James Q. Wilson: What ever happened to patriotic reporters?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Wilson, formerly a professor at Harvard and at UCLA, now lectures at Pepperdine University. Among his recent books are The Moral Sense and The Marriage Problem. This article, adapted from a Manhattan Institute lecture, appears in the Autumn issue of City Journal.]

We are told by careful pollsters that half of the American people believe that American troops should be brought home from Iraq immediately. This news discourages supporters of our efforts there. Not me, though: I am relieved. Given press coverage of our efforts in Iraq, I am surprised that 90% of the public do not want us out right now.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2005, nearly 1,400 stories appeared on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news. More than half focused on the costs and problems of the war, four times as many as those that discussed the successes. About 40% of the stories reported terrorist attacks; scarcely any reported the triumphs of American soldiers and Marines. The few positive stories about progress in Iraq were just a small fraction of all the broadcasts.

When the Center for Media and Public Affairs made a nonpartisan evaluation of network news broadcasts, it found that during the active war against Saddam Hussein, 51% of the reports about the conflict were negative. Six months after the land battle ended, 77% were negative; in the 2004 general election, 89% were negative; by the spring of 2006, 94% were negative. This decline in media support was much faster than during Korea or Vietnam....

Suppose the current media posture about American military and security activities had been in effect during World War II. It is easy to imagine that happening. In the 1930s, after all, the well-connected America First Committee had been arguing for years about the need for America to stay out of "Europe's wars." Aware of these popular views, the House extended the draft by only a one-vote margin in 1941. Women dressed in black crowded the entrance to the Senate, arguing against extending the draft. Several hundred students at Harvard and Yale, including future Yale leader Kingman Brewster and future American president Gerald Ford, signed statements saying that they would never go to war. Everything was in place for a media attack on the Second World War. Here is how it might have sounded if today's customs were in effect:
December 1941. Though the press supports America's going to war against Japan after Pearl Harbor, several editorials want to know why we didn't prevent the attack by selling Japan more oil. Others criticize us for going to war with two nations that had never attacked us, Germany and Italy.

October 1942. The New York Times runs an exclusive story about the British effort to decipher German messages at a hidden site at Bletchley Park in England. One op-ed writer criticizes this move, quoting Henry Stimson's statement that gentlemen do not read one another's mail. Because the Bletchley Park code-cracking helped us find German submarines before they attacked, successful U-boat attacks increased once the Germans, knowing of the program, changed their code....

Thankfully, though, the press did not cover World War II the way it covered Vietnam and has covered Iraq. What caused this profound change? Like many liberals and conservatives, I believe that our Vietnam experience created new media attitudes that have continued down to the present. During that war, some reporters began their coverage supportive of the struggle, but that view did not last long. Many people will recall the CBS television program, narrated by Morley Safer, about U.S. Marines using cigarette lighters to torch huts in Cam Ne in 1965. Many will remember the picture of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a captured Viet Cong through the head. Hardly anyone can forget the My Lai story that ran for about a year after a journalist reported that American troops had killed many residents of that village.

Undoubtedly, similar events occurred in World War II, but the press didn't cover them. In Vietnam, however, key reporters thought that the Cam Ne story was splendid. David Halberstam said that it "legitimized pessimistic reporting" and would show that "there was something terribly wrong going on out there." The film, he wrote, shattered American "innocence" and raised questions about "who we were."

The changes came to a head in January 1968, when Communist forces during the Tet holiday launched a major attack on South Vietnamese cities. According to virtually every competent observer, these forces met a sharp defeat, but American press accounts described Tet instead as a major communist victory. Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup later published a book in which he explained the failure of the press to report the Tet offensive accurately. His summary: "Rarely has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality."...

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