It is absolutely true that there will be times when the only version of events about a war will be the version issued in the form of a press release from the U.S. military. Why is it so hard to understand that, when that occurs, it is completely improper to blindly assume that it is accurate and to build major headlines and long news articles and flamboyant television broadcasts based exclusively on those unverified assertions?
Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon — we had enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war. In particular, my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and I were considered the enemy. The president of the United States, JFK, had already asked the publisher to pull me.
On day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV — the American military command — tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there — calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins. With no luck, of course.
In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a Captain, called the Five O’clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.
On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a Major but by a Major General, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in Saigon. It was in a different room and every general and every bird Colonel in the country was there. Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.
General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.
And I stood up, my heart beating wildly — and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.
I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.
So: Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.
I think it is quite obvious that if he were reporting on the war in Iraq, Halberstam would not be mindlessly copying Camp Victory Press Releases about all the “Al Qaeda fighters” we are killing. And there are some working journalists today — such as the heroic McClatchy reporters — who understand what journalism is and who practice it. But so much of our press corps are slothful, stupid, and corrupt, and — as this BBC article demonstrates, though it is only illustrative — their willingness, their eagerness, to have their “reporting” consist of unexamined government claims makes so much of what they do worthless, except as deceitful and truly destructive propaganda.
UPDATE: As Chris Floyd pointed out in writing about this BBC investigation, that the 17 individuals we killed had nothing to do with “Al Qaeda” means, of course, that this incident — as part of our Glorious War of Liberation, to Win Hearts and Minds — is yet another “horrific massacre of Iraqi civilians.” That is simply true by definition. And as Floyd notes, the media’s mindless recitation of the military’s Al Qaeda narrative here is particularly pitiful given that “al-Khalis is a largely Shiite village, on the side of the American-backed Iraqi government.”