On the Vietnamese holiday of Tet in 1968, U.S. troops in Saigon woke not to the pop of firecrackers, but to the riddle of machine gun fire. The enemy attacked throughout the city and across the country.
Veteran CBS Evening Newsman Walter Cronkite witnessed the Tet Offensive, and it shook him. He returned stateside and, on Feb. 27, ended his broadcast with an unprecedented "editorial opinion" in which he concluded, "We are mired in a stalemate."
Upon hearing the broadcast, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly declared, "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Thus, birthed the legend that the press lost Vietnam.
Many still think the media mattered in America quitting Vietnam. It did not. Cronkite declared the war lost in 1968, but the United States did not abandon its allies until 1975--seven years later. Nixon's impeachment left the presidency in a shambles and without support from the Right or the Left, Congress voted America out. The press chronicled this story--but it didn't cause it.
Nobody tells the tale of how things really happened better than William Hammond. In Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War, Hammond rightly argues, Johnson was undone by bad war policies, not bad press.
Even so, the Vietnam-era tradition of blaming the media for weary war news persists to this day. Last week at the Conference of Army Historians, a panel of journalists talked about their role in America's contemporary conflicts.
Listening to the session, Hammond, a senior historian at the Army Center of Military History, heard about a very different kind of war reporting. The panel included Lara Logan, the CBS "60 Minutes" war correspondent who has spent years reporting on frontline combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Tony Capaccio, who covers the Pentagon desk for Bloomberg News. Also there, however, were Mark Benjamin, an investigative reporter for Salon.com and Jim Hanson, a blogger for Blackfive, a web site that covers Special Forces.
Today's Internet has dramatically increased the number of media options available to news consumers. But in one sense, not much has changed from Vietnam. As Salon's Benjamin put it: "We are all chasing traffic."
As a result, most reporters, from "citizen" journalists to magazine writers, wind up pursuing whatever story is "hot."
Reporters may get great stories, but unless they become "hot," editors will give them little if any play. Benjamin, for example, penned pioneering copy about the plight of returning war veterans. No one paid much attention until the press-feeding frenzy over the scandal at Walter Reed Army Hospital. Likewise, Logan had reported that Afghanistan was going badly long before the White House turned its attention back to that war.
On the flip side, Hanson blogs on "good news" about what America's military is doing overseas, because he finds most mainstream press don't cover these stories. In practice, most media follow, rather than lead public opinion. Editors think "news" is what people are most interested in.
None of this bodes well for the future. Right now, Americans are not much interested in war news of any kind. The United States still has over 100,000 troops in Iraq. As American casualties there lessen, the toll among Iraqis is rising. No one seems to care.
The war in Afghanistan is red hot. U.S. casualties are setting records. Yet news about operations there barely makes the "crawl" on cable-news channels.
North Korea has rung up an unprecedented number of long-range ballistic missile tests. They've threatened war, for goodness sakes. Yet that can't compete with Michael Jackson's demise or even a White House beer-fest.
The truth is Americans are not much interested in national security news right now, and all the reporting in the world won't change that. And that's a problem.
The new administration is making sweeping changes in how our nation will be protected. It is substituting arms control negotiations--and unilateral disarmament--for missile defenses. It is replacing fighter planes, aircraft carriers, and modern combat vehicles with "soft power."
These changes are sweeping through the Pentagon with virtually no national debate. Yet even if Cronkite were still with us and broadcasting, it would not make a difference.
Americans tend to pay attention to national security concerns only when a crisis comes upon them. When the next crisis comes, then they will ask "Where are the ships and planes and modern weapons that once made America's military the marvel of the world?"
The press will be on the case, trying to give them answers. But even the best reporter will be hard-pressed to find a reasonable answer to another question: Why didn't we pay attention before calamity came upon us?
James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the DC Examiner