If there was one event which, for me, was the single, most important political event which has occurred in my lifetime, it was the August 7, 1964, Senate and House votes on the ‘Tonkin Resolution’, which effectively initiated the Viet Nam War.
Two journalistic efforts about that war stand out in my mind: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake. I regret that it took hundreds of thousands of military and civilian deaths and the immolation of large portions of two countries to create the facts and issues which these two remarkable writers captured in their books. But if, as a Supreme Court justice once said, ‘history also has its claims,’ at least we still have these two histories to remind us about those awful days.
When it comes to remembering those times, however, there is also a third journalist who is rarely mentioned today, but whose work inspired not only the efforts of Halberstam and Fitzgerald, but also set a standard for what the role of a journalist is supposed to be all about.
I am referring to I. F. Stone, who raised questions about the honesty and validity of Lyndon Johnson’s deceitful Tonkin Gulf strategy less than three weeks after those fateful votes occurred. The House vote authorizing the President to widen the war was 416-0, the Senate voted 88-2, with dissenting votes coming from Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Oregon’s Wayne Morse.
Several months after the Resolution, I heard Wayne Morse deliver a speech in which he explained his anti-War stance. Whom did he quote as an authority for his belief that everything about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was wrong and that it would ultimately result in America getting into a war we couldn’t win? He quoted I. F. Stone.
To me, this is what being a reporter is all about. It’s not just describing what happened, but also explaining the how and the why. And if in the process, somebody’s ox gets gored, like Nixon in Watergate or Clinton and Monica, that’s just too goddamn bad.
Don’t get me wrong. Even in the age of video and digital media, we are often the beneficiaries of good, solid reporting and honest analysis of the news. And if the twenty -four-hour news cycle often results in opinions masquerading as facts, there’s nothing as important to the underpinnings of a democratic system as getting out the news, even if a sh*tass New York real estate developer became President by campaigning against the ‘fake news.’
I knew we were going to be given a four-year dose of ‘alternative facts’ when Trump’s press guy, Sean Spicer, got up at his very first press briefing and claimed that the crowd at the inaugural was the largest such gathering of all time. The pics above of Trump’s inauguration (left) and Obama’s first inaugural (right) lay that one to rest.
But when Trump gave media access and seats at the daily White House press briefing to alt-right howitzers like Newsmax and Breitbart, he was basically trying to do a makeover of journalism and news and turn it into a PR vehicle for himself.
And here is where he made probably the biggest, single mistake of his Presidential term. What I am referring to is his public put-downs of Jeff Bezos after the owner of Amazon bought The Washington Post. You don’t go out of your way to make an enemy of the guy who has transformed merchandising and retailing in a national economy entirely dependent on consumer sales.
Maybe Trump’s public Twitter attacks on Bezos weren’t as glaringly stupid as his comment after Charlottesville about how there were ‘good people on both sides.’ But it was a close second, particularly because more than any other media outlet, The Washington Post sets the tone and the standard for reporting on what happens in D.C.
And the Post’s influence over how media treats national politics goes back, of course, to Watergate, a story first broken by two reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, who clearly were following in the footsteps of I. F. Stone.
I started thinking about media when Joe showed up at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this past weekend and talked about how certain news outlets shaped their stories around ‘lies told for profit and power.’ He was obviously talking about alt-right media outfits whose content is almost entirely devoted to the kinds of conspiracy theories which Donald Trump embraces in virtually every, single public statement that he makes.
But to quote Grandpa, Trump is ‘fartig’ (read: finished) and so is the media loudmouth (read: Tucker Carlson) who entertained a national audience every night with rants that were a combination of half-truths, distortions, exaggerations and outright lies.
Three cheers for Joe tasking the news media to get back on track.