Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tet, Cronkite, opinion journalism, and a changing press: Part II (changing the course of history)

In his introduction to that Cronkite interview featured in Part I, Dick Gordon writes:

It was February 1968, and in a three minute editorial essay on the CBS Evening news Cronkite quite simply changed the course of history. On that night, the anchor told Americans that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable; that the generals and pundits were wrong...

Think about that for a moment. Cronkite, a news anchor, goes on a trip to Vietnam (I can't find any information on how long it lasted, but my guess is a couple of weeks at most). This happens around the time of the Tet Offensive, and he's briefed on that, among other things. Then he returns home. With no particular military expertise--and, as it turns out, no basic understanding of the strategic realities of the Tet Offensive itself--he comes to the opinion that the war cannot be won.

Although prior to this he's always considered his role to be the reporting of facts and events, he now develops the idea that he must use his bully pulpit, and the influence he's gained thoughout his years as a solid and relatively nonpartisan newsman, to tell the "truth" that the government and the military have been keeping from the American people.

Why Cronkite decided to make that transition is still somewhat mysterious, although I aired some theories about it in Part I. Of course, there's no doubt that Cronkite had--and has--a right to his opinion; but we're not talking about merely having an opinion. Did he have a right to leap over the traditional boundaries of news reporting and to intone, in a voice almost all Americans had grown to implicitly trust and revere, that the situation was hopelessly stalemated?

The rules about reporting were there for a reason, after all. The responsibility journalists have is an awesome one; we rely on them for the information on which we base our votes in a republic. Journalists need to make sure that the information they convey is correct, properly sourced, accurate. But anchors are generalists, not experts--except in a very narrow field, that of conveying the news. They are good writers and talkers. They are able to keep their calm with a camera on them, and even to ad lib if necessary. But reporters should guard against the hubris of thinking that they've become expert in every field they cover.

In his broadcast of February 1968, Cronkite was careful to say in his introduction that what he was about to say was "speculative, personal, subjective." He then indicates he doesn't know who won the Tet campaign. He goes on to list a series of battles and conflicts that haven't been resolved to his satisfaction; it's all a stalemate, the whole thing.

He then makes a rather extraordinary leap, saying it's clear this will always be the case. He knows that North Vietnam can--and most definitely will--match us for every measure we can come up with, not just in the past but in the future.

In fact, in clinical terms, one might say Cronkite is speaking of his own weariness and depression in the face of the ongoing conflict. He offers no proof of his assertions of hopeless quagmire, even for Tet--he just doesn't know. But his language is the language of emotion, not facts or strategy. He is dispirited and disillusioned, experiencing a loss of faith more than anything else:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.

He calls the conclusion that we are "mired in stalemate" the "only realistic" one. And then he makes the most peculiar declaration of all: the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

So, even if Tet turns out to have been a last-ditch effort for the North and the Vietcong, and if the enemy really does prove to have nothing left ("his last big gasp") before submitting to negotiations--Cronkite sees the US "not as victors, but as honorable people who...did the best they could."

But under the circumstances, why wouldn't the US then be negotiating as victors? We see that, even when Cronkite posits a relatively optimistic position as a hypothetical, he still can't bring himself to draw the proper conclusions from it: that it would represent at least some sort of victory. What comes across instead is an utter weariness, a personal one: that of Walter Cronkite himself.

Cronkite remains exceedingly proud of this broadcast. He's often called "avuncular," but I think the following statement of his could be more rightly called paternalistic:

There is a point at which it seems to me if an individual reporter has gained a reputation of being honest, fair as can be, and helps the American people in trying to make a decision on a major issue, I think we ought to take that opportunity.

This illustrates better than anything I can think of the slippery slope that comes from being a reporter and especially an anchorperson. For it's clear that Cronkite had come to believe in his own persona, and to feel that it conferred a certain amount of wisdom on him. If he is honest and fair and trusted in his reportage of the facts, then he seems to think it follows that his own personal opinions and judgments--even about matters outside his field of expertise, journalism itself--are also reliable ones. And that he is therefore qualified to advise the American people in decisions they make on matters of national and military policy.

So, how wrong was Cronkite about Tet? About as wrong as can be, it turns out. History has declared unequivocally that there were winners and losers in Tet: it was a grand strategy that failed miserably for the North in the tactical military sense but succeeded beyond its wildest dreams as a propaganda ploy--due in large part to Cronkite and his colleagues in the MSM.

One of the oddest things about Cronkite isn't what he did then; it's that he's still proud of it today. I've read and listened to a number of his interviews on the subject; at no time does he even address the fact that he was wrong about Tet in the military sense--nor do his questioners bring it up. Is this reticence on their part a show of respect for the frailty of an elderly man? Or are both he and his interviewers largely unaware of the discrediting facts that have been uncovered and widely aired in the intervening decades? Or do they not care if they were wrong about those things, because, after all, they were pursuing that "higher truth?"

The "lower" truth (otherwise known as the actual truth) is that Tet was a disaster for the Vietcong and the North--especially the Vietcong, who never recovered from the blow. But, in the end , it didn't matter. How they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat was detailed in the definitive work on the subject, Peter Braestrup's 1978 analysis of MSM coverage of Tet, entitled "The Big Story."

...the nationwide Vietcong offensive turned out to be an "unmitigated disaster" for the communist side. But the media consensus was just the opposite - an "unmitigated defeat" for the United States.

Cronkite, along with several hundred reporters from two dozen countries, focused on how the Vietcong guerrillas managed to blast their way into the U.S. Embassy compound (but didn't make it past the Marines in the lobby). War correspondents were also impressed by the view from the cocktail bar atop the Caravelle Hotel: C-47s, equipped with three Gatling guns on one side, were strafing Vietcong pockets in Cholon, the capital's twin city 2½ miles away.

Yet the Vietcong didn't reach a single one of their objectives and lost most of their 45,000-strong force in their attacks against 21 cities. It was also a defeat that convinced North Vietnam's leaders to send their regular army - the NVA - south of the 17th parallel to pick up where the Vietcong left off.

If you want to read a summary of the conclusions Braestrup--a seasoned war reporter and former Marine who had served in Korea--reached in his book, please see this. You'd do well to read the whole thing; it's rich in important and informative detail.

Interestingly enough, Braestrup doesn't posit press political bias as a major part of the problem. The real difficulty was sheer ignorance, especially about anything military. Here are just a few of the MSM-created myths about Tet that Braestrup effectively destroys:

There had been no warning of a coming offensive.

The offensive was a victory for Hanoi.

The North Vietnamese military initiative bared the unreliability and inefficiency of our own allies, the South Vietnamese.

The characteristic American response was to destroy city districts and villages with overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower.

The sapper raid on the American embassy, the fighting in Hue, and the siege of Khe Sanh typified the war.

Khe Sanh was to be America's Dien Bien Phu.

How did the press get it so very wrong?

The press corps lacked military experience and the ability to grasp and present matters of strategy and tactics...The press's lack of knowledge and maturity resulted in a lack of discrimination in the presentation of hastily gathered or incomplete facts and contributed to the disaster theme.

The views of experienced military commentators like Joseph Kraft and Hanson Baldwin and the analyses of Douglas Pike were virtually ignored. The press reflected American ignorance of Vietnamese language and culture, had no expertise in the area of pacification, and almost no sources on the South Vietnamese government or army.

...The press was impressionable. General Bruce Palmer succinctly summed up the problem when he stated that the foe "took the battle down around the Caravelle Hotel and, so, from the standpoint of the average reporter over there, it was the acorn that fell on the chicken's head and it said 'The sky is falling.'"

And then you have what I think are the three most important press failings of all, of which Cronkite is guilty as charged, their staying power reflected in his inordinate pride in himself even today, a pride that persists in the face of a book like "The Big Story" (one wonders whether Cronkite has even read it):

There was no willingness to admit error or correct erroneous reporting after the fact. The classic example was the Associated Press's continued assertion that sappers had entered the U.S. Embassy building in Saigon more than twelve hours after it was clear the attack had been repulsed on the grounds.

...By the time of Vietnam, it had become professionally acceptable in some media to allow reporters to "explain" news, not merely report it...

...In their commentary on events in Vietnam, reporters "projected" to the American public their own opinions and fears based on incomplete data and their own inclinations.

Has any of this changed today? I think things have gotten worse, if anything; the MSM failures illustrated by the press coverage of Tet have become institutionalized in the intervening years.

Tet was a turning point all right, but in a very different way than Cronkite envisioned it: it marked the beginning of a special and destructive type of MSM hubris, in which our own media--without realizing it was doing so, and without meaning to--became, effective ly, the propaganda arm of the enemy.

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