The press at war, from Vietnam to Iraq
Yet the media-centered account of Vietnam severely understates the role of contingency. In his path-breaking book Choosing War, the historian Fredrik Logevall plunged deep into the presidential archives to demonstrate that President Lyndon B. Johnson had much more leeway in 1964 and ’65 about what to do in Southeast Asia than most had assumed. Despite the news stories, a majority of Americans had almost no idea about the situation in Southeast Asia. There was very little serious public pressure to send troops or even bombs to combat the North Vietnamese Communists. During private conversations, numerous senior politicians, such as the hawk Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, warned the president about the dangers and futility of expanding American involvement. There were foreign leaders such as French President Charles de Gaulle who were offering plausible diplomatic alternatives to ending the civil war in the region through a comprehensive agreement.
But Johnson refused to listen. He, along with the Democratic Congress, chose war—just as McKinley and the GOP had done in 1898. Logevall and others have shown that Johnson was driven by fear that Democrats would look “soft” on defense—the Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater spent much of the summer lambasting the president’s policies against communism—and that bungling the situation would hurt the domestic coalition behind the Great Society. Logevall added that Johnson’s concerns about what it meant for a man to be “tough” pushed him deeper and deeper toward conflict. Other recent histories have found more evidence to push back against the “blinded into war thesis,” including that leaders in Congress, such as Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas (who later turned against the war) implored colleagues in 1964 and ’65 to support Johnson so that their party would not suffer at the ballot box.
In 2002 and ’03, America’s political leaders made yet another disastrous decision when they authorized the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq—a hugely costly effort that did little to create stability in the region. Initially, when it became clear that Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction and that there was no secret game plan about what to do after he was toppled, the news media once again took a beating. Reporters, the critics said, had been too passive in the aftermath of the horrific 9/11 attacks and they had failed to question President George W. Bush when he beat the drums of war. Reporters were accused of following the administration’s talking points. In 2004, New York Times editors admitted that, “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged—or failed to emerge.” Indeed, the war in Iraq spawned an entire internet-savvy generation of young Millennial journalists who questioned the basic pretense of “objectivity,” as they came to believe that those professional norms had been largely to blame for the war. As the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham, wrote, the press had failed by “allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it.”