Big Story, by Peter Braestrup
Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington.
by Peter Braestrup.
Westview Press. 2 Vols. 1447 Pages. $50.00.
This study of how the national press covered the Tet offensive sprawls through two weighty volumes and contains 41 appendixes, 23 enormous tables, 14 indexes, and a thousand footnotes. Whoever ventures to read it will discover it to be less a book than a lumbering melange of research notes, autobiography, mini-essays, raw data, deadpan polemic, and newsroom gossip. Even so—one almost wants to say therefore—Big Story is a fascinating and important account of our national press in action, and one hopes (probably in vain) that the book will receive the attentive reception which its meandering structure and long-winded exposition seem intended to discourage. It presents a comprehensive reconstruction of the facts and ideas the press conveyed to the American people about this turning point in the Vietnam war and U.S. politics. It is the first systematic, book-length analysis ever made of the content, accuracy, and political animus of a major body of national press coverage. Not least, it is a sort of confession. For the author, a Yale graduate and former Nieman fellow at Harvard, is a newsman who for twenty years made his career in the citadels of American journalism, first at Time, then at the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. During Tet itself he was chief of the Washington Post’s news bureau in Saigon.
The author’s background is noteworthy because his thesis is that the national press misrepresented, in many cases quite grotesquely, virtually every aspect of the Tet offensive and its aftermath. Braestrup argues that the Tet offensive was an enormous gamble on the part of the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) that bore an important resemblance to the U.S.-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961. For at Tet the North Vietnamese and NLF surfaced a large portion of their total force and committed it to an invasion of cities and towns, apparently in the hope that they would thereby win over the populace, or cause the South Vietnamese regime to collapse, or at least force into being a coalition government that they could dominate. That effort turned out to be an utter failure. The North Vietnamese army (NVA) and Vietcong, after initial successes, were driven back and took what in the end were very severe losses. The people did not rally to their cause; indeed, they appear to have intensified their support for the Thieu-Ky regime, not least because of the North Vietnamese massacre of almost 3,000 civilians in Hué during the time that city was occupied. Tet also prompted the Saigon regime, for the first time, to arm the populace in large numbers and to increase its draft call substantially. For the South Vietnamese army, according to Braestrup, the Tet episode was a formative experience, demonstrating that, in a flat-out confrontation with the enemy, it could stay together and fight.
That, at least, was the real Tet; the journalistic version, according to Braestrup’s massive analysis, was strikingly different. For the press did not portray Tet as a bold but unsuccessful gamble by the North culminating in pitched battles that the U.S. and South Vietnam sooner or later won. To the contrary, the national press depicted Tet as an unmitigated disaster that demonstrated the failure of U.S. policy and the futility of persisting in it. In the eyes of the press, the fact that the North Vietnamese and NLF could make their challenge was evidence that they had in fact won, or at least could not fail over the long run, and that our side had already lost or eventually would. Thus, in contrast to the real Tet, there was no development in the journalistic Tet, which began as a disaster for the U.S. and two months later remained a disaster.
To some extent, the press’s decision to organize its coverage around the theme of American failure and futility led to—or was the result of—errors of fact. Braestrup deliberately does not make much of these, limiting himself to identifying the errors in footnotes that give the correct information without comment or, in the case of unverified reports, that observe laconically, “This remains a Times [or ABC, or UPI, or whatever] exclusive.” But there are an awful lot of these corrective footnotes. The lead story in the New York Times that reported the first major attacks in Saigon on January 31, for example, contains seven mistakes of fact, according to Braestrup, three of them in the first two paragraphs alone.
Most of the mistakes, to be sure, are of little substantive importance; it isn’t exactly crucial to a grasp of what happened that first day in Saigon, for example, whether the suicide squad that tried to invade the U.S. embassy had 17 or 19 members, or whether they wore South Vietnamese army uniforms or civilian clothes, to take two points on which the Times was in error. But some of the mistakes were material indeed. For example, in a report on the early fighting in Saigon, CBS’s Don Webster showed film of the smoking remains of an allied bombing attack and located the scene “right in downtown Saigon.” Actually, according to Braestrup, the film was of a street in suburban Gia Dinh; no such bombing strikes ever took place in downtown Saigon. Webster went on to comment: “It’s not quite clear exactly why there had to be an air strike, almost any building could be struck from the ground. . . .” To which Braestrup appends this indignant footnote: “Exactly the reverse was true. Allied forces in Saigon and the Delta towns lacked powerful ‘direct-fire’ weapons, unlike the Marines who used the 106 mm. recoilless cannon to good effect on Hué’s south side; elsewhere, for lack of alternatives, air strikes and helicopter gunships were used.”
Braestrup may be right not to belabor the press for its narrowly factual errors. As he explains in the title of one of his chapters, “First reports are always partly wrong.” Moreover, the really important mistakes made by the press were conceptual in nature, representing a failure not of simple observation or verification, but of comprehension and judgment. Braestrup’s analysis shows that the overall picture the press conveyed of Tet was marked by some astonishing imbalances. For example, as much as a quarter of all Tet coverage dealt with the siege of the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh, near the demilitarized zone. Yet Khe Sanh could not have been more unrepresentative of the overall action during Tet. It was located in a remote, rural setting, whereas most of the battles were in populated areas. Its strategic significance was uncertain, and that little was narrowly military, having to do with control of invasion and supply routes. By contrast, most of the fighting at Tet was over strategic objectives of the most obvious importance, such as control of civilian populations or the maintenance of legitimacy. Yet during the 77 days the siege lasted, the military situation at Khe Sanh was the focus of the media; more than any other event or battle, it served, as Walter Cronkite put it, as a “microcosm” of the entire war.
Not only was Khe Sanh grossly overcovered, according to Braestrup, but it was itself misrepresented—toward the end to the point of almost total falsification. The central theme of Khe Sanh reportage, according to Braestrup’s analysis, was that for the U.S. the battle was, or would become, what Dienbienphu had been for the French, i.e., a humiliating defeat that put a decisive end to a colonial war. The press thus presented Khe Sanh as a “disaster in the making.” Its theme was that the Marines were surrounded by a powerful foe commanded by the “wily Giap,” as the North Vietnamese general was often referred to, who would inexorably tighten the noose and eventually overwhelm the outpost in “human-wave” attacks. Accordingly, the press tended to depict U.S. forces as passive victims, pawns at the mercy of the enemy. For instance, of the twenty-five news photographs of Khe Sanh the New York Times printed during Tet, eight showed U.S. air operations; ten showed U.S. troops wounded, dead, ducking fire, or surveying enemy-inflicted damage; four showed them in noncombatant poses; and only one picture showed Marines firing back. As CBS’s Murray Fromson put the prevailing interpretation of the Marines’ situation: “Here, the North Vietnamese decide who lives and who dies. Every day, which planes land and which ones don’t, and sooner or later they will make the move that will seal the fate of Khe Sanh.”
That move, of course, was never made. Indeed, Braestrup points out that there never was much chance that it would be, principally because of overwhelming U.S. air support (at Dienbienphu in 1954 the French had little) and a relatively weak North Vietnamese effort (the artillery barrage at Khe Sanh was less than one-tenth that which devastated Dienbienphu). By mid-March, the NVA began pulling out its troops (UPI had the story but couldn’t get official confirmation, and neither the Times nor the Post ran it), and at the end of that month, the U.S. mounted Operation Pegasus to relieve the outpost by ground. Yet even during this period the press kept hammering on the Dienbienphu theme. On March 18, Newsweek ran a cover story on “The Dusty Agony of Khe Sanh,” which was accompanied by a rare editiorial announcing the magazine’s opposition to Johnson’s war policy.
Elsewhere in the press, the horizon was constantly being scanned for new threats to Khe Sanh, however far-fetched. One day the sighting of a pair of Soviet-made jet bombers at a North Vietnamese air base 325 miles away touched off a flurry of speculation about possible enemy air attacks against the Marines; another day this possibility was magnified by a New York Times report of a possible secret air strip in nearby jungles from which MIG-21’s could fly sorties against Khe Sanh. (No such air strip was ever found, and Braestrup describes the Times’s story as “the most imaginative newspaper story of the Tet period.”) CBS’s Jeff Gralnick articulated the prevailing view on March 29 when he reported:
There really is no end in sight. The North Vietnamese in the hills out there beyond the fog show no inclination to pull back or attack. U.S. commanders show no inclination just yet to drive them back. So for the Marines and the Seabees and the rest here, there is nothing to do but sit and take it, just to wait, and hope they’ll rotate out, leave before they join the roster of wounded and dead here.
Of this report Braestrup observes: “It was a fitting television ending. . . . Next day, in fact, the Marines began pushing out into the surrounding ground. . . . On April 1, Operation Pegasus began—against light opposition.” A few days after that the siege was lifted.
The press’s coverage of Khe Sanh exemplifies, if in extreme form, the general pattern of its treatment of Tet: it insisted that Tet was a disaster for the U.S. and its allies; that it demonstrated the futility of the war; and that it reflected the superior discipline of the enemy’s army, the superior ethics of his administrative cadres, his superior support among the people, his unyielding will to win, and so forth. Coverage of the South Vietnamese was based on the opposite notions, and this gave rise to some dramatic inconsistencies. For instance, the media gave intense coverage to an incident in February in which, before an audience of American news photographers and TV cameras, Saigon’s chief of police shot a captured VC officer in the head, killing him instantly. By contrast, news of the enemy’s executions of what turned out to be almost 3,000 civilians in Hue was given little play, and in some cases was balanced against South Vietnamese offenses of vastly lesser magnitude. An NBC report after Hue, for example, noted that “Hundreds of government workers were killed and thrown into temporary graves” and then went on to discuss, at greater length, the looting that had been committed by South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers. “The North Vietnamese army did not loot,” the report pointed out.
When the North Vietnamese were doing well, during the early days of the Tet offensive, the press’s principal theme was that of their strength, daring, and success. Later, as the U.S. and its allies cleaned the enemy out of its temporary strongholds, the journalistic focus shifted to the deaths and destruction the fighting had caused. The implication—sometimes made explicit—was that our efforts were futile: if we lost, we lost; if we won, we were scarcely any better off. “Destruction was a ‘story,’” Braestrup observes; recovery—and victory—were not. And the destruction was typically depicted as the allies’ fault. As NBC’s Howard Tuckner put it on one occasion: “South Vietnamese and American military leaders decided that in order to protect most of the people, they had to kill or maim some of the people. . . . The only real losers were the people, and in this war there’s nothing new about that.” In a March 10 special on NBC, Frank McGee asserted that the issue facing the U.S. in the wake of the Tet offensive was whether “it’s futile to destroy Vietnam in the effort to save it.”
One could go on, but the point is sufficiently clear: the national press not only presented a distorted impression, it all but falsified what was actually going on in Vietnam during Tet. In Braestrup’s view, this dismal performance is explained by the inherent limitations to which newsmen working under deadlines are subject; by the built-in routines and habits of daily journalism, e.g., the preference for dramatic events (fire, death, and so forth); by the fact that few reporters spent much time with army units in the field or knew anything in particular about war in an Asian country; and by the fact that newsmen were reacting naturally against the Johnson administration’s previous assurances that the war effort was making good progress and, by implication, that everything was going swimmingly in Vietnam.
Braestrup explicitly rejects the hypothesis that ideology was a cause of the press’s performance, except possibly in the case of the Times, some of whose staff members publicly joined an end-the-war committee during the Tet period. To Braestrup, what happened was the result of laziness, routine, and ignorance; the only actors in the drama he is prepared to censure are the news executives back in Washington and New York, who, as he argues, could and should have been more skeptical, less melodramatic, and less willing to commit their institutions to broad theories about what was going on in Vietnam before all the facts were in.
This explanation strikes me as correct as far as it goes, but insufficient. For in the end Braestrup sees the press’s performance in cognitive terms only, as a simple question of knowledge. Yet while it is true that the news accounts were short on understanding, that is by no means the only respect in which they were defective. For the press did not convey any random misimpressions about Tet; it obviously was intent on conveying certain kinds of misimpressions. Thus, what Braestrup’s exhaustive analysis uncovers is not merely an absence of understanding, it is also the presence of something else, namely, a commitment on the part of the journalistic institutions involved to a general notion—and not an unpolitical one—of what was and was not, should and should not be, going on in Vietnam and U.S. foreign policy.
News consists of facts about specific events, but it is not and cannot be limited to them; it always includes, is based on, and is aimed at articulating larger ideas about the situation at hand or the world as a whole. News, that is to say, is story as well as fact—and story is always critical and normative; it tells us not only what is, but also what should be. What happened at Tet is that the national press became committed to a certain story line that led to severe distortions of observable reality. The story line was one of the brutality and futility of American involvement in the war. To be sure, the coverage it gave shape to did convey certain kinds of truths—the “universal truths” that war is brutal and that nations seldom do honor to their highest values by fighting prolonged wars in strange and marginal countries. But the coverage so shaped did not convey the specific truth of the actual situation in Vietnam at the time of Tet, which is to say that it did not convey the kind of truth that is appropriate to journalism in a democracy, the whole purpose of which is to assist the citizenry in evaluating policy decisions in light of its considered preferences and observable realities.
In short, what Braestrup describes is a press that in effect declared its opposition to Johnson and his war and proceeded to express that opposition in the only language available to it: the language of news—of the dramatized presentation of actual events. Braestrup says that the motives behind the opposition were not ideological. What does seem clear is that the pattern of coverage his research describes represents a political act, and one whose consequences extend well beyond the issue of the war, important though it was and is. A politicized press speaking the language of news is an instrument of propaganda, and such an institution does not foster democracy, but erodes it.