Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Dishonor and Vietnam

James Q Wilson reports on The Press at War over at the City Journal.

Here’s how Wilson opens his Media War coverage:
We are told by careful pollsters that half of the American people believe that American troops should be brought home from Iraq immediately. This news discourages supporters of our efforts there. Not me, though: I am relieved. Given press coverage of our efforts in Iraq, I am surprised that 90 percent of the public do not want us out right now.
I have to agree with him, based on predominant mainstream media (MSM) reporting, I’m surprised we don’t have millions in the street. They must be watching less (non-cable) TV news and (surely) reading fewer newspapers than even dwindling rating indicate.

Wilson does a credible job of running through what is now a fairly well-known-to-media-critics portfolio of ideologically biased and agenda driven journalistic malfeasance: Cronkite’s “we can’t win,” yearlong My Lai daily tie-ins, and gross extrapolations to the rest of the armed services, false reporting on the 1968 Tet Offensive, intentionally uncorrected, and so on.

Wilson also conducts a simple thought experiment, recreating coverage of World War Two events through the eyes of an imagined press that followed today’s reporting template. The results are startling, and highlight how far from a patriotic press our MSM has grown.

Wilson attacks what he identifies as three myths of Vietnam reporting, beginning with The Living Room War Myth:
Media technology had changed. Vietnam was the first war in which television was available to a mass audience, and, as both critics and admirers of TV unite in saying, television brings the war home in often unsettling graphic images.
Wilson rightly observes that millions of American movie-goers watched Pathé and Movietone newsreels throughout WWII without turning against the war, and studies have shown that, until 1968, American press reporting on Vietnam was generally positive.

The second myth Wilson takes on is reporting from Vietnam was “uncensored,” and therefore, Americans were able to learn the “truth” about the war. Wilson acknowledges that censorship in prior conflicts was all about protecting operational security, whereas the real damage done by reporting in Vietnam, and enemy propaganda pieces picked up by US celebrities and activists, were conveying an attitude and perspective that we were wrong, and our enemies right.

The third myth Wilson addresses is that mis-reporting on Vietnam was due to a lack of military expertise and knowledge within the media, whereas Wilson finds another explanation:
One veteran reporter, S. L. A. Marshall, put the real difference this way: once upon a time, “the American correspondent . . . was an American first, a correspondent second.” But in Vietnam, that attitude shifted. An older journalist in Vietnam, who had covered the Second World War, lamented the bitter divisions among the reporters in Saigon, where there were “two camps”: “those who wanted to win the war and those who wanted to lose it.” The new reporters filed exciting, irreverent copy, which made it to the front pages; the veteran reporters’ copy ended up buried way in back.
Probably the most telling point Wilson makes in his piece, is that in the case of Vietnam, each successive President, whatever else their motivations, decidedly did not seek to win the war in Vietnam:
First, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both wanted to avoid losing Vietnam without waging a major war in Asia. Kennedy tried to deny that Americans were fighting. A cable that his administration sent in 1962 instructed diplomats and soldiers never to imply to reporters any “all-out U.S. involvement.” Other messages stressed that “this is not a U.S. war.” When David Halberstam of the New York Times wrote stories criticizing the South Vietnamese government, Kennedy tried to have him fired because he was calling attention to a war that we did not want to admit we were fighting.

Johnson was willing to say that we were fighting, but without any cost and with rosy prospects for an early victory. He sought to avoid losing by contradictory efforts to appease doves (by bombing halts and peace feelers), satisfy hawks (with more troops and more bombing), and control the tactical details of the war from the Oval Office. After the Cam Ne report from Morley Safer, Johnson called the head of CBS and berated him in language I will not repeat here.

When Richard Nixon became president, he wanted to end the war by pulling out American troops, and he did so. None of the three presidents wanted to win, but all wanted to report “progress.” All three administrations instructed military commanders always to report gains and rely on suspect body counts as a way of measuring progress. The press quickly understood that they could not trust politicians and high-level military officers.
Anti-war critics are quick to describe Vietnam (and Iraq for that matter) as transgressions, as points of dishonor, neither earning nor warranting the recognition of any honorable intention or noble goal, if only as salve for defeat.

There was dishonor in Vietnam. Dishonor on the part of those who sent soldiers to war with no intention of winning the fight, and dishonor in the profession of journalism that placed agenda and ideology above reporting of fact.

No President paid a price for this dishonor, although LBJ gave up whatever hope he had for re-election. Far from suffering, reporters gained valuable credit and standing within their profession, given fair credit for “ending” an unpopular war, made more unpopular by their efforts.

In the end, the dishonor of Vietnam, and the media-enshrined legacy of shame, has been borne most unfairly by the soldiers who served.

Read the whole thing.

Linked at Mudville Gazette.

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