Message to teens: View news with skepticism

Terry Garlock's picture

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, recently paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan.

Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson, embedded with Bernard’s unit, was with them when they were ambushed by Taliban forces and Bernard was mortally wounded by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade.

She took photos, including one graphic image of Bernard and his gruesome leg injury. He later died on the operating table.

The AP sent the photo to Bernard’s family and they asked that it not be published, that it would be disrespectful of his memory. But of course news, like a rising tide, cannot be stopped, especially graphic images that compel deep feelings, never mind the possibility of a Pulitzer Prize.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked, lobbied, even pleaded with the AP not to distribute this photo for printing on the front pages of American newspapers and thereby cause Bernard’s family further anguish. Of course the AP did distribute the photo anyway, citing among other things, “The public has a right to know.”

Every time I hear that phrase I remember a televised round table discussion years ago about a hypothetical situation: should a newspaper publish information they came to by shady means, information that could harm U.S. national security if publicized.

Sam Donaldson, then of ABC News and who never hesitated to speak proudly and loudly his convictions that run a mile wide and an inch deep, predictably responded with a knee-jerk, “The public has a right to know.”

Then-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart replied to Sam with an old-fashioned phrase:

“Poppycock! The constitution says nothing about the people’s right to know anything and they can’t possibly know everything. It does say with rare exceptions the press is free to publish, but it doesn’t say they must, and doesn’t say they should.”

So what to think about the AP distributing the photo of 21-year-old Bernard in agony just before he died? That’s exactly what I hope you do — think — whether or not you and I come to the same conclusion.

Let me take you back to the Vietnam War period for some related issues, then we’ll come back to the present.

Last week in this paper, Mr. David Markham blasted me for my views on the Vietnam War, the Americans who fought it and those who refused to serve their country.

While I disagree with what Mr. Markham said, he is entitled to his own views, and I am glad he was bold enough to have his say publicly because it illustrates the deep, and I would argue irreconcilable, division in our generation.

I will never stop talking about the virtue I saw in American troops in Vietnam, and how they were smeared by misinformation, much of it in the form of news filtered by an anti-war sentiment.

Having learned that lesson, I believe news is best consumed with a heavy dose of skepticism. Maybe we should always ask ourselves as we view or read the news, “Which side do they want me to support, and why?”

When I talked to Newnan High School students a couple of weeks ago about the truths and myths of the Vietnam War, I started as usual with the following three points in my slideshow:

There are so many lessons to learn from Vietnam. If I could only teach you one lesson it would be “Think for yourself.” Resist being led by the nose by TV news lest you misread the history you live through.

Why are many Vietnam vets still angry? Because the truth about them and their war was never really told.

Even though the Vietnam War is ancient history, why is it most relevant to young people like you? Because when you realize the truth about that war was twisted out of shape, you might be better equipped to be an informed citizen today, you might be alert to the political motivation behind much of TV news. But it takes the hard work of reading two good daily newspapers, one that leans left, and one that leans right.

TV news, and images like AP’s photo of a dying Marine, deliver strong feelings. But when you read a story in a paper, you have to think, and thinking can be hard, which I suppose is why so many watch TV instead of reading papers. It is so much easier to be passive.

There are a few images still considered icons of the Vietnam War, and even now the second half of the truth behind them is not widely known simply because most people don’t dig beneath the surface. I’ll tell you about two photos that won Pulitzer Prizes.

One photo shown on TV and printed millions of times was the image of a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, running down a road from the vicinity of the village Trang Bang, her clothes burned off by a napalm bomb, anguish on her face.

It would take a hard heart not to feel for this child. If the photo had been used to demonstrate that war is hell, that weapons do nasty things, that civilians sometimes are caught in the crossfire, all that would have been both fair and true.

But the photo was used to discredit America’s involvement in the war. Maybe it would not change your conclusion, but surely it would have been more fair to disclose the VC had attacked and occupied that village, that the napalm bomb that went astray, the airplane that dropped it, the pilot and even the photographer were all South Vietnamese, and there were no Americans in the vicinity.

It is also nice to know that against all odds little Kim lived through the ordeal and is now an advocate for peace from her home in Canada.

Another Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph and video shown countless times was the execution of a Viet Cong man on the streets of Saigon by South Vietnam’s National Police Chief (former general), Nguyen Ngoc Loan, using a revolver to shoot the man in the head at point-blank range.

The scene from Tet of 1968 is provocative to be sure, but maybe viewers should have been told the facts that were omitted from news reports: the VC man had been caught with others in an assassination squad executing South Vietnamese policemen and their families, tossing their bodies in a ditch.

Those details were left out while the horror of the execution image did its work on viewers to further discredit America’s involvement in the war. The prize-winning photographer, Eddie Adams, later wrote in Time magazine:

“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?’”

When Nguyen Ngoc Loan died, Adams called him a hero in a just cause, but of course that was not news.

Back to the present. I won’t tell you what you should think about the AP photo of the dying Marine, a photo the AP says conveys, “... the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.”

I’m sure that is true, but I wonder about some things and I don’t know the answers; I suppose that’s part of my skepticism now. I’ll share my questions in case you, too, are game to spend a little time thinking.

Do the wishes of a grieving family trump the arguments for publishing the photo, especially since that photo was just one among many from the fight that day? What makes the photo of Bernard suffering so important to the AP? Is it because it delivers intense feelings that might arouse sentiments against that war ... any American war ... any war?

Is reporter and wire service ambition a factor? Do politics enter into AP decisions? When AP withheld photos of 9/11 victims jumping from the twin towers to their deaths, citing the anguish of their families, was AP trying for some reason to take the edge off American anger at our enemies? If not, how is the Bernard photo different?

I don’t know the answers but skepticism of the news — delivered to us nowadays on TV with a drumbeat, music and sound effects — is a healthy thing if you dislike propaganda, whether it comes with a right or left tilt.

That is why I write incessantly about the distant past Vietnam War; that long war was bad enough without a tilt to the news that distorted reality.

When you realize that complex and messy issues from that war were packaged for your news consumption to make you feel a certain way, maybe you will wonder what was really true. Maybe you will wonder whether tomorrow’s news will be packaged and delivered to you through the prism of someone’s political agenda.

That skepticism is the heart of my message. I will keep at it, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll convince a few to think for themselves.

Meanwhile, there is a special place in this skeptic’s heart for people like U.S. Marine Joshua M. Bernard, and for photographer Julie Jacobson, who were both bold enough to be in the danger zone while you and I have the luxury of conducting our arguments in comfort and safety.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City, Ga. His email is]

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Submitted by Uncle Bubba on Sat, 09/19/2009 - 8:52pm.


meanoldconservatives's picture
Submitted by meanoldconservatives on Sat, 09/19/2009 - 10:37pm.

"Am I missing something?"


meanoldconservatives's picture
Submitted by meanoldconservatives on Sat, 09/19/2009 - 10:37pm.

Duplicate.....must be getting late.

Submitted by PTC Observer on Tue, 09/08/2009 - 6:06pm.

It is difficult for me to recall the war without it overtaking my senses and sensibilities. I served my country as a Corpsman attached to the Marines. I do not talk about my experiences and do not wish to do so here. Everyone that served has a story, told or untold.

All of those that served during this war, like all wars I suppose, did so imperfectly. Not all served with valor and bravery. Some did so with greater devotion and sacrifice than others. Some were simply killed outright and are now just a name on a cold black stone wall. However they all served. Whether they were drafted or volunteered they did their duty to their country, they did not shirk their responsibility to past generations. They did not run.

This is what makes them quite different than faint hearted souls like Mr. David Markham. Good for Mr. Markham, good that he had good men to serve, so he could be critical of those that did serve. It seems to me if there is one person in the world that is guilt ridden it is Mr. Markham.

Fear accentuates both the best and the worst in men and war if nothing else steels character for a lifetime. We can never go back and right the wrongs in life, war is not elegant, and it is not gilded with fine thinking and detached hyperbole like Mr. Markham’s.

There were cowards on the battlefield and cowards at home but the ones on the battlefield served their country by risking their lives.

I will never forget the fine young men that I knew, I will remember my fallen comrades every day for the rest of my life, and will never regret being called “doc”.

It is an honor to have served with such men.

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