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The Media Quagmire

The mainstream media understands the war in Iraq only through casualty counts and the Vietnam lens.

12:00 AM, Aug 29, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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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, 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."

Many have noted the media's efforts to portray the the current war in Iraq as a replay of Vietnam. These efforts date back to R.W. Apple's invocation of Vietnam on day 24 of the campaign in Afghanistan:

Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word "quagmire" has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad. Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam?

This drum of defeatism has not stopped beating. This past week, for example, Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter portrayed the situation in Iraq's Anbar province as a repeat of Vietnam. Lasseter 's article is a troubling piece with relevant quotes from officers in the thick of the action.

But the Vietnam invoked by most journalists is the media's Vietnam: the Vietnam which Braestrup exposed as a false media construct. (David Brooks's column yesterday is a notable exception.) The elite media organs covered in Braestrup's book didn't get it right the first time around; it would be nice if they took a timeout for some introspection regarding past errors before superimposing the Vietnam template (as Austin Bay calls it) on the current conflict.

If only one could put Lasseter in touch with the Power Line reader who served in Vietnam and last week wrote in from his current post in Iraq. He finds only one similarity: "[T]he deplorable way the mainstream media with their left-leaning bias have reported the two wars."

LAST MONTH St. Paul Pioneer Press associate editorial page editor Mark Yost set off a firestorm when he wrote a "belated July 4 column" criticizing the performance of his journalistic colleagues on matters related to the war, titled "Why they hate us." Yost's column ran against the grain of the predominant motifs in the media coverage of the war, but it makes a few points that are borne out in abundance virtually every day on the Internet.

Yost's column was too much for his thin-skinned colleagues. They reacted like the wicked witch of the west to a little water thrown her way. See, for example, a couple of the items collected at Poynter Forums (scroll down). Among the Poynter items is this high-minded email from Pioneer Press reporter Chuck Laszewski to Yost: "I am embarrassed to call you my colleague." (Occasional Pioneer Press columnist Craig Westover commented here with some useful background on Laszewski.)

EARLIER THIS MONTH Yost's Pioneer Press colleague and senior news editor John Welsh addressed the issue with his own internal, not-for-publication contribution to the controversy in an email to his news staff on "covering the home front":

I'm following up on a conversation during this morning's editors meeting. I feel we could be doing a better job covering the Iraq War on the home front. Like most newspapers, we do a good job of covering the extremes, such as the deaths of Minnesotans in this war. But we often fall short in covering the daily stress and drama that the war produces in our community. I don't necessarily think we need to have a reporter assigned to this but I think the paper and our readers would benefit if all of us looked for interesting war angles on our beats. Examples: How are schools covering the war in the classroom? Are recruiters more or less welcome these days? Junior ROTC more or less popular? Do families with loved ones abroad have special financial considerations that a biz story could explore? Are returning soldiers finding it difficult going back to office jobs? Are returning soldiers joining local VFW's? Is the reaction returning soldiers different from those received by Persian Gulf vets?

We've done good work. The coverage of the three Minnesota deaths in one day was superb. So was Jeremy's story on soldiers recovering from brain injuries at the VA. The soldier surprising mom at school made a terrific photo and was a great slice of life. I'm just wondering if there is more we can do . . .

Thanks.

John Welsh

(Mary Katharine Ham told the Yost story--and its sequel--in a highly entertaining column for Townhall.)

Early in August New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye also addressed the issue of the media's coverage of the war in a piece headlined "Editors ponder how to present a broad picture of Iraq." Seelye's article was followed in turn by the Tampa Tribune's August 21 feature package on war coverage. The lead piece in the Tampa Tribune's package was a long article by editorial page editor Rosemary Goudreau that seriously addressed Yost's criticism of the press's war coverage.

UNLIKE THE VIETNAM ERA, however, this time around there are independent media to provide contrast to the mainstream media. Last week, web journalist Michael Yon posted perhaps the single most dramatic piece of Iraq war coverage to date: "Gates of fire." Yon's coverage resonated even in such antiwar bastions as the Seattle Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It is possible that Yon's reportage might remind serious reporters what real war journalism looks like. Hint: It is not merely a daily drumbeat of fatalities and futility.

The stakes are large. As Paul Weaver wrote in 1977 in his 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."

Scott Johnson is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD and a contributor to the blog Power Line.