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Fake News and Vietnam

Dur­ing a visit last year to Viet­nam, I made the trek to Khe Sanh, one of the key bat­tles dur­ing the Tet Offen­sive, which hap­pened 50 years ago.

For most of the jour­ney, I bris­tled at the Viet­namese guide and pro­pa­gan­dist, who main­tained Tet was a major vic­tory for the Com­mu­nist forces. I finally had enough and offered some facts to her and the tourists on the bus.

DaTech3.jpgSim­ply put, the cov­er­age of the 1968 North Viet­namese attack is a star­tling exam­ple of how the U.S. media got it wrong. The media pre­sented Tet as a major loss for the Amer­i­cans when it actu­ally was a mas­sive defeat for North Vietnam.

The North Viet­namese gov­ern­ment launched the offen­sive dur­ing Tet, the cel­e­bra­tion of the Viet­namese New Year. The attacks began on Jan­u­ary 30 on tar­gets in Saigon and other Viet­namese cities, and ended a lit­tle more than a month later when Marines crushed the last resis­tance in the north­ern city of Hue.

As The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup doc­u­mented in his book The Big Story, reporters sys­tem­at­i­cally used Tet to turn the real­ity of a U.S. vic­tory into an image of Amer­i­can and South Viet­namese defeat.

For exam­ple, jour­nal­ists reported that that Viet­cong had over­run five floors of the U.S. embassy when the VC never got inside the build­ing. Newsweek’s cov­er­age of the siege of Khe Sanh showed 18 pho­tos out of a total of 29 of dead or wounded Marines or Marines hud­dling under cover, never men­tion­ing that the Marines inflicted heavy casu­al­ties on the enemy.

That cam­paign of mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion cul­mi­nated in Wal­ter Cronkite’s half-​hour TV spe­cial on Feb­ru­ary 27, 1968, when he told his view­ers that Tet had proved that Amer­ica was “mired in a stalemate.”

Here are some impor­tant facts that got lost in the jour­nal­is­tic shuf­fle. The North Viet­namese Army lost 20 per­cent of its forces in the South and suf­fered 33,000 men killed in action for no mil­i­tary gain.

In his excel­lent book on the bat­tle of Hue, Mark Bow­den describes mis­cal­cu­la­tions on the part of the U.S. com­mand but also the cyn­i­cism of the North Viet­namese com­mand that was try­ing to win a pub­lic rela­tions bat­tle rather than a mil­i­tary vic­tory. The Com­mu­nists told many of their sup­port­ers that the goal was to launch a rev­o­lu­tion when the gov­ern­ment knew many would die. Sim­ply put, the North Viet­nam lead­er­ship was will­ing to lose thou­sands of sol­diers to turn the PR tide.

The strat­egy worked as the inter­na­tional media mis­in­ter­preted what hap­pened on the ground. Pub­lic sup­port for the war dropped sig­nif­i­cantly after the mis­in­for­ma­tion about the Tet offensive.

As The New Repub­lic put it recently: “The Amer­i­can pub­lic knew none of this, how­ever. The mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion by America’s most respected news­man and most trusted media out­lets of what had actu­ally hap­pened dur­ing Tet stunned the Amer­i­can pub­lic and the body politic. Pop­u­lar sup­port for the war took a heavy hit, as the war’s crit­ics now grabbed cen­ter stage….

After Tet, Amer­i­can media had assumed a new mis­sion for itself: to shape the nation’s pol­i­tics by craft­ing a sin­gle coher­ent nar­ra­tive, even if it meant omit­ting cer­tain rel­e­vant facts and pro­mot­ing other false or mis­lead­ing ones. stand­ing — just as they had con­vinced them a year ear­lier that America’s major vic­tory was actu­ally a major defeat.”

Sound famil­iar?

During a visit last year to Vietnam, I made the trek to Khe Sanh, one of the key battles during the Tet Offensive, which happened 50 years ago.

For most of the journey, I bristled at the Vietnamese guide and propagandist, who maintained Tet was a major victory for the Communist forces. I finally had enough and offered some facts to her and the tourists on the bus.

DaTech3.jpgSimply put, the coverage of the 1968 North Vietnamese attack is a startling example of how the U.S. media got it wrong. The media presented Tet as a major loss for the Americans when it actually was a massive defeat for North Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese government launched the offensive during Tet, the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year. The attacks began on January 30 on targets in Saigon and other Vietnamese cities, and ended a little more than a month later when Marines crushed the last resistance in the northern city of Hue.

As The Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief Peter Braestrup documented in his book The Big Story, reporters systematically used Tet to turn the reality of a U.S. victory into an image of American and South Vietnamese defeat.

For example, journalists reported that that Vietcong had overrun five floors of the U.S. embassy when the VC never got inside the building. Newsweek’s coverage of the siege of Khe Sanh showed 18 photos out of a total of 29 of dead or wounded Marines or Marines huddling under cover, never mentioning that the Marines inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

That campaign of misrepresentation culminated in Walter Cronkite’s half-hour TV special on February 27, 1968, when he told his viewers that Tet had proved that America was “mired in a stalemate.”

Here are some important facts that got lost in the journalistic shuffle. The North Vietnamese Army lost 20 percent of its forces in the South and suffered 33,000 men killed in action for no military gain.

In his excellent book on the battle of Hue, Mark Bowden describes miscalculations on the part of the U.S. command but also the cynicism of the North Vietnamese command that was trying to win a public relations battle rather than a military victory. The Communists told many of their supporters that the goal was to launch a revolution when the government knew many would die. Simply put, the North Vietnam leadership was willing to lose thousands of soldiers to turn the PR tide.

The strategy worked as the international media misinterpreted what happened on the ground. Public support for the war dropped significantly after the misinformation about the Tet offensive.

As The New Republic put it recently: “The American public knew none of this, however. The misrepresentation by America’s most respected newsman and most trusted media outlets of what had actually happened during Tet stunned the American public and the body politic. Popular support for the war took a heavy hit, as the war’s critics now grabbed center stage….

“After Tet, American media had assumed a new mission for itself: to shape the nation’s politics by crafting a single coherent narrative, even if it meant omitting certain relevant facts and promoting other false or misleading ones. standing — just as they had convinced them a year earlier that America’s major victory was actually a major defeat.”

Sound familiar?