The media quagmire

TigerHawk perceptively looks at President Bush’s “acceptance” of the analogy between Vietnam and Iraq. TigerHawk elaborates on the Tet analogy that was posed to President Bush. To the extent the analogy obtains, it correctly points to the enemy’s strategic use of the American media. Daniel Freedman also comments on the story here.
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 of his book, 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.” Paul Weaver wrote in his Commentary 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.” It is an observation that bears on the media’s treatment of President Bush’s comment itself.
UPDATE: Reader Mario Fante writes:

I once spoke with Peter Braestrup years ago back when he was at the Library of Congress. He helped me with my Master’s policy paper on military-media relations by recommending a couple of sources that I found very useful – one of which he strongly endorsed, and which your readers may find haunting for its prescience of current media distortions of the war on terror and in Iraq.
It was Robert Elegant’s seminal essay in Encounter magazine, “How to Lose a War – The Press and Vietnam.” One of many money grafs (sound familiar, despite being nearly 40 years ago?):

By the same token, American restraint was not news, even to the experienced correspondents, because it was a “non-event.” Flying in a command helicopter of the Ninth Division over the Mekong Delta, another U.S. correspondent and I heard the brigade commander countermand his battalion commander’s order to the infantry and the helicopter gunships to attack some 100 enemy who were pouring out of a surrounded village, still firing.
“Do not, repeat do not, attack,” the colonel directed. “They’re using women and children as shields.”
Neither my colleague nor myself thought the incident worth reporting; that was a palpable error of judgment induced by the atmosphere in which we were working. If the Ninth Division had killed the civilians, we would have filed copiously.”

This article is required reading alongside Big Story, and makes much the same argument, but has the virtue of being much shorter, and a faster, more compelling read.
My advisor (a friend of Braestrup’s who set up the call), knew Elegant, and told me how much writing this piece cost him among “the brotherhood” of the media, who shunned him, and damaged his career (he’d since recovered).


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