December 27th, 2017

“Could we be wrong?” asks a journalist

I agree with the sentiment expressed here, that journalists need to question themselves more:

With the rise of the Internet and disruption of institutional media, many journalists have cheerfully shrugged off the ideal of objectivity. This certainly makes tweeting easier, and I suppose forthright bias is more honest than the camouflaged kind.

But better still is the genuine objectivity of an open, curious, careful mind. Readers won’t always like what it produces; seeing the world in all its mixed-up shades of gray is not necessarily comforting. But most of them respect it when they see it. Journalists who strive to deliver it bank credibility in small doses over time, humbly acknowledging their blind spots and errors.

Katharine Graham is having her Hollywood moment because she gave the right answer when history popped its quiz. But her crucial lesson for today is that she asked the right questions: Are we sure we’ve got it right?

Could we be wrong?

The author, David Von Drehle, was the Style editor of the WaPo back in Graham’s days (and his credentials go much further than that, as well). Most of his piece is a reminiscence about how wonderful and how forthright she was, plus how right it was to publish the Pentagon Papers back then.

But Drehle ignores two things. The first is the double meaning of the word “wrong.” The first meaning is “incorrect,” as in “factually wrong.” The second meaning is in the moral sense of wrong vs. right. Many journalists seem to believe it’s okay to commit the first type of wrong—the factual type—in the service of avoiding the second type of wrong, the moral type.

That brings us to the second thing Drehle is ignoring, or maybe he’s not even aware of it, which is that the WaPo (and in particular the NY Times, which also published the Papers) got the content of many of the important parts of the Pentagon Papers wrong.

How can that be? After all, didn’t they publish the Papers themselves? No, not exactly; they published summaries and highlights because the Papers were extremely long. If you’re unaware of the problems with their coverage, please take a look at this (unfortunately, some of the links have gone dead because this is an old post of mine):

So, what about the press lies about the government lies? Who will tell that story, and who has the patience to listen? It’s a marathon, not a sprint; to tell it requires a laborious wade through a mind-numbing number of documents, and to even read about it requires a bit of work, as well, and a troubling rethinking of old perceptions.

For example, just for the Pentagon Papers alone, the task of evaluation would require actually reading the original Papers, and then reading all the major press stories about them, sorting through the excerpts from the Papers that were published in newspapers at the time, and seeing how they compare to the Papers as a whole. It’s something I must confess I’ve never done, and probably never will do. But others have, and they report some curious goings-on.

A fascinating piece on the subject of war coverage by the MSM–both then and now–was written by James Q. Wilson and appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Take a look at this, on the Papers:

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage was at odds with what the documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.

In short, a key newspaper said that politicians had manipulated us into a war by means of deception. This claim, wrong as it was, was part of a chain of reporting and editorializing that helped convince upper-middle-class Americans that the government could not be trusted.

We’re not on that island of the truth-tellers and the liars, where a single cleverly-worded question can discern the truth. Would that we were; our task would be a great deal easier. But it’s plain that there were enough lies to go around, and that the MSM’s lies must lead every thinking person to question the earlier version of history that was learned back when events were happening, and when newspaper and television coverage combined to give us our primary perception of the blooming buzzing confusion around us.

In writing this post, I went back and read a few of the comments to my earlier Vietnam essays. I happened across this one, that deals with the very subject at hand: media coverage of the Pentagon Papers:

The NYT and WaPo reporters (Neil Sheehan, et al) who provided a highly abridged (paraphrased and quoted) version [of the Pentagon Papers] to the public of that era (’71) distorted the originals in sundry and fundamental ways in order to imply or more directly state that Pres. Johnson and others employed deceptions at critical junctures in the conflict when in fact (as stated in the original document as well as the scaled down version) they did not. A specific example (and a critical one in that era) taken from Michael Lind’s Vietnam: The Necessary War:

The June 14, ’71 NYT edition of their edited version of the Pentagon Papers indicates Pres. Johnson had virtually concluded his decision to initiate a bombing campaign against the North by Nov. 3, 1964. (If true this would have made Johnson out to be deceitful toward the American public at an early and critical stage in the conflict.) However the Pentagon Papers itself states: “… the President was not ready to approve a program of air strikes against North Vietnam, at least until the available alternatives could be carefully and thoroughly re-examined.” That quote, reflecting November, 1964 circumstances, can be located via a search in this section of the Pentagon Papers.

This single distortion may not appear to be dramatic in and of itself, but there were other overt and more subtle distortions in the NYT’s and WaPo’s paraphrased versions of this document. In sum they always and consistently distorted the picture in a manner which eroded Pres. Johnson’s (and others) reputation, broadly characterizing him as being willfully deceitful; that general mischaracterization is what proved to be critical at the time rather than any single aspect of the paraphrased report.

I’m not trying to absolve Johnson of all wrongdoing; there’s enough blame to go around. And some of it most definitely goes to our old friends, those dragon slayers in the MSM.

I wrote that over eleven years ago.

25 Responses to ““Could we be wrong?” asks a journalist”

  1. mockmook Says:

    ms. neoneocon

    Please consider contacting the journalist — if his mind is truly open, perhaps he will address you in a follow-up or on twitter.

  2. Paul in Boston Says:

    Edward J. Epstein us definitely worth reading on a number of topics. His modus operandi is to wait several years until the dust has settled and then do an in depth analysis of a topic. His book on Lee Harvey Oswald is absolutely fascinating with a lot of detail about Oswald’s years(!) spent in Moscow as a privileged guest of the Soviet Union. I’d take anything he wrote very seriously.

  3. Frog Says:

    As best I can determine, the MSM is morally wrong, which permits, nay promotes, intentional factual wrongness. I think that is what Neo was saying about the Pentagon Papers.
    It was a Federal crime to publish the PPs at the time, as I remember.

    It remains unclear to me why the NYT and WaPo were so anti the Democratic POTUS then. What drove these establishment organs with all their info sources to side with North Vietnam, the nature of which was no secret?

  4. john Says:

    Reminds me of the fall out of the 9/11 or Dueffler reports where literally every single media outlet’s summary of the contents was the exact polar opposite of what was actually in the reports. The 9/11 report said too many agencies that dont communicate, but somehow as a result we ADD another layer of bureaucracy in homeland security ? the Dueffler report lists about 5 thousand tons of WMD but according to the media, it showed the opposite.

  5. Jason Mart Says:

    This is an important story for me…particularly the last half where essentially we discover additional evidence that the MSM – or at least the WaPo and the NYT have been at this fake news business for quite a while. The willful distortion of what the Pentagon Papers said for a particular political outcome. Analogous to Hurst and the sinking of the Maine.
    Thank you very much. I always find your posts challenging and thoughtful.

  6. Frog Says:

    This, from Project Veritas (James O’Keefe) today:

    “This summer, Project Veritas shocked the nation when our team exposed horrifying bias at CNN:
    Project Veritas caught a producer admitting CNN’s Trump coverage was “bullsh*t,” designed to increase their flailing ratings,

    “Next, our investigators caught CNN pundit Van Jones admitting the Trump-Russia investigation, which dominated CNN airwaves, was a “big nothingburger.”

    “And then, our team caught yet another CNN producer smearing voters as “stupid as sh*t” and lobbing crude insults at President Trump and his staff.
    “This fall, Project Veritas investigators moved on to The New York Times — exposing a shocking culture of bias:
    First, our team caught a Times’s online editor admitting he buried stories that didn’t fit the paper’s anti-Trump narrative.

    “Next, our investigators caught a senior staff editor admitting the company lied about being “objective journalism” as they fed bias and half-truths to the American people.

    “And then, our team caught up with a Times IT contractor — who informed us that the Times didn’t have one single employee that didn’t hate Trump.
    “And finally, our team caught the Washington Post peddling stories even their own journalists didn’t believe:
    Our team caught a top journalist admitting on camera that, despite the Post’s constant claims that Trump colluded with Russia, he thinks “maybe [the evidence] doesn’t exist.”

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    mockmook:

    I’m not on Twitter, but anyone who is on Twitter is certainly welcome to call it to his attention.

  8. Mike K Says:

    I’d take anything he wrote very seriously.

    I’ve read a number of his books and take them very seriously.

    The new hagiographic movie about the WaPoo is missing Mark Steyn’s hilarious column about Kathryn Graham.

    Born in New York City, the daughter of multimillionaire Eugene Meyer, she grew up privileged. In keeping with her father’s fortune, she graduated from Vassar College, where she was involved with the leftist trends of the day …

    She married Felix Frankfurter’s brilliant law clerk, Philip Graham, who took over running The Post, which her father purchased at a bankruptcy sale. Graham built the paper but became estranged from Kay. She had him committed to a mental hospital, and he was clearly intending divorce when she signed him out and took him for a weekend outing during which he was found shot. His death was ruled a suicide. Within 48 hours, she declared herself the publisher.

    That’s the stuff! As the Tribune-Review’s chap has it, Mrs G got her philandering spouse banged up in the nuthouse and then arranged a weekend pass with a one-way ticket. “His death was ruled a suicide.” Lovely touch that. Is it really possible Katharine Graham offed her hubby? Who cares? To those who think the worst problem with the American press is its awful stultifying homogeneity, the Tribune-Review’s deranged perverseness is to be cherished. Give that man a Pulitzer!

  9. Gordon Says:

    Why go after Johnson? Remember, Ben Bradlee was a JFK intimate. He got invited to parties on the presidential yacht. And there’s nothing the JFK people hated more than that son of a bitch Johnson.

    I read something this year about how the Watergate judge, John Sirica, essentially colluded with prosecutors, having ex-parte meetings with them. This alone would have voided all of the criminal convictions. Then, the guy on Nixon’s team who listened to the tapes more than anyone else, said the transcripts given to congressional investigators and used in court were quite different at key points from the tapes. There were phrases and sentences that simply could not be resolved, but in the transcripts whole sentences were written as if they were clear and unambiguous.

    The people at the Post during the Papers story and Watergate were pretty much the same at the management level. Sadly, Graham, Bradlee and others faced years of physical therapy from repetitive motion injuries caused by patting themselves on the back.

  10. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Frog,

    “It remains unclear to me why the NYT and WaPo were so anti the Democratic POTUS then.”

    They were George McGovern ‘progressive’ (Marxist/socialist) democrats not establishment democrats. They derailed any hopes Johnson had for a second term and failed with McGovern. But have controlled the party ever since.

    “What drove these establishment organs with all their info sources to side with North Vietnam, the nature of which was no secret?”

    Same answer; they were George McGovern ‘progressive’ (Marxist/socialist) democrats not establishment democrats…

  11. vanderleun Says:

    Long ago and in another lifetime I had a long, long liquid lunch with Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn on the Greek Island of Hydra. But that’s a story for another time.

  12. F Says:

    What? The NYTimes and WashPost stretch the truth from time to time? And decide NOT to publish items that reflect poorly on the left? Say it isn’t so! If I knew how to post photos, I would insert my shocked face +HERE+

  13. F Says:

    Seriously, in the course of a long career working with American journalists overseas, I have not met many (any?) who knowingly mis-reported what they found in the course of their investigation of a story. The editors, OTOH, I do not know. I was once the source for a NTYimes story that I knew they would want to report, and I was working with a NYTimes Correspondent I respected, and whom I trusted to report honestly the story I was handing that correspondent. In the course of 4-5 days, during which the editor in New York decided whether or not to run the story, and HOW to run the story, I was struck by how it was massaged to reflect their own preconceived notions. The correspondent was not to blame for the ultimate result; the editors were.

  14. CW Says:

    If you want to know who’s telling the truth a good rule of thumb is to follow the motives. For conservatives – TRUE conservatives – truth IS the motive. Conservatives understand that it is self-defeating to propagate lies. Leftists, on the other hand, only tell the truth when it advances a more important agenda (usually increasing power for the Left). That makes it easy. Generally speaking if I can determine that someone is a real conservative I trust in what they say or report. On the other hand if I know that someone is a leftist I automatically disbelieve anything they say unless it’s confirmed by a conservative. It’s a system that rarely fails me.

  15. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    I agree with your take here completely.

    As bad as the situation is that you’ve just described, I wish that were all that was wrong with journalism and reporting today.

    I suspect it’s all related, but what turns me off is the now entrenched habit of injecting the journo/reporter into the story. Just obnoxious.

    It’s almost as though the news ostensibly being reported upon were really just secondary and only a vehicle by which the glories of the journo/reporter can be showcased.

    I see it manifest in so many ways such as the increasing habit of reporters interviewing other reporters on air – at great length – on subjects as though the reporter were the news maker rather than an objective observer; the constant crossing during interviews with news subjects to repeated shots of the interviewer him/herself so we can see them nodding sagely as though their own take on what is being said is important in itself and so that we don’t lose sight of who’s really important in the story in the mind of the journalist; and most galling of all for me: the habit after the completion of a news clip of the talking head/anchor looking into the camera and announcing “a sad story there” or “a happy story there” – as though we require their cue to know how to react to a story.

    The 24 hour news cycle is like a gaping maw that must be fed constantly so news and commentary has become a product to be quickly produced, polished to a superficial sheen, wrapped and served up around the clock. One ought not to be surprised in these circumstances when truth takes a back seat.

    I think it’s also to do with the gulf that has opened up between the elites and the general public where reporters now automatically assume that the average person is too deplorably stupid and too busy bitterly clinging to their guns and churches to be able to understand objectively and truthfully reported news stories anyway.

    About the only thing I liked about the old series Murphy Brown, set as it was in a tv news room, was its principled defence of the traditional Chinese Wall drawn between the sober, truth-driven news room and the entertainment division. That was an issue even in the 90’s and I think I see how it played out.

  16. AesopFan Says:

    I was intrigued to find this very prescient comment from Neo’s earlier post:
    Ben Says:
    November 16th, 2006 at 4:15 am
    The fundamental problem, IMHO, is that many of our elites no longer believe in America. I am NOT saying that they are unpatriotic, so calm down. What I am saying is that they no longer believe that America is special, or, in fact, any different from any other country. They are so wrapped up in guilt (for our prosperity, our past crimes, racism, etc.), that they are no longer able to make qualitative distinctions. In other words, in their minds the USA is as bad as Nazi Germany because the USA enslaved Blacks and drove Indians off of their lands. Of course, this is so patently ridiculous that one wonders how (or whether even to bother) to refute it.

    As a result, there is a tendency among people holding this view to demand perfection of the USA, while excusing horrible crimes that happen elsewhere. This explains how the USA can be viewed as a fascist society (e.g., the Patriot Act), while Castro’s Cuba is a bastion of all that is good. Because the USA is not perfect, it is therefore as evil as the worst of the worst. Because the benighted Third Worlders in Cuba have universal health care, everything else there must be wonderful. (On a tangential note, I wonder how many people holding this view realize how profoundly racist it is?)

    The fundamental problem is that because of guilt (and other factors), these people cannot accept the fact that in 2006, the USA, despite its lack of perfection and somewhat violent history, is still qualitatively superior to Communist China in almost every measure of human dignity. The old aphorism is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Anyone seeking perfection in a human endeavor will not find it, and the difference between grown-ups and children is that grown-ups are able to understand this.
    * * *

  17. Dave Says:

    The thing I hate the most about progressives is they often have the nerve to accuse people on the right of things they have been guilty of for the longest time. Roy Moore filed a lawsuit to block the AL election result today, liberals bash him of course for couldn’t tale no for an answer. It is especially ironic hearing that from the left, since they were one who couldn’t take no for an answer on nov 8 2016, and have been throwing tantrum ever since and still trying everything they could to overturn the result.

  18. Dave Says:

    After fully supporting a president who did nothing but play golf for eight years, CNN suddenly think a president playing too much golf is bad, can you believe that, can you believe the left’s lack of self reflection and shamelessness to criticize people of things they are a thousand times more guilty of?

  19. Ray Says:

    The media have been corrupt and dishonest for as long as I can remember. They used to pretend they were objective reporters but now they no longer pretend they aren’t partisan hacks.

  20. Frog Says:

    I refuse to play most of the media game. My TV no longer has any inputs; it’s for DVDs of classic movies only now. I scan Drudge but read few of the articles linked. It is clear to me the MSM has all become the National Enquirer with increasingly freakish headlines (as shown on Drudge) along the lines of “Woman uses cobra as vibrator”.

    At least one can comment on WSJ stories, and I often do that, if only to state the reporter is a dummy for reason X or Y or Z. Lots of people read WSJ comments, it seems.

    My home page is, regrettably, Yahoo, which does its own ‘news’, tending as the main story to feature yet another bald black NFL player doing something or being done to, or that there are many black NFL coaching candidates.

  21. Alan Potkin Says:

    It may or may not be telling that it happened within days of the resurrection/celebration of the WaPo’s heroic moment publishing the Pentagon Papers, with Meryl Streep now playing Katherine Graham, but William W. Graham, one of Katherine Graham’s four children, just blew his brains with a firearm. Stanford grad, white shoe law firm career, and famously anti VN war activist back in the day. Maybe a function of unmanageable clinical depression, possibly inherited, as his father went much the same route in 1963, leaving his widow to take over as the WaPo’s publisher.

  22. Ymar Sakar Says:

    The press were and are controlled lackeys and lapdogs of the Deep State. They do what they are told. Expecting more of them would be unwise, unrealistic, and avoidable.

  23. FOAF Says:

    Frog: “It remains unclear to me why the NYT and WaPo were so anti the Democratic POTUS then.”

    This is one of the great ironies from that era. As soon as Johnson took over as POTUS after the Kennedy assassination there was an intense animus towards him from the coastal elites as represented by the media who saw LBJ as a cornpone redneck buffoon. It perfectly mirrors today’s red state/blue state divide – except that Johnson was basically to the *left* of Kennedy. JFK had cut taxes while LBJ was probably the biggest big-government Democrat between Roosevelt and Obama. And the Vietnam policy that resulted in so much calumny towards Johnson (“Hey Hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today”) was forged by Kennedy’s Ivy League foreign policy team – McNamara, Rusk, Bundy(s), Rostow etc.

    In fact the misleading cast of the Pentagon Papers may have even resulted from Johnson being more dovish than the JFK advisors. When they said “the Johnson administration” had decided to bomb NV at a time when “the White House” rejected the idea, the former may have been the advisors inherited from Kennedy while the latter was Johnson himself. I read “The Best and the Brightest” many years ago and IIRC Halberstam suggested that Johnson had doubts about the war but reluctantly went along with the JFK team because he had always focused on domestic policy going back to his stint as Senate majority leader and had little of his own expertise in foreign policy. But it was a lot more satisfying to blame Vietnam on Johnson than on the sainted JFK.

  24. FOAF Says:

    “the misleading cast of the Pentagon Papers”

    Really meant to say the misleading cast of the reporting on the PP.

  25. Mongo Says:

    Begin every conversations with a liberal by asking if they feel you should change your mind, then ask them if they have ever considered changing their mind.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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