Last week, meandering back in history to the Joe McCarthy era, I touched on the conflation in broadcast news of journalism and showbiz. This week I found, while reading Michael Bilton's and Kevin Sim's 1992 book, Four Hours in My Lai , another example of how American journalism tends to prefer entertainment to hard news.
In The Hollow Men , T.S. Eliot sang a refrain about the darkness that insidiously divorces man's dreams from his attainments: “Between the idea/ And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act,” wrote Eliot, “Falls the Shadow…”
In defining the steady decay of journalism over the past half-century, I'm tempted to add this stanza: “Between the substance/ And the process/ Falls the Shadow.” More and more, especially in trying to capture the complexities of public policy, the press has focused not on the substance of issues, but on processes that divert attention, in amusing ways, from the substance.
In an election year, we call this “the horse race.” In the past election, we heard nothing about issues like climate change, gun control, or the war in Afghanistan. We heard far too much about President Obama's “you didn't build that” slip of the tongue, and about Mitt Romney's tactical misreading of “the 47 percent.”
The parallel that struck me, in Bilton's and Sim's history of the My Lai massacre, involved George W. Romney, Mitt's father. In September, 1967, Romney made a courageous decision to oppose continued US prosecution of the Vietnam War. In a lengthy interview, Romney cited the history of both Vietnam and the war, dating back to the French involvement and the ambivalence of President Eisenhower toward the war. Romney explained, in articulate detail, how his education on the topic changed his viewpoint from pro-war to skepticism.
However, the single comment that made headlines — from that long, conscientious interview — was Romney's admission that, during a 1965 tour of Vietnam, led by the Pentagon public relations staff, he had been “brainwashed” by generals eager for more war.
The American media latched onto “brainwashed” — a single word taken out of context — and trumpeted it, relentlessly and irresponsibly. Romney came off as a hapless sucker so gullible that he would believe even the most transparent deceptions spouted by the most obvious of liars. The result of this media malfeasance was not just the scuttling of Romney's 1968 presidential bid, which could have spared the nation from Richard Nixon, but the very death of Romney's political career.
Ironically, at the moment in 1967 when Romney was recanting his faith in Pentagon PR, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, was airlifting crowds of Congressional people into Saigon. He was mounting an even bigger brainwashing effort, in order to keep funds and cannon fodder flowing to a war growing less and less tenable. Westmoreland insisted, “The enemy's hopes are bankrupt. We have reached the important point when the end begins to come into view.”
At the time, there were a few reporters covering Vietnam — among them Morley Safer, Neil Sheehan, and David Halberstam — who, if read thoroughly, offered powerful support for the substance of George Romney's critique. But these reports were merely rustlings in the background of the story that captivated first the slovenly media and then — irresistibly — the American public.
What Americans read, heard, and watched was not how we were losing a war we should have never entered, as Romney was saying, but how Romney, by speaking candidly about the power of Pentagon propaganda, had committed a fatal gaffe.
Process over substance.
Five months later, the Viet Cong launched the Tet offensive, shattering Westmoreland's sunny assurances and proving the futility of a 22-year-old land war in Asia that would not peter out dismally for yet another seven years.
Ironically, every attack during Tet was eventually repulsed by combined US and South Vietnamese forces. But facts like that — thousands more dead and wounded in far off Vietnam, to no apparent purpose — didn't make much news. The “news” back home — the process — was how America's shocking non-defeat “defeat” had altered the 1968 campaign.
T.S. Eliot's fateful Shadow fell on LBJ. A new horse in the race, Bobby Kennedy, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight (rendering him, tragically, a much easier target).