SOLOMON: Retractions Of Reporting Are Quite Selective
Judging from the uproar about recent retractions by CNN and Time magazine, you might conclude that American journalism maintains high standards for war-related reporting -- and sets the record straight when those standards aren't met. But nothing could be farther from the truth.Early this month, under enormous pressure, CNN and Time retracted their joint reports in June that said the U.S. military used nerve gas against American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War. But it would be a big mistake to assume that inaccurate stories will get retracted.News accounts routinely serve as conveyor belts for dubious information from high-ranking officials in Washington. Those sources, often unnamed, are apt to provide self-serving mixtures of facts and falsehoods.But if no one in a powerful position raises a squawk, then there's rarely any pressure for a correction, much less a retraction. On the contrary, officials are appreciative of a story -- however untrue -- if it moves their agendas forward.That's how lies can routinely be reported as truth -- with tragic consequences.Here's a momentous example: For a third of a century, U.S. media outlets have not bothered to retract their false reporting of events in the Gulf of Tonkin.On Aug. 5, 1964, American news media reported that North Vietnamese forces -- for the second time in three days -- had launched unprovoked attacks on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf.Across the United States, front pages presented fabrications as facts. The New York Times proclaimed that the U.S. government was retaliating "after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin." The Washington Post's headline typified the national spin: "American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression."Two days later, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution -- the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war against North Vietnam -- gained nearly unanimous approval from Congress. The resolution authorized the president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."But the attack by North Vietnam on Aug. 2 wasn't "unprovoked." And the "second attack" never occurred. But as months became years and then decades, major U.S. media outlets still didn't issue a retraction.This summer, I asked a number of Washington Post staffers whether the newspaper ever retracted its Tonkin Gulf reporting. Finally, the trail led to someone with a definitive answer."I can assure you that there was never any retraction," said Murrey Marder, a reporter who wrote much of the Washington Post's coverage of August 1964 events in the Gulf of Tonkin. He added: "If you were making a retraction, you'd have to make a retraction of virtually everyone's entire coverage of the Vietnam War."Marder remembers that the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese navy had been shelling North Vietnamese coastal islands just prior to the reported attacks by North Vietnam on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. But the propaganda machinery was in high gear: "Before I could do anything as a reporter, the Washington Post had endorsed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution."The news coverage of events in the Tonkin Gulf "was all driven by the White House," recalled Marder, who was a Post reporter from 1946 to 1985. "It was an operation -- a deliberate manipulation of public opinion. É None of us knew, of course, that there had been drafted, months before, a resolution to justify American direct entry into the war, which became the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution."Marder commented: "If the American press had been doing its job and the Congress had been doing its job, we would never have been involved in the Vietnam War."Since then, U.S. forces invaded Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and made war on Iraq in the 1990s. Less direct intervention from Washington, in Central America and elsewhere, also took many lives. In the process, quite a few journalists enhanced their careers by more or less telling the favorite stories of the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House.Reliance on official sources has remained a routine part of news coverage. And the biggest problems with American journalism still include stories that never get retracted.