BIG STORY: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington by Peter Braestrup

BIG STORY: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington

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The Tet offensive, that bitter defeat of American forces in February-March 1968 by rampaging North Vietnamese and Vietcong, disheartened the US and led to Johnson's decision not to run for re-election. You heard about it; it was in all the newspapers and on television. Now, ten years later, the Tet offensive appears differently, as a distinct military setback for Hanoi. How did the newspapers and TV go wrong? Braestrup, who was in Vietnam for the Washington Post, and subsequently spent years meticulously examining the journalistic records, offers a number of reasons for the ""distortion of reality"" by the news media, which he limits for this study to the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, AP, UPI, and the three TV networks. None of them ever solved the problem of describing an unconventional war in conventional news terms. They indulged in hyperbole, second-guessing, overreaction, and reliance on second- and third-hand information. There was fierce rivalry between the wire services, newspapers rushing to judgment, and networks fighting for ratings, while editors and news managers sat in New York and Washington reprocessing fragmentary bulletins they often didn't understand. There was a credibility gap between a White House pressuring General Westmoreland for ""a better image"" and an increasingly skeptical press and anti-war constituency. Braestrup spares no one: ""In the case of Newsweek, NBC, and CBS. . . the disaster theme seemed to be exploited for its own sake."" Few newsmen were familiar with the language or culture of Vietnam, and they had the ""odd characteristic of American journalists"" of vastly overrating their country's enemies, particularly in wars fought with Asians. Braestrup's most serious charge: when stories were later found to be erroneous, the record was not set straight; corrective stories, if any, were relegated to inside pages. If the reader can stay with this massive, often ponderous work, he will find, besides, some examples of beautiful newspaper writing composed under harrowing conditions and vivid descriptions of a journalistic life far removed from the glamorous Woodstein tradition. (This is an abridged version of the original two-volume book published by Westview Press at $50.00.)

Pub Date: May 19th, 1978
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday