The nineteenth-century romantic poet Shelley, on a day when he must have been especially full of himself, proclaimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Fat chance! Poets have never exercised much moral authority over the masses, then or now. Poor Shelley! He was born too soon, and he responded to the wrong calling. Journalists, for better or worse, are the moral arbiters of our time.
That, as conservatives complain, is a lot of trust and confidence to repose in a group of people who weren’t elected and whose values and concerns supposedly no longer reflect those of mainstream
America. But what’s the alternative? To trust those in power to tell us “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Doesn’t anyone remember Watergate or the disingenuous claims of progress we got throughout our Vietnam ordeal? And more recently, it was déjà vu all over again with the Bush administration’s complaints that the so-called “liberal media” were getting it wrong in Iraq. When we finally throw in the towel on Iraq, be prepared for another stab-in-the-back theory.
I am referring, of course, to the point of view--still widely held among neo-cons--that the press misrepresented the situation and undermined our efforts in Vietnam. The ultimate example of how the press supposedly “got it wrong” is widely held to have been the Tet Offensive of 1968. The revisionists argue that what the press sensationalized as a disaster and a defeat was actually a victory for our side. And so it was—but only in the most narrow tactical sense.
What the revisionists fail to appreciate is how Tet put the lie to the administration’s carefully orchestrated campaign of optimism. Throughout the fall of 1967, administration spokesmen, General Westmoreland included, had maintained that we were winning and that the enemy was no longer capable of mounting a major offensive. But, suddenly, at the end of January 1968 the enemy proved resilient enough to mount coordinated attacks throughout
South Vietnam, occupying such high visibility objectives as the Citadel in Hue and, for a time, even the U.S. Embassy grounds in Saigon. Our forces weren’t defeated—true enough--but our national leadership was discredited, and that’s worse in a democratic republic.
The American public seems to have forgotten that then, as with now, we faced an ever-widening “credibility gap.” Contrary to popular neo-conservative belief, the press did start off “on the team” in
Vietnam. But, early on, reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam began to notice that the reality of that war didn’t match the official rhetoric. Obvious defeats were being characterized as victories, and the means we employed were becoming increasingly disproportionate to our professed ends—and ultimately self-defeating.
Call me a deranged
Vietnam vet, if you like, but I’ve always thought that the press did us a great service, and not a disservice, in Vietnam. The reporters may not have always gotten it right, but in the main, they showed the American public that we didn’t know what we were doing in Vietnam. If that was “stabbing us in the back,” then I think that what we need are a few more backstabbers today.
We especially need such people—independent as opposed to “embedded” journalists—who can look into whether the upcoming “surge” in Afghanistan is really working. One sign of hope was the Associated Press’s refusal to pull a photo of a mortally wounded Marine. In making the request, Secretary of Defense Gates, supposedly, was only trying to spare the Marine’s family any unnecessary anguish. Such was the Bush administration’s excuse for barring photos of the flag-draped aluminum transfer cases coming back from Iraq. The American public deserves to see the real face of the war they’re being asked to support. As it now stands, the “embedded” journalists indeed seem to be “in bed” with their units. We’re seeing and hearing only what the Pentagon wants us to see and hear. I had hoped for better from the Obama administration.
What was good for Bush is good Obama. We need to know what is really happening behind the scenes? Where is the independent corroboration of this administration’s claims?
The irony is that neo-cons are already charging the media with being in bed with the Obama administration—which, of course, is touting victory in Afghanistan as a national imperative. It is only a matter of time before the media breaks with Obama and Gates over this war. Up until now, the right has seemed disposed to attack anything Obama supports. Will people like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter end up siding with the liberal media over Afghanistan? War sometimes makes for strange bedfellows.
The media, in my view, have become too restrained and too polite. We are just not seeing the same adversarial, and even confrontational, spirit we used to see in reporters during the Vietnam era. That was when we just assumed that officialdom couldn’t be fully trusted and had to be vigorously challenged.
As I suggested with my opening, the real danger with a fully re-empowered media is not a matter of bias, one way or another, but rather one of hubris. Witness, for instance, all the airtime and attention they gave to ABC news correspondent Kimberly Dosier when she was wounded in Iraq. Would that a wounded Marine or soldier would get half as much attention. Dosier’s own news organization clearly considered her to be of a higher caste, and therefore more newsworthy, than a mere combatant. From time to time, journalists perhaps do need to be reminded that they themselves are not the story.
--Edward F. Palm