Coming at the issue of journalism, propaganda, and war/insurgencies from a slightly different angle, this clip from the archives of ABC News is currently being passed around among the Vietnam veterans community.
It is the ABC evening news, hosted at that time by Howard K. Smith (who first came to fame for reporting on WWII with Edward R. Murrow, and whose son fought at LZ Albany in November ‘65) and Harry Reasoner. The date is 28 April 1972. To put that in perspective, this is after the U.S. pulled out ground troops from the Republic of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had just started what is now called (in the US anyway) the “Easter Offensive,” an almost completely conventional cross-border assault. The U.S. is responding solely, if overwhelmingly, with airpower. The South Vietnamese are doing the fighting on the ground. A little more than two weeks after this report John Paul Vann will take over de facto control from Vietnamese LTG Dzu and personally orchestrate American airpower in the defense of Kontum, effectively crushing the NVA attack and saving the RVN. Forty-one days later he himself will be killed in a helicopter crash. The offensive was defeated.
The issue for consideration is the fact that this link/clip is being passed around by U.S. Vietnam veterans as an example of American anti-military media bias during the war. In other words, traitorous propaganda on behalf of the North Vietnamese enemy. Take a look, see if you see the same thing.
There is something disturbingly reassuring in watching real honest-to-goodness traditional propaganda. It gives you a false sense of superiority, in a sort of twisted way, to chuckle at some of the better examples of ham-fisted story twisting, either of the deliberate or the accidental sort.
The past masters of this, of course, were the Soviets. And for sheer amusement value almost nothing could surpass the antics of Baghdad Bob . So admittedly, in comparison to these masters, the efforts of the Ministry of Defense of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka are somewhat thin gruel. Still, it can be worth a chuckle to follow the twists and turns that propaganda may take.
Most recently the Washington Times, one of the most conservative papers in the US, has the curious distinction of publishing an op-ed in favor of a Socialist government which just won the conventional phase of a civil war with the heavy backing from Communist China (which came about after the US cut off military aid and advice back in 2007). That Monday Op-Ed is now highlighted, in turn, by the Socialist government, albeit with some confusion about the difference between the Washington Times and the Washington Post.
Here’s the front page of the Sri Lankan MoD.
Here is the MoD’s extracted synopsis of how the “Washington Post” (apparently some confusion there with the Times) supports the Sri Lankan way of war.
And here is the Washington Times original.
Strange bedfellows indeed.
On a more directly topical note, how many think that what was happening in Sri Lanka these past four years (out of more than 20 years of conflict) was an insurgency? How many understand it to have become a traditional conventional Civil War with some terrorism thrown in? And what is or should be the role of propaganda for either side? In the US we have laws about propaganda, mostly as a backlash to the First World War. But is there a legitimate role? When does "information" cross the line into "propaganda"?