The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

When was journalism? again

There is a lively discussion going on [1] on the so-called decertification of the press by the Bush administration, in which the history of White House/press relations provides necessary comparators [2].

I favour the null hypothesis: that, in trying to control his message, Bush has repressed and manipulated the media no more than his predecessors did (controlling for technological, commercial and other differences).

One problem in making the comparison is calibrating how much scope a particular previous administration allowed to journalists, and the extent to which they exploited it. (There is potential interaction between those two factors, of course: a White House dealing with a supine press can be relaxed, in the knowledge that any unfortunate revelations will be stifled by self-censorship.)

The Vietnam War as a period for comparison I come back to regularly: loads of great material on goverment-media relations [3].

My hypothesis is that, throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations up to the decision to escalate the war to the point of deploying combat troops in March 1965 [4], the senior management, editors and journalists concerned with Vietnam coverage in the top papers [5] had reason to know or believe that the administration was failing to be candid with the US public about the current and likely future state of South Vietnam and US policy towards it. And that, for reasons of Cold War ideology, commercial surival and - even - patriotism, they suppressed or handled information with a view to ensuring that that the path to combat involvement was not blocked [6].

An example of the treatment of the escalation story comes in Theodore Draper's 1967 Abuse of Power, from the period between the Tonkin Gulf Incidents, and the bombing raids mounted in retaliation, and the decision to deploy combat troops (p73ff):

On August 15 1964, William Bundy - ASS for Far Eastern Affairs -
was asked whether the United States might decide to interdict supply routes in North Vietnam. First, he replied that 'we want no wider war.' Then he added, still sticking close to the old line but not excluding a new one: 'We have made it clear that we cannot exclude the possibility that wider action against the North might become necessary, and we have carefully studied what might be involved, and all the rest, but I think it is clear enough that anything in the nature of attacks on North Vietnam of a systematic character by the South Vietnamese or by ourselves would involve very grave issues and we would, therefore, prefer to pursue the policy we are now pursuing of maximum assistance in South Vietnam.'

And then, on September 29 1964,
he delivered a major address in Tokyo in which he again obliquely referred to the possible expansion of the war.
Expansion of the war outside South Vietnam, though not a course we want to seek, could be forced on us by the increased pressures of the Communists, including a rising scale of infiltration.

It is surely impossible that Bundy was freelancing in making these comments. No wider war was the soundbite in Lyndon Johnson's post-Tonkin broadcast on August 4, and in his August 5 Message to Congress asking for what became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Bundy's spin would have been picked up by any seasoned journo on the beat who was paying attention.

And Draper has a name:
This, and similar official views, privately expressly, apparently aroused the suspicions of James Reston, the noted Washington commentator of the New York Times. On October 2 1964, he reported that
it is difficult to understand why prominent officials, a few weeks before a national election, should be talking so openly about expanding the war, and not only advocating it but almost lobbying for such a course of action.

It is even possible now to hear officials of this Government talking casually about how easy it would be to 'provoke an incident' in the Gulf of Tonkin that would justify an attack on North Vietnam, and thus, according to this thesis, enable the United States to bring strong military pressure to bear on the Communists there to let up on their pressure on South Vietnam.

So Reston seems to be telling his readers not only that Bundy was freelancing, but that he was far from the only adminstration official doing so. According to the picture sketched by Reston, LBJ ran the sort of madhouse that Franklin Roosevelt notoriously favoured as a style of management - which he didn't.

On what page did the Reston piece run, I wonder? (Draper doesn't say.) My guess is that it ran well inside the Times, and that the paper's news coverage of Vietnam was kept scrupulously clean of any taint from it.

From the Administration's viewpoint, Reston's piece is a tad embarrasing: the suggestion of policy souk implies weak governance by the President, which not doubt would not have gone down well.

But not much more: Reston is not saying that escalation towards bombing the DRV or deploying combat troops is official policy, and certainly not (in the extract) linking such further escalation with the existing policy of gradual escalation of which the OPLAN 34A raids formed a part.

No doubt many readers would have taken the story as Washington gossip fuelled by competing flunkies. Pieces like Reston's might be said to inoculate the underlying story by trivialising it.

And, of course, the Times can tick the box to say that it has drawn the information it has on escalation to the attention of its readers.

Johnson notoriously told Reston to get on the team [7] - but there's not much in Reston's October 2 piece for the old goat to complain of, I'm thinking.

For reasons of culture and ideology, it was, at that stage, practically impossible for the Times to propose a US withdrawal from SVN, even had Daddy Sulzberger, Catledge, Reston and all the other wise men at the paper thought withdrawal was the wisest course. Even to suggest it as an option for consideration would have been beyond the pale.

(One might compare the Times today producing an editorial in favour of a single-payer health system. Or abolishing the electoral college.)

Was the Johnson Administration more or less contemptuous of the media than Bush II's? Was the media then less contemptible then than now?

  1. Notably on Jay Rosen's site (latest piece), followed up by David Shaw under hed Is Bush really implementing a full-court press on media?.

  2. An essential element of the complaints against Bush is that what he is doing is unprecedented, different in kind rather than degree, etc. If Bush is only doing what the others did, the complaints are deflated.

  3. I'm hardly the first to have noticed this! For amateurs, it's a Willie Sutton thing: the material (dead-tree and online) is available. Whereas Truman's press relations are, I think, equally as interesting, but there is very little online about it (some oral histories, not much else) and one book, from memory. (Truman had a notoriously hard time from the press: that's all I've got...)

  4. The key decision, I'm thinking, was to deploy the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB) to Da Nang, as ordered by the Joint Chiefs on March 8 1965.

  5. Why isn't there an agreed shorthand phrase for this. I mean the New York Times, Washington Post and possibly, in the early 1960s, the LA Times. And probably no others, on the Vietnam beat.

  6. Earlier pieces here on the Bay of Pigs and the Tonkin Gulf Incidents contain a good deal of stuff on press coverage and the atmosphere in which it was provided.

  7. The Johnson Treatment - that combination of verbal and physical assault falling just short of battery - was less frequently employed as president than as Majority Leader, I suspect. And, on how much it was used on journos, I have no information.


I don't address above the question why Bundy made the statements quoted for the very good reason that I don't know, and can't easily find out. I have George Kahin's Intervention to hand, but its chapter (p236ff) on the post-Tonkin period provides no direct explanation.

It does, however, suggest a reason why USG might have been flying kites about escalation: the parlous state of the Khanh regime in Saigon (subject of an attempted coup on September 13 1964). The thought that US options might be foreclosed by an irreparable implosion of their glorious allies in SVN preoccupied counsels in the Adminstration. The risk was a reason/pretext for passing on bombing the DRV in retaliation for the November 1 attack on Bien Hoa, for instance.

Daniel Hallin in his Uncensored War - it's not to hand - has a passage on the conflicting messages that USG was obliged to send to 'satisfy' its different audiences: to the DRV, it was We'll pay any price; to the regime of the week in Saigon, it was Shape up or we're shipping out; to the US electorate, it was Nothing to see, move it along.

Clearly, to avoid total confusion, and hence failure, of such a propaganda strategy, a large element of doublespeak was required. But the structure of the American news product - segregation of 'hard' news from analysis, for instance - fitted the strategy like a glove: if the President said X on page 1, guys like Reston could say X was untrue as much as they liked on page 17, and it wouldn't affect his message much.

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