For the first time in history, war was brought into our living rooms on a daily basis during the Vietnam War. Whatever our political perceptions of that war might have been, we were all haunted by the daily papers and nightly TV newscasts.
Television journalists and commentators reflected the deep split in public opinion about that war. In effect, Americans experienced a bloodless civil war. Arguments were intense and hard feelings cut deep. The basic argument for the war was the ‘Domino Effect,’ a term coined by Dwight Eisenhower meaning that the adoption of communism by one nation, precipitates the spread of communism to its neighboring nations. The basic argument against the war was that America’s entanglement in Southeast Asia to prevent the spread of communism demanded too high a price, or that a communist Vietnam was not a threat to us, or even that the expansion of communism was a good thing.
In sharp contrast to World War ll, the fog of war was thick during the Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath. The chaos of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos is well documented and requires no additional exposition from me. But I’d like to draw a parallel between the Vietnam War and current events in the Middle East and North Africa.
Enveloped in the fog of the Vietnam War, there was a newspaper photo and caption that epitomized the bias of purportedly objective reporters. The photo vividly depicted a Vietnamese man at the instant he was shot in the head, execution style. Absent were any details of the personal events that led to that execution. We were led to believe that the execution was part of a military action. When I saw the photo, I couldn’t help thinking that this was not the way to treat any human being whatever his political affiliations.
Years later and entirely by chance, I learned that just moments before the man was executed he had killed an entire family except its father. It was the father of that family that killed the man. The original caption made no mention that he was killed by a distraught father in the heat of extreme rage. I doubt that the reporter had been unaware of the whole story behind an incident that transcended the expected horrors of military conflict. It is very likely that he deliberately omitted details in order to characterize the incident as the mindless act of a man who executed an innocent civilian only because he was a communist sympathizer.
Time erodes the impact of events that happened long ago. But I haven’t resurrected this ghastly memory to impugn either of the two men caught up in the fog of war or, for that matter, the reporter who may not have known the ‘whole’ story, as unlikely as that may be.
What disturbed me then was not the media’s opposition to the war but rather its partisan bias. I believe that the depersonalization of the event was designed to lead us to believe that the murdered man was brutally killed because he was a communist.
Biased reports affected critical military decisions, especially during the Tet offensive. Perhaps worse was its effect on American soldiers who didn’t wear their uniforms on leave and were at best ignored when they came home from that war. Fifteen years of an ‘unpopular’ war stigmatized soldiers who, after all, don’t choose the wars they are required to fight. The same is true of the Gulf Wars. A select few ‘anchormen’ became superstars during the Vietnam War because of their less than objective commentaries. Does that sound familiar? It does to me.
History repeats itself. Current technology provides us with 24/7 sound bites and images at a global level. There is a constant flow of military and political news. There is an unprecedented proliferation of radio and television commentators. But the fog is as thick as ever in reports of the conflicts in the Middle East, in Southwest Asia, in Indonesia, and wherever ideologies clash. A tsunami of hastily mounted newscasts and verbal dogfights are no substitutes for political information.
Yet, despite the amazing technology of the Information Age, major media continue to slant global events. To a significant extent this is the result of journalists and commentators who are overworked, underinformed, too old to shed bias or too young to know any better. I can’t help but notice that what is being said receives far less attention than the grooming and makeup of the newscasters and commentators. I realize that my assessment of the news business seems like a rant, but I recognize exceptional journalists and commentators who are in a distinct minority but a credit to their profession. Rants and a balanced view are a contradiction in terms.
I have learned to see through the fog ever since I experienced the execution story and hundreds of others like it through the years that followed and continue to this day. I have learned that the flow of sound bites and flash images mislead listeners who are without an ideological base to make judgments about what is being said. I have learned that hosts and guests on talk shows are basically peddling each other’s careers. I have learned that ‘debates’ are designed to be full of ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ They are staged for entertainment, not information. I have learned that the pen and the tube are mightier than the truth.