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Continuing with yesterday’s excerpt about the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a little bit more from The Age of Reagan, vol. 1:
On the morning of January 31, the first full day of the Tet attack, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and a Vietnamese TV cameraman employed by NBC were wandering around Saigon getting photos and footage of the battle damage when they noticed a small contingent of South Vietnamese troops with a captive dressed in a checked shirt. From the other direction came Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police. As Adams and the NBC cameraman aimed their cameras, Loan calmly raised his sidearm and shot the prisoner—a Viet Cong officer—in the head. Loan walked over to Adams and said in English: “They killed many Americans and many of my men.” (It was not reported at the time that the prisoner had also taunted his captors, saying “Now you must treat me as a prisoner of war,” and had been identified as the assassin of a South Vietnamese army officer’s entire family.)
Adams’ stunning photo of the prisoner’s grimace as the bullet struck his head ran on the front pages of newspaper all across America two days later. Only the Associated Press reported Loan’s remark to Adams that “They killed many Americans and many of my men.” Most news accounts of the photo ignored this context; the drama of the picture was just too irresistible for most news organizations to try to put it in any kind of balanced context. NBC, which had only a silent film clip because no sound man had accompanied its camera man, went so far as to embellish its TV broadcast of the episode by adding the sound of a gunshot. Tom Buckley, a writer for Harper’s magazine, said Adams’ photo was “the moment when the American public turned against the war.”
The visual shock of the Adams’ photograph (for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize) was soon matched by the journalistic interpretation of events. On February 7, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett filed a story from the Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre, where hard fighting had inflicted severe damage and high civilian casualties. The third paragraph of Arnett’s report quoted an unnamed U.S Major: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The phrase proved an immediate sensation, and was picked up and amplified by the media echo chamber. The phrase came to be repeated countless times by other media outlets, and was adapted into an all-purpose slogan to describe hard action in other cities such as Hue. For many Americans, and not just those in the anti-war movement, it became an epigram that captured the disproportion between America’s seemingly excessive use of firepower and our limited war aims. (Arnett refused to identify the source of the quote, but later revealingly referred to his source as “the perpetrator.” The New Republic identified the source at the time as Major Chester L. Brown.)
Arnett’s sensational quotation was only the beginning of the bad press the Tet offensive unleashed. “Rarely,” wrote Peter Braestrup in his two-volume analysis of the press coverage of Tet (Big Story), “has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. . . To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other—in a major crisis abroad—cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism.” Braestrup later went even further, describing media coverage of Tet as “press malpractice.” Media critics, especially conservatives, have long charged that antiwar bias emerged openly in the wake of Tet. Former Los Angeles Times and Newsweek correspondent Robert Elegant, who covered Vietnam for ten years, wrote that “For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield, but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.” The coverage of Tet can be charitably attributed as much to press incompetence and a journalistic herd instinct as it did to outright bias. . .
Several months later an NBC producer proposed to correct the record with a three-part series showing that Tet had in fact been an enemy defeat. The idea was rejected by higher ups at the network because, a senior producer said, Tet was seen “in the public’s mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.”