This article ran in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1997.
It accompanied reviews of McDougal Littell's middle-school textbook
America's Past and Promise.

The Erasing Fields

William J. Bennetta

In 1976 Sydney Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his dispatches from Cambodia. As a correspondent for The New York Times, Schanberg had reported on the Cambodian civil war and on the invasion of Cambodia by forces of the United States. He had remained in the capital city, Phnom Penh, after all the American forces had been withdrawn; and in April 1975 he had witnessed the fall of Phnom Penh to the army of the Khmer Rouge, the Marxist faction led by Pol Pot.

When Schanberg received his Pulitzer, he said that he was accepting it for himself and for Dith Pran, the Cambodian who had acted as his translator, guide and factotum, and who had saved him from death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Pran was not there to hear Schanberg's generous acceptance speech. He was still in Cambodia, a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge -- and Schanberg had begun to search for him, through diplomatic contacts and the International Red Cross, hoping to help him regain his freedom.

Schanberg would continue that attempt, but to no avail. Pran would remain a prisoner for three more years, until he could make a daring escape, and he would not see Schanberg again until the end of 1979.

The story of Schanberg and Pran is well known because it has been recounted in The Killing Fields, a film released in 1984. The film was based on an article that Schanberg had written for The New York Times Magazine, and its central theme was Schanberg and Pran's close friendship, from the time when they began working together in Cambodia to the time when they were reunited in the United States.

The story of Schanberg and Pran also turns up in America's Past and Promise -- but without Schanberg. In one of their displays of racial chicanery, McDougal Littell's writers have erased Schanberg from history, and they have topped this off by depicting The Killing Fields as a biography of Dith Pran! The result of their labors appears on page 729, as a "Cultural Mosaic" sidebar:

(1943 -     )

Dith Pran was a Cambodian journalist who had helped foreign reporters cover the Vietnam War in his country. In 1975 he was captured by the cruel forces of the Khmer Rouge, who had taken power in Cambodia. He struggled to survive, sometimes eating as little as one spoonful of rice a day. Dith Pran eventually escaped. The 1984 film The Killing Fields is about his life. He now works in the United States as a photojournalist.

For these writers, I see, no falsehood is too gross.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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