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The Credibility Gap

Miscommunication between the US Media and the US Government during the Vietnam War

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One heavily used buzzword (buzzphrase) during the Vietnam Era was the "Credibility Gap". It was a phrase coined by the media to draw attention to the gap between what the government was telling the reporters and what they believed to be true.

The Myth: The media was credible and the government was not.

In this blog entry I put the Credibility Gap under a microscope.

Who was Credible?

The US press appeared willing to take the word of the communists at face value.
Yet spokespersons of the US Government were treated as if they were not only always lying, but as if they were the only liars in the world.

The attitude seemed to be that if the communists are caught lying, "It’s ok, they’re communists what do you expect." But if a US government official lies then the world is broken. Catch one in a lie & they must all be lying. Everything they say becomes a lie.

Let’s look at an example where Arnaud de Borchgrave took the communists’ word at face value

Arnaud de Borchgrave interviewed Pham Van Dong in Newsweek about the 1972 Spring Offensive. Arnaud asks, "On March 30 (when the offensive began) you set out to prove that Vietnamization was a failure. Do you think that you have succeeded?1"

Pham’s answer sidesteps the question, "The US press has said itself it was a total failure.2" He refers to the US press reports rather than providing any actual evidence that Vietnamization is not working.

In the article, De Borchgrave did not pin Pham down by asking for some solid evidence, or for any evidence at all for that matter. Journalistic integrity required him to get a better answer, instead he took the Communist leader’s response at face value.

Why does De Borchgrave fail to pin Pham down on the issue? Was it because the liked the answer he got? Was it already anti-Vietnam War enough for him?

Fact is, if Pham had any actual evidence, his own track record shows he would have presented that evidence. His only evidence was that his armies were getting their tails kicked by ARVN forces and he knew it. See On Vietnamization.

So his options were to cite the US press, to lie, or to admit Vietnamization worked well enough to defeat the North Vietnamese military forces in the 72 Spring Offensive. If the US press honestly examined the situation a lie would stand out like a sore thumb, so...

He chose to cite the press, because he knew from personal experience that the American press had incorrectly assessed the situation.

De Borchgrave's technique is an example of what I call "shadow journalism". The journalist takes a subjective point of view about a political topic, and uses word manipulation and other shady techniques to favor that point of view, all the while pretending to be objective.

For example, there is no mention in the De Borchgrave article that it is an op-ed piece, only that it is an interview. I use the term "shadow" in the ‘cloak and dagger spy’ context because the result of this unethical journalistic technique is the unwarranted degradation of public support for the target of the journalistic piece. In essence he or she is acting unconsciously, or perhaps consciously, as an agent for the enemy.

One need only turn on television news to see tons of examples of shadow journalism running rampant today.

For more data on unethical journalism and its potential for damage to society see my graduate thesis Smokescreens, Lies and Deceptions: The Media and the Vietnam War.

So it is easy to see how selective reporting of evasive answers perpetuated the myth that "Vietnamization was not working". Also see "On Vietnamization"

Atrocities

There was an attitude that if the communists commit major atrocities, "It’s ok, they’re communists what do you expect." But if a US or ARVN soldier commits an atrocity, then the world is broken. We must all be baby killers & every US & ARVN soldier must be committing atrocities.

Along with the hippies screaming from behind chain link fences at Travis Air Force Base (and other demarkation points), Nick Turse and his Harvard cronies are especially guilty of this attitude.

More on Turse in a future post along with an examination the radically unfair differences between the US media coverage of the My Lai massacre and their coverage of the Hue massacres.

Credibility Gap Part 2: The credibility gap worked both ways.

The credibility gap was a destructive and regrettable communication breakdown. The record shows that both parties, the press and the government, were at fault and perhaps the press was more responsible. They are, after all, supposed to be America’s watchdogs and their own code requires them to be objective.

Yet objectivity flew out the window during much of the coverage of the Vietnam War.

How did this rift come about? Let’s look at the events that led to the escalating spiral of mistrust.

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The WWII generation of reporters and government spokespersons had an unwritten agreement that they would not release information until told it was ok. They were informed of the plans of operations before the operations took place.

When the reporters went in with or behind the troops they had a working knowledge of the big picture. They held onto their information until they were told it was ok to release, voluntarily for the security of the soldiers in the field, their missions and an appropriate sense of patriotism.

In the early sixties that generation of reporters began to retire. The new reporters coming in did not have that sense of security. They felt their job was to uncover whatever they could find and be the first to get it in print or on the new emerging media, television.

In their misplaced haste for a scoop, reporters breeched security and people died or were captured, and operations were compromised. The government sources quickly learned to withhold information. They lost the faith they once had in the media to keep secrets about ongoing or upcoming operations.

It is no wonder the Saigon Follies failed to provide the information the press desired.

President Kennedy once quipped, "Castro doesn’t need any agents in the US. All he has to do is read our newspapers.5".

The press did not trust government sources because they withheld information. The government withheld information because it didn’t trust the press to keep secrets. The downward spiral of mistrust escalated out of control.

Part of the rift between the press and the government may have been the result of Ambassador Nolting’s apparent failure to confront Diem about the Saigon government’s expelling of American reporters Sully and Robinson in 1962. The Diem regime was stricter with reporters than the US censors.

While the anger was aimed at the Saigon government, the lack of satisfaction from the hardened Diem/Ngo regime caused that anger to fly in the only direction that it could, at the American government and military.

Credibility Gap Part 3: Other Factors

Another factor that contributed to the credibility gap was President Kennedy’s relaxing of the "official military censorship of World War II and Korea in favor of managed news"6. Kennedy was more concerned about negative press than censorship.

His caution backfired as a press corps that was used to a certain amount of wartime censorship got a taste of freedom, so to speak. When the Saigon government maintained the censorship that Kennedy lifted, it angered the press corps.

This was about the time when WWII correspondents were retiring and a new guard of young reporters entered the stage lacking experience with the military censorship.

I mentioned before that the old guard knew it could cost lives to reveal sensitive information. So they were trusted to hear certain classified information and were able to comprehend and formulate informed opinions about the war in the context of the big picture.

In an attempt to get a scoop, some young reporters released more information than they should have & got people killed. So the young guard with no tolerance for military censorship, gradually (and in some instances very rapidly) found the information gateways becoming clogged with misinformation and doubletalk.

Another communications nightmare was that the new guard was not trained in military strategy7. Therefore they were confused by military jargon and often dismissed what they were being told as political doubletalk. Sometimes the doubletalk was doubletalk, and sometimes it was military or political jargon that was not understood by the untrained, but cocky reporters who didn’t know enough to realize how much they really didn’t know.

The US and South Vietnamese military leaders were very aware that any information showing up on the international wire services was accessed by North Vietnam and thus available to the Vietcong as well.

So Kennedy’s "managing news" meant information about ongoing operations became scarce and non-committal. ... Causing the press to distrust more and write negatively about it. ... Causing the government spokespersons to tighten up even more & sometimes lie ... angering the reporters who ..."

"... mistrusted the press releases, (that) while often valid, were extrapolated from ‘double check and confirm’ to reject without confirmation simply because the report came from the government8"

Well, you get where this is going, a circle of mistrust and bad feelings spiraling out of control.

But if that’s not bad enough, the press, failing to get information they needed from official sources, went to sources that often had one-sided or incomplete information. Skewed conclusions were drawn.

Subjective reporting and editing replaced the objectivity that is required by the social contract between the press and the people.

Many journalists blatantly violated their own code of conduct in order to disparage the War and those who gave or risked their lives to fight it.

Let me know if you find another code that should be highlighted on their Code of Conduct.

LINK: images/ethicscodehighlighted.jpg

The reporters that were looking for the sensational stories of death and destruction, ignored the stories about the many good things that were happening.

Major General James C. Smith recalls that "a reporter followed him around for several days ... but his series was never printed because it was too complimentary"9.

The politicians made mistakes with the press as well. Cosmos states, "By deliberately understating the scale and costs of the U.S. commitment in July 1965, President Johnson made inevitable an erosion of congressional and public trust in his administration as the conflict went on10".

Politicians felt the press made mistakes too. "The war was reported battle by battle," Nixon counseled. "But little or no sense of the underlying purpose of the fighting was conveyed. Eventually this contributed to the impression that we were fighting in military and moral quicksand, rather than toward an important and worthwhile objective11."

An example of this is found in the coverage of Hamburger Hill. The media, including the highly touted movie, never bothers to mention the millions of tons of weapons and supplies that were captured and destroyed when Hamburger Hill was taken. They don’t mention that the loss of these supplies delayed the next communist offensive by 7-8 months, thus saving thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of lives.

Nor do they mention that the deep underground storage bunkers along with their contents were destroyed before abandoning the Hill. B-52 strikes proved ineffective against these bunkers that were built specifically to withstand 2000 pound bombs. The weapons supply depot had to be taken by ground pounders. There was no other way in.

The media also failed to mention that destroying these underground storage bunkers and their contents was the main objective of operation. The bunkers were very labor intensive to build and rebuild. Enemy troops that were employed rebuilding the bunkers had to be diverted from some other purpose. Again, significantly hindering the communist war effort.

A high enemy body count was the gravy for the operation, not the objective.

Why abandon the base once it was taken? To keep the base may have created another Khe Sanh. Strategists calculated it was less costly to abandon and retake the hill later, if it became necessary, than to spend the effort to hold the hill. Also if we held the territory, it was highly probably the enemy would simply rebuild their bunkers elsewhere and we would be holding the hill for nothing.

On failure to properly communicate objectives.

It is not wise to let your enemy know what your strategies are. Yet, this simple truth escaped the US press corps in Vietnam. They complained there was no strategy, but they could not understand that the military would not reveal their strategy to the press because they did not want it given away to the enemy.

It’s Wartime Security 101. How could they not understand that if they revealed critical strategic information it could cause American and Allied casualties?

So effectively it was the actions, perhaps combined with arrogance, of the new guard of reporters, that closed up their channel to the big picture.

This new media aristocracy ... knights in shining armor protecting the world from the "military industrial complex" couldn’t see the big picture so they either had to make up their own or listen to the pro-communist chants that there is no strategy, that the war is immoral or that the people supported the National Liberation Front.
All lies as the subsequent election turnout demonstrated.

The Pentagon Papers didn’t help matters either. But using a lie to get over there, doesn’t automatically mean we should have been there. More on this later.

So bottom line, the media didn’t trust the government and the government didn’t trust the media. The fog of misinformation created by the Credibility Gap caused problems whose ripples are felt even today.

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