Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Who decides which information sources are reliable? (A story from Vietnam)

I haven't seen a lot of movies, but one movie that I saw was Good Morning Vietnam, starring Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer, an Armed Forces disk jockey during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Now we truly had Armed Forces disk jockeys in Vietnam. Pat Sajak was one of them. And Adrian Cronauer was another.

Now movies often take creative license when they cover real events, and Cronauer's story is no different. For example, Cronauer was not kicked out of Vietnam; he left when his tour of duty was over. But Cronauer can't blame anyone for his depiction in the film; after all, he co-wrote the script, and intentionally emphasized its entertainment value.

But much of the film was based on fact, and Cronauer recounted the real details behind one episode in the film.

Cronauer did clash with Army censors once as depicted in the movie. He witnessed the bombing of a restaurant in Saigon, but was not allowed to report the devastation in his radio news broadcast.

``That was based on what happened to the Mekong Floating Restaurant, a boat anchored in the Saigon River near the radio station,`` Cronauer said. ``I had had dinner with friends from the station there the night it was bombed. We might have left, I`d say, 20 minutes before the Viet Cong sprayed the side of the boat with claymore mines. I went back and saw the dead and wounded.

``I couldn`t get any of it on the air. I had personally seen heads severed from torsos. Barring the Second Coming, they were not going to get up and walk away. The duty officer would not give me permission to report it. I asked him why, and the duty officer said he didn`t have official confirmation of this bombing. But I saw it. I was there, I told him. `We don`t have confirmation of it,` he repeated.``

Now this is obviously a special case - the military is noted for its hierarchy, and broadcast restrictions are often expanded in time of war. But in this case, an employee of the organization, presumably a trusted employee, who witnessed an event was not able to talk about it on the air.

But other broadcasters could talk about it:

They had been at the Mekahn Restaurant that [Radio Hanoi broadcaster Nguyen Van] Tung was talking about in his broadcast. The Mekahn was a floating restaurant tied up on the Mekong River dockside in Saigon. The bomb went off about ten o'clock when it was full of customers, many of them Americans. A Claymore mine tied to a tree was detonated three minutes later aimed at the survivors of the first bomb as they clambered down the gangplank toward shore. I arrived about 45 minutes after the blast, just in time to see 40 mangled bodies being loaded into ambulances and the Saigon Fire Department washing rivers of blood off the sidewalk with firehoses. Yes, Hanoi Hannah and her partner Nguyen Van Tung often knew how to invoke the images of war most painful to Americans in Vietnam.

Now Radio Hanoi itself was not exactly a bastion of reliability, but because of its broadcast bias, it would broadcast things that you wouldn't necessarily hear on U.S.-sponsored radio. Mike Roberts recalled:

I remember June 1967, I was sitting in a tent with about thirteen guys from Charlie Company. We were all on mess duty and we were gambling, drinking and having a good timeshootin' craps, talking about the world, man, listening to music and you know one guy kept saying, 'Sshh, sshh, be quiet,' and everybody says what, what, and he says 'There's a riot in Detroit!' I guess the governor called in the troops... there was some loss of life. There was no feeling of, you know, what were they rioting for? What possibly could they want? We all knew what they wanted, you know what I'm saying. So of course we would feel some sort of empathy for the folks back home...the guys in the street who were struggling or rioting.

Armed Forces Radio didn't give you an in-depth account of what was happening?

Hanoi Hannah comes on soon after that, and she knows what guard unit was called in, what kind of weapons were know what I'm sayin'. That's when it starts to hit home.... We knew what kind of fire power and what kind of devastation that kind of weapon can do to people, and now those same weapons were turning on us, you know, our own military is killing our own people. We might as well have been Viet know what I'm sayin'? It was just bad news, but Hanoi Hannah picked up on it and she talked about it. And clearly if she knew about it, Armed Forces Radio did too. They knew more than they had broadcasted. That was really the first time I started hearing Hanoi Hannah call upon Blacks, you know, to rethink their situation there. Why are you fighting? You have your own battle to fight in America.

Although Roberts didn't necessarily regard Hanoi Hannah as a trusted source:

But we didn't really see her as our friend...someone who is looking out for our best interest and would keep the Viet Cong from killing us if they had a chance.

At the end of the day, you need to put all of your news sources together, consider their biases, and evaluate them accordingly.
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