CASE STUDY: Vietnam -- Distortion by confusion as well as intention

AND then there's Vietnam. For Americans, Vietnam is perhaps the supreme test of information, misinformation, and news management in the third world in the last generation.

It is in the United States that the feud raged -- and still simmers. But the feud has always been about the proper interpretation of a kaleidoscopic third-world country and war in which any reporter with a thesis could always find facts to substantiate that thesis.

The remote American reader or TV viewer had no way of corroborating what journalists said -- and when most of the leading news media in the US turned against the Vietnam war, conservatives blamed the media for losing the war. More recently, that controversy has turned into a dispute about ``disinformation.''

Was there in fact deliberate disinformation on the part of American journalists covering Vietnam? One-time US press spokesman in Saigon Barry Zorthian says the skeptical American press actually ``was more accurate in covering the situation in Vietnam than the official [US] government public reports'' in the years preceding the Communist Tet offensive of 1968.

On the other hand, journalist Peter Braestrup (then of the Washington Post, now of the Wilson Quarterly) indicts the American press for getting the Tet offensive and its aftermath all wrong. He terms the phenomenon a ``malfunction'' of ``a magnitude rare in the annals of American crisis journalism.'' Tet was widely reported as a victory for the Communists, Braestrup argues, while the fact was it set the Communists back for several years: Once they made an all-out gamble and failed, they alienated peasants and got pushed back farther than they had been pre-Tet.

But Mr. Braestrup argues that it was more a preoccupation with the shock and ``melodrama'' in the very streets of Saigon than a guided disinformation that distorted much post-Tet reporting. This preoccupation reinforced an ``ethnocentric'' or ``hometown'' bias, Braestrup contends.

``As the fog of war lifted and the Communist tide ebbed [during the years of setback], the managers of the press and especially of TV put the accent on more melodrama rather than on trying to update the inevitably melodramatic first impressions,'' Braestrup told a 1983 conference. ``Disaster, real or impending, was a `story'; recovery was not,'' he went on.

Nor was the fact that the Viet Cong in their all-out push for the final offensive had upped the village rice tax and conscription that they had previously kept relatively moderate -- and thus alienated villagers.

If this former Vietnam reporter may be allowed a personal note, I think that Messrs. Zorthian and Braestrup are both right -- but that there is another level at which Braestrup is wrong. US reporting may have misjudged the aftermath of the Tet offensive, when the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese got pushed back from populated areas by the South Vietnamese and American pacification program. But the general media conclusion that America could not win in Vietnam and therefore should get out -- a conclusion that helped reverse US policy -- still seems to me to have been correct.

Vietnam was a land in which it was fiendishly difficult to gain an overall perspective. My own judgment is that governmental and journalistic reporting probably was distorted by deliberate disinformation in individual cases -- but that it was distorted much more by sheer confusion, chaos, the ``fog of war,'' and fixed preconceptions.

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