At the end of 2008, Harvard hosted the inaugural Richard S. Salant lecture on Freedom of the Press, featuring Anthony Lewis, a journalist and author of several books, including the well-known Gideon’s Trumpet. Lewis chose to touch on safe topics during his speech—criticism of President George W. Bush and praise for the reporters who covered the Vietnam War and were influential in seeing it come to an end.
It is almost unanimously accepted among journalists and academics today that the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” was necessary, an act of free speech, heroic, “journalism at its finest hour.” Lewis retold the story to the Harvard crowd as one might tell of Washington crossing the Delaware, concluding that the episode “was a victory, not just in law but in press attitudes.”
The history and lore surrounding the coverage of the Vietnam era are all about man against establishment—the weak journalist standing up to the mighty government. But Vietnam did not turn out in our favor. In fact, very little resulted from the war that is worthy of celebration besides the selflessness of most of our troops. Did the media help or hinder the American cause with its coverage of the Vietnam War? Might the war have ended more positively, had the media offered its support and honesty? Might the spread of communism been avoided?
During the 1970’s, the founder of Accuracy in Media (AIM), Reed Irvine, offered sharp criticism of major news outlets’ coverage of the Vietnam War. He accused the media of encouraging a highly negative view of national defense, of misleading the public on the facts of the war, and of turning public opinion against the government unjustly.
Wrote Reed Irvine in 1984, recalling the harmful news coverage: “The key role played by the media is one of the most important lessons of the Vietnam experience. This was the first war fought by the U.S. in which propaganda, disinformation and incompetent and irresponsible journalism proved to be more decisive than guns.”
In his 1974 coverage, Irvine cited a study of CBS News conducted by the Institute for American Strategy which revealed CBS’s overwhelmingly negative coverage of the war and pointed out that “CBS ‘almost totally neglected’ the views of millions of Americans who favored a stronger defense effort.” He also quoted Dr. Ernest Lefever of the Brookings Institution saying, “CBS national security news was so spotty and lopsided that it failed to provide the essential facts for understanding U.S. defense and military issues…”
During his speech, Lewis said, “It was at a particular moment in modern history that the press began seeing its highest function as challenging official truth. That was, of course, the Vietnam War.” Or perhaps this is when the press began to have an agenda, and “truth” and “accuracy” were no longer one and the same. Lewis went on to congratulate the press, who “stopped simply repeating rosy official accounts of the war. They looked for reality, and reported it.”
For Reed Irvine, the reality was that communism was spreading. Not only that, but America was in danger—fighting a bloody war in Asia, while being subverted by the media back home. With Accuracy in Media’s collective coverage of the war, Reed helped make the documentary Television’s Vietnam, a response to Public Broadcasting’s Vietnam: A Television History which was protested angrily by Vietnam veterans. AIM’s documentary sets the record straight on a number of issues which were either neglected or inaccurately covered by mainstream media.
Quoting experts and journalists including Mr. Irvine, the documentary shows how coverage of U.S. servicemen and achievements were skewed throughout the war. Journalists often sympathized with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, habitually referring to them as nationalists rather than communists, and remarking on the justness of their cause.
AIM’s documentary quotes a young John McCain, then an Arizona Congressman, describing the disheartening coverage the media offered about U.S. soldiers. He and his fellow soldiers were depicted as drug addicts, racists and torturers, and were repeatedly degraded by national news sources. This type of coverage helped radicals at home achieve their goals and gain recognition for their cowardly anti-war demonstrations by legitimizing their protests and portraying those who were fighting negatively.
The distortion and half-truths evident in so much of the reporting crippled the U.S. war effort. News agencies would deliberately choose not to cover marches in support of the war, not deeming such displays newsworthy. “Many believe that our will to win was eroded by the way the media reported the war,” the documentary relates.
So many of the battles during the Vietnam War were determined not on the battlefield, but on paper by journalists. And it is those records that have shaped the history books and education of generations. Those who supply our information should be held to a higher standard. Anthony Lewis, in offering Harvard’s inaugural Freedom of the Press speech sought to make heroes of those who robbed America of a victory it should have had. The price the country paid for this treachery was its soul.