Dan Rather's 44-year relationship with CBS News came to an unceremonious end this week. This
should remind us that of the many differences between the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq, the
three most important are talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet.
Mr. Rather must think his fate unfair. He was in effect fired when the documents on which he
based an expose of President Bush's National Guard service were shown to be clumsy forgeries.
But Walter Cronkite, who told a much bigger lie, is still an esteemed figure at CBS.
The one great similarity between Vietnam and Iraq is that our enemies, despairing of victory on
the battlefield, sought to win with a propaganda campaign.
In Vietnam, this strategy succeeded. If it fails in Iraq, it will be chiefly because of the
emergence of the new media.
The turning point in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive of February, 1968. It was a crushing defeat
for the Viet Cong.
"Our losses were staggering and a complete surprise," said North Vietnamese Army Col. Bui Tin
in a 1995 interview. "Our forces in the South were nearly wiped out. It took until 1971 to
re-establish our presence."
"The Tet Offensive proved catastrophic to our plans," said Truong Nhu Tang, minister of justice
in the Viet Cong's provisional government, in a 1982 interview. "Our losses were so immense we
were unable to replace them with new recruits."
The news media reported this overwhelming American victory as a catastrophic defeat.
"Donning helmet, Mr. Cronkite declared the war lost," recounted UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave.
"It was this now famous television news piece that persuaded President Lyndon Johnson...not to
run for re-election."
Shaken by Tet, he planned to seek terms for a conditional surrender, the North Vietnamese
commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, wrote in his memoirs. But our news media's complete
misrepresentation of what had actually happened "convinced him America's resolve was weakening
and complete victory was within Hanoi's grasp," Mr. de Borchgrave said.
Journalists are repeating in Iraq the errors (or worse) they made in Vietnam. Earlier this
month, the Army sponsored a conference for retired general officers at Fort Carson, Colorado.
They were addressed by recent returnees from Iraq, including Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of
the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
"All returnees agreed we are clearly winning the fight against the insurgents but are losing
the public relations battle," said a retired admiral in an email to friends.
A disturbing anecdote from Col. McMaster illustrates why. His 3rd ACR broke the insurgents'
hold of the city of Tal Afar last September in an operation which generated these effusive
words of praise from the town's mayor:
"To the lion hearts who liberated our city from the grasp of terrorists who were beheading men,
women and children in the streets...(you are) not only courageous men and women, but avenging
angels sent by The God Himself to fight the evil of terrorism."
Time magazine had a reporter and a photographer embedded with the 3rd ACR. When the battle was
over, they filed a lengthy story and nearly 100 photographs.
"When the issue came out, the guts had been edited out of the reporter's story and none of the
photographs he submitted were used," said the admiral, quoting Col. McMaster. "When the
reporter questioned why his story was eviscerated, his editors...responded that the story and
pictures were 'too heroic.'"
Time is an especially egregious offender. But most of the news media play up alleged American
atrocities and play down those committed by the insurgents, or acts of heroism by U.S. troops.
Terrorist bombings are big news, while successful campaigns like that in Tal Afar are not.
The relentless drumbeat of negativity has had its effect on support for the war in Iraq. But
it's been nothing like the change in public opinion brought about by the massive media
mendacity that followed Tet.
That's because in those days journalists could lie with impunity. This is no longer the case.
No one knows that better than Dan Rather. He was undone because a Web logger noticed the
memoranda on which he was relying had been typed on a computer, which did not exist at the time
they allegedly were written. Others noted the fraudulent memos used the wrong format and
terminology. Thanks to the Web, word spread fast.
The truth still has a ways to go to catch up with what the news media are shoveling out. But
at least now it's in the race.