The quagmire of the media mind

Scott Johnson:

IF JOURNALISM were a profession, Peter Braestrup's 1977 book Big Story would be required reading in every journalism school. Braestrup's long subtitle is a little dry: "How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington." But his analysis was memorable. Braestrup showed that the press blew the story of the Tet offensive, portraying a major American battlefield victory as a disaster. In the introduction to the 1994 edition, Braestrup characterized the coverage as "an unusual media malfunction," one "on a scale that helped shaped Tet's repercussions in Washington and the Administration's response."

Many have noted the media's efforts to portray the the current war in Iraq as a replay of Vietnam. These efforts date back to R.W. Apple's invocation of Vietnam on day 24 of the campaign in Afghanistan:

Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word "quagmire" has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad. Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam?

This drum of defeatism has not stopped beating. This past week, for example, Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter portrayed the situation in Iraq's Anbar province as a repeat of Vietnam. Lasseter 's article is a troubling piece with relevant quotes from officers in the thick of the action.

But the Vietnam invoked by most journalists is the media's Vietnam: the Vietnam which Braestrup exposed as a false media construct....


LAST MONTH St. Paul Pioneer Press associate editorial page editor Mark Yost set off a firestorm when he wrote a "belated July 4 column" criticizing the performance of his journalistic colleagues on matters related to the war, titled "Why they hate us." Yost's column ran against the grain of the predominant motifs in the media coverage of the war, but it makes a few points that are borne out in abundance virtually every day on the Internet.

Yost's column was too much for his thin-skinned colleagues. They reacted like the wicked witch of the west to a little water thrown her way. See, for example, a couple of the items collected at Poynter Forums (scroll down). Among the Poynter items is this high-minded email from Pioneer Press reporter Chuck Laszewski to Yost: "I am embarrassed to call you my colleague." (Occasional Pioneer Press columnist Craig Westover commented here with some useful background on Laszewski.)


UNLIKE THE VIETNAM ERA, however, this time around there are independent media to provide contrast to the mainstream media. Last week, web journalist Michael Yon posted perhaps the single most dramatic piece of Iraq war coverage to date: "Gates of fire." Yon's coverage resonated even in such antiwar bastions as the Seattle Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It is possible that Yon's reportage might remind serious reporters what real war journalism looks like. Hint: It is not merely a daily drumbeat of fatalities and futility.

The stakes are large. As Paul Weaver wrote in 1977 in his review of Big Story: "A politicized press speaking the language of news is an instrument of propaganda, and such an institution does not foster democracy, but erodes it."

Last week Prairiepundit had two examples of how the media reporting on the war lacks context. The first was the story on the bombing in Husbayah which failed to note in any detail how the US is working with some Sunni tribes in battleing al Qaeda forces. The other involved two reports from Arab News that saw little, if any, attention in the mainstream media. The first story was about the Saudis capturing and/or killing around 41 al Qaeda operatives in various locations throughout the kingdom. The next days report told how a detainee in Iraq had tipped the US to al Qaeda's man in Iraq responsible for recruiting and coordinating human bomb attacks. The detainee also disclosed the man's network in Saudia Arabia. It makes sense that the previous days activities was probably related. If so it could have a significant impact on al Qaeda's ability to operate in Iraq. You would think that would be a big story.


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