Friday, December 26, 2014

The "liberal media" fallacy, Exhibit A

The "liberal media" fallacy, Exhibit A

 

Otto Fuerbringer died the other day. The odds are high that you've never heard of him, and that alone is a good reason for invoking him here - even if it means taking a break from the latest Obama-McCain tit-for-tats. Fuerbringer was a crucially important figure at a pivotal moment in our '60s political history, a flesh-and-blood refutation of the falsehood that America is supposedly dominated by a "liberal media." More specifically, Fuerbringer, by his actions, refuted the enduring right-wing canard about how the "liberal media" supposedly "lost" the war in Vietnam.

On the contrary, Fuerbringer - as the most powerful editor at America's most powerful magazine, in an era when that magazine guided the national discourse and helped shape its politics - was actually pivotal in enabling the expansion of that war...despite the warnings from his own Vietnam correspondents that we were headed for disaster.

Fuerbringer, nicknamed "the Iron Chancellor," brooked little dissent while running the day to day operations at Time magazine. It's hard to imagine today, but back then Time magazine, with its millions of heartland readers, was a crucial player. And, as chronicled by a number of authors (most notably, ex-Vietnam correspondent David Halberstam in "The Powers That Be"), Otto Fuerbringer was a political conservative who trusted the word of the Pentagon. Back in the early '60s, the Pentagon told him that Vietnam could be won at a relatively small cost in American blood and treasure. The problem was that Fuerbringer's best reporter on the ground, Charlie Mohr, felt quite the opposite - and repeatedly wrote highly pessimistic dispatches (known in Time lingo as "files"), based on what his non-official sources were telling him and what he was witnessing with his own eyes.

The result was that very little of what Mohr wrote ever got into print - and, generally, the material from his files that did get into print was heavily rewritten by the editors...to reflect the government's official optimism. When Mohr complained one too many times, Fuerbringer retaliated by ordering up a critical story about the American press corps in Saigon. When the Time reporter assigned to the story produced a draft that Fuerbringer deemed too tepid, the editor demanded several rewrites. In the end, Halberstam recounts in his book, the final version "was virtually dictated by Fuerbringer. It took the straight Pentagon line, with a touch of the White House, and was a violent, all-out attack upon the reporters in Vietnam."

Meanwhile, during this same week in 1963, Mohr sent in a long, pessimistic file - his bleakest yet - about the war's potential impact on America. A young writer at the magazine's New York headquarters was assigned the task of shaping the file for publication - an unenviable task, of course, since he wanted to respect what Mohr had written, without somehow ticking off Fuerbringer. The writer was John Gregory Dunne, later to become a prominent journalist and novelist. In an interview three decades later, Dunne recounted what happened next:

"Charlie Mohr was one of the first to say that this war isn't going to fly. He was by no means a liberal; he just saw it on the basis of his reporting. One week we did a wrapup on the war, and Charlie sent in a file, the first sentence of which was, 'The war in Vietnam is being lost.' It was a Friday night, and I said to myself, 'Uh oh, this is never going into the magazine. I had dinner with Joan (his fiancee), and I said, 'I think I'm going to call in sick.' She said, 'No, you've got to go back and do it.' So I went back and did the story based on the file, trying to put in the qualifiers that would get past Otto Fuerbringer, and went home around three in the morning. The next morning, the edited copy was on my desk, and on the top it said, 'Nice. F.'" (That was Fuerbringer's customary way of approving a story.)

But, as Dunne recalled, there was a big problem with the edited copy: "It was the complete opposite of what Charlie's file was and what I had written. Redone from top to bottom."

Mohr quit the magazine, and Dunne told his superiors that he no longer wished to work on Vietnam stories. Fuerbringer then decreed that Dunne should pay the price for speaking out; thereafter, he was assigned to write stories about places like Lichtenstein. So he quit the magazine, too.

None of this had any impact on Fuerbringer, of course. Two years later, he toured Vietnam and the Pentagon briefers showed him one of the new military bases. The editor was impressed. He told his listeners, "I know how to end the war tomorrow, quickly. Bring five Vietcong generals here to see this, and they'll surrender." In fact, Fuerbringer said this to the guy who had replaced Charlie Mohr in Saigon - but that reporter's skeptical files didn't sit well with Fuerbringer either, and, within a year, he was yanked from the Saigon bureau.

So the next time you hear complaints about the "liberal media," remember Otto Fuerbringer and the tale of how, at a crucial juncture in our history, the most powerful magazine editor in America adhered to his beliefs by refusing to let the facts get in the way. Sort of like the people who invoke the term "liberal media."

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Speaking of history, we can't end this week without noting the latest report by the Inspector General at the U.S. Justice Department - and wondering anew how it was possible that an attorney general (Bush crony Alberto Gonzales) could have nary a clue that a young party hack in his own office (Monica Goodling) was screening non-partisan job applicants for ideological purity...in violation of federal law.

I recall how Goodling described herself 14 months ago, as "a fairly quiet girl who tries to do the right thing and tries to treat people kindly along the way." Well, according to the IG report, released the other day, this is what Goodling considered to be kind treatment:

Ousting an assistant U.S. attorney, and blocking the official from further assignments, based on Goodling's belief that this woman was gay; rejecting a qualified applicant for a non-partisan counter-terrorism job because the applicant's wife happened to be a Democrat; spurning applicants who didn't share her views about (in her words) "gods, guns + gays"; screening out any applicant who didn't meet the required conservative litmus tests that defined someone as (in her words) "a good American."

It's illegal under federal law to screen civil service applicants for ideological purity and thus compromise the independence of the Justice Department. It's well known by now, of course, that the Bush regime's practices have been unprecedented, and it's no surprise that nobody higher up the food chain (Gonzales, and, needless to say, Bush) has stepped forward to take responsibility.

Perhaps the historians can sort out who knew what, and when they stopped knowing it. After all, Bush himself has often said that the verdict on his tenure will be rendered by the historians. Starting with that IG report, he's giving them plenty to work with.

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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