The Killing Fields; Directed by Roland Joffe; Engima Productions.

Any resemblance between The Killing Fields and events in Cambodia during the 1975 holocaust is purely coinci­dental. What we see on the screen is more often than not a figment of Sydney Schanberg’s well-developed imagination. This film adaptation of Schanberg’s New York Times Maga­zine story (January20, 1980) about the war in Cambodia and his relationship with his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran, is supposed to recount the bloody victory of the Communist Khmer Rouge forces and the systemat­ic destruction of the national soul.

Mr. Schanberg believes that it is the United States and its misguided South­east Asia policy that is responsible for the holocaust in Cambodia. Some­ how, the American intrusion into Cambodian territory gets identified with the barbarity of Pol Pot’s army of thugs. Repeatedly, “Schanberg” puts the blame on Nixon because he violat­ed Cambodian neutrality in 1970. What he ignores is the North Viet­namese role: the words “communist invasion” and “North Vietnam” are not used in the script at all. Moreover, our first introduction to an American soldier is a major engaged in covering up an inadvertent bombing in a popu­lated Cambodian region. Schanberg never mentions the fact that, from the outset of the war, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese used Cambodian neutrality for their own purposes, or that Pol Pot and his followers were trained in terror tactics by their com­munist brethren.

When President Nixon’s face ap­pears on the screen to defend a doc­trine of taking the war to enemy sanc­tuaries, tears well in “Schanberg’s” eyes as he (presumably) recalls his friends in Pnom Penh being slaugh­tered by the Khmer Rouge. We can only wonder whether Schanberg was more angry at Nixon or the actual killers.

The New York Times argues that reporters like Schanberg are to be commended for calling attention to this “unhappy chapter in the history of recent United States diplomacy in Southeast Asia,” but overlooks the part played by reporters like Schanberg in helping to produce this unhappy chap­ter in our history. Schanberg, Neil Sheehan, Seymour Hersh, and David Halberstam were honored by the press corps for excoriating American poli­cies, but most people did not know that the reporters were actually making policy. By distorting events, they man­aged to create a popular antiwar, anti­-Johnson, and anti-Nixon movement. That movement led to the congressio­nal decision to cut our losses and leave Southeast Asia. With no opposition in its way, the Khmer Rouge made their self-proclaimed Kampuchea into an open graveyard.

Like Schanberg’s reporting, The Killing Fields is more a work of fiction than a work of journalism–a deft manipulation of the facts to make the Vietnam War conform to Mr. Schanberg’s prejudices. This subjec­tive reportage is what is now known as the “new journalism.” But there is nothing new about journalists who get rich by tailoring the news.   cc