|COVERING THE WAR|
April 20, 2000
In a continuing look at the legacy of the Vietnam War, media correspondent Terence Smith talks with four guests about the war's effects on journalism after a background report.
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TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to discuss that legacy are Morley Safer; he opened the CBS Saigon Bureau and served two tours there; he is now coeditor of "60 Minutes," and David Greenway, the decorated foreign correspondent for Time Magazine; he later joined The Boston Globe as its foreign editor and is today its editorial page editor; Christiane Amanpour, she has reported from the war zones of the past decade and is now senior international correspondent at CNN; and Kenneth Bacon, a former reporter, editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who is Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Welcome to you all.
|The press's impact at home|
TERENCE SMITH: Morley Safer, I wonder, looking at that piece of tape of yours, the burning hut, I wonder whether you realized at the time the impact it would have at home and I wonder how long it took you to know that it was having an impact at home.
MORLEY SAFER, CBS News: I had no idea of the kind of impact it had quite simply because the communications then were just abominable. I mean, we get out in the field and then you took your film and you put it in a bag, and you sent it off, and it might go on the air -- two days later, by the time it got to Los Angeles or New York -- so it was probably a week or ten days when I started getting queries about it, when I started getting reaction from the Marines in Vietnam itself, in Da Nang and other places. I realized that this was more than just another quite brutal search and destroy operation.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And, of course, that illustrates the difference technologically between then and now. David Greenway, let me ask you, as both a - as a correspondent and as an editor, how has the legacy of Vietnam shaped the coverage of subsequent events from your perspective?
H.D.S. GREENWAY, Boston Globe: Well, the real legacy of Vietnam is that for the first time reporters and editors began to question the American authorities as they never had before. If you look back, from the Spanish American War through World War I, through World War II, through Korea, people may have complained about censorship and access to the front, but as Jimmy Greenfield, who was foreign editor of the New York Times, once said, few expended any ink in Korea debating whether or not we should be there at all. In Vietnam, all these things were questioned and as never before, and that's a lasting legacy -- we don't take things for granted; we don't take things as face value; we don't believe officials, as we did before Vietnam.
|The legacy of the "credibility gap"|
TERENCE SMITH: That's a difference, Ken Bacon, from then and now. How has it affected the view from the Pentagon?
KENNETH BACON, Pentagon Spokesman: Well, I think David's right. If you go back to the term that Spiro Agnew used "credibility gap," it comes from that period, Vietnam, and it made the media deeply distrustful. I think that distrust has mellowed somewhat to healthy skepticism. But it's right below the surface - the distrust - and we have to realize that. I think it's made us basically more forthcoming than we were during Vietnam in explaining why we're doing things. But we will never be good enough in explaining the reasons for getting people into combat. I don't think we will ever meet the threshold that the press expects us to meet and the public expects us to meet in being able to justify sending Americans to combat today.
TERENCE SMITH: Christiane Amanpour, do you sense that credibility gap? You were a preteen or early teenager in Vietnam, but, of course, have covered most of the conflicts since. How is it now?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN: Well, I think that as your other guests have alluded, a certain bond of trust between government, military, and press that existed up until Vietnam has totally been shattered now, so the relationship is now almost exclusively adversarial or party line. It's two extremes, if you like. I think that the military - let's take the U.S. military - learned the lessons of Vietnam. It's an institution that goes on forever, and it has totally learned the lessons. I'm not sure the press has. By that, I mean to say that the military is now able and does more and more demand certain very, very rigorous conditions from journalists in order to be able to cover their operations. You either have to join what some of my colleagues have called the "propaganda machine," or you don't go and cover it at all, which is much more different than in Vietnam, where reporters were invited to come along on helicopters, they were given transportation; they were given access. This has changed totally, which makes it so much more difficult for journalists today to actually cover wars if they want to go with the big militaries. It's made it much, much more dangerous for us. But, as I say, I think the press has failed to learn the lesson and failed to adapt to how they need to cover news - wars right now; whereas, the military has been very, very successful, and they are very, very keen on concentrating on public perception and public image as much as strategy, policy, and military actions.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you mean by adapt to those limitations in research?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: By basically putting the ring through our nose and telling us this is how you will cover the news if you want to cover our side of the story. And we saw that in the Gulf War; it was almost perfected in the Gulf War with the pool system, with the very rigorous conditions that were put on journalists, with the selection of certain journalists and certain assignments, and you saw what happened when some journalists tried to break out of the pack and do their own thing - CBS journalists wandered into the wrong place and essentially were captured and didn't cover the rest of the war. But what I'm saying is the military has learned the lesson of Vietnam to our detriment, to the detriment of the press, and perhaps even to the detriment of some military operations. I think it's made the military much, much more cautious. I've watched how they've behaved in Bosnia, in Somalia, in Rwanda, and many, many of the situations that we've covered over the last ten years.
|Access during wartime|
TERENCE SMITH: Morley Safer, as a sophisticated viewer and reader of that sort of coverage, is the public a winner or a loser in this?
MORLEY SAFER: Well, the public is, I think, a very big loser. Another discovery, of course, was made in the Gulf War. And that was the - with the compliance of CNN, I should say - the Pentagon learned that they could bypass the journalistic process, that is, reporters and editors by having someone like General Schwarzkopf - brilliant, brilliant spokesman - going direct to viewers, bypassing the journalistic process, and showing highly selected photographs of weapons working the way they worked in a test lab, for example, and just cut that - cut journalists out of the loop right at the front, as Christiane says, by creating these very phony pools, and then getting directly to every living room in America with the compliance of Christiane's network.
TERENCE SMITH: David
H.D.S. GREENWAY: When you think about it, Vietnam was unique. The same problems that Christiane is talking of now were true in previous wars, in World War II and in World War I. Only in Vietnam were the two bugbears of journalism overcome - censorship and access to the action - that the military can impose. Vietnam is really the only war where there was no censorship and you could go anywhere you wanted. That wasn't true in World War II or World War I, and it's never been true since. So Vietnam was really unique in that - to that extent.
TERENCE SMITH: What's your reaction to all this, Ken Bacon?
KENNETH BACON: First of all, I think Christiane is absolutely right, that Vietnam made the military much more cautious and one explanation of that - or explication is the Powell Doctrine where the military is reluctant to get involved in combat unless it knows that it has good public support at the beginning and can maintain that support all the way through; it doesn't want the rug pulled out from under it in the middle of the conflict.
TERENCE SMITH: But they also limit access, as everyone here is saying.
KENNETH BACON: Well, I think every conflict is different, and you can't compare the Kosovo conflict last year, for instance, with Vietnam. The Kosovo conflict was an air war; it was very difficult to cover for that reason; there were no front lines in the traditional sense. The Gulf War has been debated many, many times. I would say that one of the problems with the Gulf War was that the press did become fascinated by the success; it became fascinated by the use of technology, by so-called precision-guided munitions. I think the military realizes now, particularly the Army, that they mismanaged the press coverage in certain ways because they missed getting coverage for one of the greatest tank battles in history, and they missed really real-time coverage of very remarkable military activity. So I think that's caused the military to reexamine. There was certainly press covering what we did in Somalia, and I think the military was - facilitated that press coverage; it certainly - it certainly led to very disastrous stories, but it wasn't because the press was there that we've had disastrous stories; it was because we got into a disastrous situation, which was covered by the press. The military appreciates the difference; they appreciate that if things go well, the press coverage will be good, and if things go badly, the press coverage will be bad. It is not the bad press coverage that creates bad results; it's not succeeding in combat.
TERENCE SMITH: Morley Safer.
MORLEY SAFER: I'd like to ask Mr. Bacon, surely, the tone for the new world order in terms of American troops in combat or near combat was set in Grenada, perfected in Panama, and used to extraordinary effect in the Gulf, and that is the new order as far as the press is concerned.
TERENCE SMITH: You're talking about restricted access.
MORLEY SAFER: Total restriction, and I think that is - regardless of what policies the Pentagon may state - and, as you know, before each of these other conflicts, an arrangement was in place with the networks, for example, on how people would be gotten into these wars, and, of course, they were all locked out, and that, regardless of what they say, and on what agreements they may come to with news organizations, when the shooting starts, we are out of there.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Ken Bacon, is that necessary?
KENNETH BACON: I don't think that's the case. I don't think that the press was out of there in the Gulf War. I don't think the press was out of there in Somalia. The wars are different. Vietnam was a very extended war; it went on during a long period of time. For a while we didn't even acknowledge it was a war. What we've done since has been much shorter, much more surgical. The situations have been different. But I think the military is striving to get the right balance.
MORLEY SAFER: But is there a fixed policy - is there a policy?
KENNETH BACON: Well, the policy that we put into effect after Grenada - and this was long before I came to the Pentagon, which was five and a half years ago - was to set up a pool operation, a national media pool, to get people into war zones quickly so they'd be there at the very beginning. That pool policy has been accepted by the press -- has been lauded by the press, and I think it's worked generally well. The idea is that as soon as we can move to open coverage, we will move to open coverage, and we have tried to do that.
|Echoes of Vietnam in today's coverage|
TERENCE SMITH: David Greenway, when you send reporters and have sent reporters to subsequent conflicts, how much of the guidelines that you give them are shaped by Vietnam or the Vietnam experience?
H.D.S. GREENWAY: Oh, they're very much shaped because there were basically three generations of war reporters in Vietnam. The first generation - like David Halberstan - came criticizing perhaps the tactics, but feeling that we were in the right war at the right time in the right place. There came another generation like you and me, Terry, that felt, well, maybe this isn't so great, but neither are the Communists, and then there came - the kind of radicalized reporters in the late - in the early 70's - who really felt that the Viet Cong deserved to win. So when we got to El Salvador and Nicaragua, I would try to tell reporters, take everything with a grain of salt, you know, don't trust the briefings that you get from the Americans or the Salvadorians, but don't fall for everything the rebels are telling you either. So, you know, try to be very judicious.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Christiane Amanpour, when you're in a Kosovo or a Bosnia, do you hear the echoes of Vietnam?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I do actually, and I hear the echoes of the Gulf War, as we've discussed, a very successful -- from the military's point of view - operation in which barely a U.S. soldier was seen to suffer, was seen to have been wounded, was seen to have died. It was truly a surgically presented war, which had, I think, a chilling effect on subsequent operations. Bosnia, for instance, how many years did it take for the international community to intervene in Bosnia? And much of that was not only political dithering, but also concern about what would it look like if we got involved, if we got wounded? Rwanda came to a really terrible, tragic conclusion because the idea of American forces and allied forces getting involved and possibly getting killed was apparently unacceptable for American public opinion. It happened in Somalia when those 18 Americans were killed in a disastrous operation in 1993, and it had a chilling effect on subsequent operations. So I think the concentration that U.S. military has, the sort of paranoia about image almost has a very negative bearing on policy and military strategy.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. I think that has to be the last word. Thank you all four very much.
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