Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Government lies, press lies: finding the truthtellers on that island

Since last week's election, I've been thinking about Vietnam. Again.

Back in earlier installments of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series (and no, readers, I've not given up on composing new installments; they're just so lengthy that I have to find a huge chunk of free time in which to tackle them), I wrote at least four pieces on the subject: here, here, here, and especially here.

A deja vu feeling engendered by this post-election week harks back to the early seventies, the time of Vietnamization and the phased withdrawal of US troops, and then the final pulling of the financial plug on the South Vietnamese in 1975. That war ended, for most Americans, not with a bang but a whimper, as well as a sigh of relief.

Back then, my thoughts about Vietnam--and therefore many of my opinions and feelings--were formed mainly by reading what we now call the MSM but what at the time was simply the press, the newspapers, the papers of record, all the news fit to print. Part of my revisiting of the Vietnam story has been to re-evaluate some of the information and impressions I and many others swallowed at the time, and to look at them in the harsh light of a new day.

There's nothing easy about that process. How does one evaluate what is truth, what is lies, and what is the bias and subtle shading in between? On the island of the truth tellers and the liars, how can you tell the difference, when knowing the answer could be a matter of life and death?

One way, of course, is to look at the track record for accuracy and the known biases of the presenter of such "truths" Another, and my favorite, is to read on both sides and then try to decide. But in the end, the reader is faced with the fact that truth is an elusive beast to stalk.

But it's not a unicorn. I'm not one to throw up my hands in despair and decide that all truths are equally equal and equally unknowable, so why bother. I believe we can--and must--try to learn history as best we can, or be condemned to repeat it. Sometimes I fear that even if we do learn it, we'll still be condemned to repeat it, simply because human nature doesn't change.

Which brings us (in laborious fashion; I know, I know!) back to Vietnam.

One of the constant themes of many critics of the US role in Vietnam was that our government lied. There's no question this was a watershed experience for many Americans who lived through it; for them, ever afterwards, a deep and bitter skepticism towards our government replaced an earlier too-naive trust. For many such people, there was a concomitant attitude change towards members of the press, who were now seen as heroic giant-slayers and (pardon the word) crusaders, bravely exposing those government lies.

I was never one who saw it in such very stark terms. But yes, early on, it became evident that Vietnam was one of the most complex endeavors in American history, one in which the government did appear to lie (or at least bend the truth) about some key issues, such as, for example, the possibilities of actually ever "winning" the conflict. But it's also become clear that the press also had a horse in that race, and wasn't adverse to some shady doings of its own.

Anyone who's read my "change" series knows that a goodly part of my post-9/11 thinking has been a process of evaluating press lies, truth-shadings, and biases. One reason the press can get away with this so easily is because of human laziness: how many people are going to make it their business to become the MSM's fact-checkers? That would be far more than a full time job, although it's become a bit easier with advent of the internet.

Take the Pentagon Papers. We all know the drill: fearless Daniel Ellsberg, at the risk of prosecution, spirits away classified information (not in his pants a la Sandy Berger--the Papers were originally 7,000 pages long, and Ellsberg was a skinny guy) and gives it to the press, who publish it in brave defiance of government efforts and a Supreme Court case trying to enjoin them from doing so. But Ellsberg's--and the Times and Post's--devotion to truth won out, the American people were informed of the government's deceptions, and we finally disengaged from an unwinnable battle.

We can forever debate the Vietnam war itself--its morality, justification, execution, and results; I'm trying not to do that in this post. This is about the sorting through of information.

So, what about the press lies about the government lies? Who will tell that story, and who has the patience to listen? It's a marathon, not a sprint; to tell it requires a laborious wade through a mind-numbing number of documents, and to even read about it requires a bit of work, as well, and a troubling rethinking of old perceptions.

For example, just for the Pentagon Papers alone, the task of evaluation would require actually reading the original Papers, and then reading all the major press stories about them, sorting through the excerpts from the Papers that were published in newspapers at the time, and seeing how they compare to the Papers as a whole. It's something I must confess I've never done, and probably never will do. But others have, and they report some curious goings-on.

A fascinating piece on the subject of war coverage by the MSM--both then and now--was written by James Q. Wilson and appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Take a look at this, on the Papers:

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage was at odds with what the documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.

In short, a key newspaper said that politicians had manipulated us into a war by means of deception. This claim, wrong as it was, was part of a chain of reporting and editorializing that helped convince upper-middle-class Americans that the government could not be trusted.

We're not on that island of the truth-tellers and the liars, where a single cleverly-worded question can discern the truth. Would that we were; our task would be a great deal easier. But it's plain that there were enough lies to go around, and that the MSM's lies must lead every thinking person to question the earlier version of history that was learned back when events were happening, and when newspaper and television coverage combined to give us our primary perception of the blooming buzzing confusion around us.

In writing this post, I went back and read a few of the comments to my earlier Vietnam essays. I happened across this one, that deals with the very subject at hand: media coverage of the Pentagon Papers:

The NYT and WaPo reporters (Neil Sheehan, et al) who provided a highly abridged (paraphrased and quoted) version [of the Pentagon Papers] to the public of that era ('71) distorted the originals in sundry and fundamental ways in order to imply or more directly state that Pres. Johnson and others employed deceptions at critical junctures in the conflict when in fact (as stated in the original document as well as the scaled down version) they did not. A specific example (and a critical one in that era) taken from Michael Lind's Vietnam: The Necessary War:

The June 14, '71 NYT edition of their edited version of the Pentagon Papers indicates Pres. Johnson had virtually concluded his decision to initiate a bombing campaign against the North by Nov. 3, 1964. (If true this would have made Johnson out to be deceitful toward the American public at an early and critical stage in the conflict.) However the Pentagon Papers itself states: "... the President was not ready to approve a program of air strikes against North Vietnam, at least until the available alternatives could be carefully and thoroughly re-examined." That quote, reflecting November, 1964 circumstances, can be located via a search in this section of the Pentagon Papers.

This single distortion may not appear to be dramatic in and of itself, but there were other overt and more subtle distortions in the NYT's and WaPo's paraphrased versions of this document. In sum they always and consistently distorted the picture in a manner which eroded Pres. Johnson's (and others) reputation, broadly characterizing him as being willfully deceitful; that general mischaracterization is what proved to be critical at the time rather than any single aspect of the paraphrased report.

I'm not trying to absolve Johnson of all wrongdoing; there's enough blame to go around. And some of it most definitely goes to our old friends, those dragon slayers in the MSM.

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