had too much seniority.” Hanley took a bite of his bread. The chicken Caesar salad on his plate hadn’t diminished much. He hadn’t touched the mineral water he ordered.

“Hanley became a pariah,” Port recalled. “Leading up to the publication, and after, AP’s top managers refused even to speak to him, [and he was] one of the wire service’s most respected reporters and author of its 150th anniversary history book. The atmosphere was surreal, but Hanley pressed relentlessly on.”

“I grew up in AP,” Hanley said, “they couldn’t just let me go.”

Hanley asked for the check. “I’m sure the top people didn’t want me to return from Afghanistan,” he said with a smile on his face. He had just returned from Afghanistan after spending two months there working on stories. “They probably thought they had finally got rid of me. So when I go to Russia next month, they’ll have to wish again that I won’t return.”

“By the way,” Hanley said in his typically impassive manner, “I’m not expecting to see what you’ll be writing, so feel free to write whatever you want to.”

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2002. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.