Saturday, July 7, 2007

How do you spell Tet in Arabic?

Will be interesting to see how the media handles the latest outrage in Iraq, the suicide bombing of 100 people that U.S. General David Petraeus said may have been an attempt to "grab" headlines and create a "mini-Tet." The coverage of the Tet offensive in Vietnam remains one of that war's more controversial chapters. The AP gave America a history lesson in its dispatch about Saturday's death toll when it said the general referred "to the 1968 offensive that undermined public support for the Vietnam War in the United States." You bet it did. It also "undermined" support for the news media. If truth is the first casualty of war, will newspapers and network TV news be the last casualty of the Vietnam War?
Critics shouldn't be too hard on the reporters who covered the Vietnam War in the field, guys like Joe Galloway of UPI. Covering a war must be the ultimate challenge for a journalist. The editors in the safe havens of time are a different matter. They let too many unquestioned assumptions stand. Westmoreland certainly asked for it by insisting in the pre-Tet days that the war was going in favor of the allies. His intelligence was faulty. Sound familiar? Why, however, does the media allow its own intelligence to go unquestioned? Today we have heard WMDs repeated so often we forget the invasion was called "Operation Iraqi Freedom," not "Find the Damn WMDs." I find it fascinating that when it refers to the war's rationale the media never uses the words conained in the "eve of battle" statement issued to our troops prior to the invasion, which barely mentions WMDs, and then only in past tense.
I doubt the Internet would let the news media get away with what it did in 1968 when it allowed the fighting to become a major American defeat, instead of a draining of Viet Cong powers. Or that the people failed to raise up, or that the ARVN, in a real surprise, fought well. No, what was burned in our minds was the siege at the Embassy, the words of the aging Walter Cronkite who gave his imprimatur to a stalemate, and the street execution of a Communist insurgent. I doubt few people recall much about these incidents other than the pictures. If there is a lesson here, it is that print surrendered the journalistic high ground to photos. The pen was no longer a reporters best tool. Today, even less so.
Saddest of all was the reporting of the Communist massacre at Hue during Tet. Not that it wasn't reported initially. But years later the public recalls only one massacre - My Lai.

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