Death By Headlines: Journalism and Culpability

By Burl Barer

If you cover up a killing, interfere with an homicide investigation, or tamper with a jury, you face hard time in the big house. When newspapers, radio and television outlets promulgate false and deceptive information leading to the deaths of innocent people, they face a good time in the White House – or at least access, and some one-on-one interviews with important politicians.

What we read in the newspaper, see on television, and hear discussed on “news/talk” radio is often an absurd mix of distorted opinion, misinformation, and outright lies. When such lies result in multiple deaths, looking for someone to blame is a common reaction. Blame, according to me, is only important to drunks and lawyers. Culpability is another matter.

I've worked in broadcast news, and have watched stories mutate between initial report and eventual mass media dissemination. If rumor is more entertaining than facts, the rumor gets the lead paragraph; the facts are buried in the bottom. When it comes to international “incidents,” it is not only facts that get buried, but human beings. The bottom line of irresponsible journalism is death by headline.

If you need an example, an obvious one is the infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an "unprovoked attack" against a U.S. destroyer on "routine patrol" in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 — and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a "deliberate attack" on a pair of U.S. ships two days later.

"American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression", announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964. That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: "President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and 'certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin." 

It was all horse feathers. Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to "retaliate" for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never happened. One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron commander James Stockdale, "I had the best seat in the house to watch that event," recalled Stockdale a few years ago, "and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there.... There was nothing there but black water and American fire power."

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson himself confirmed, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
In the absence of independent journalism, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war against North Vietnam — sailed through Congress on Aug. 7. 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."

American journalism reported official claims as absolute truths when they were not true at all. If journalists didn't know better, if journalists didn't have access to honest accurate information, then there is no culpability in the deaths of 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. 

The tragedy,of course, is that reporters did have have access to honest information, and they kept it quiet. Perhaps they didn't want to appear unpatriotic, or be accused of “not supporting our troops.” Whatever the pressure, a pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed on by pliant mass media reluctant to question official pronouncements on national security issues.

The original role of the press, as envisioned by our Founding Fathers, was as watchdogs – expose lies, reveal corruption. We were to be mirrors of truth, uncontrolled by political or religious special interests. Our only interest, as professional journalists, was an unfettered search for truth. Get the facts, present them accurately, and let the public decide what to do about it.
So, my friends, here is the brain teaser question of the day: If a news outlet, acting as a conduit for government propaganda, knowingly passes on misinformation leading to deaths, or having access to contradictory information, fails to give that information public exposure when failure to do so results in death, does that outlet have culpability?

This issue plagues journalists, believe you me. Columnist Sydney Schanberg warned journalists not to forget "our unquestioning chorus of agreeability when Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident." Schanberg blamed not only the press but also "the apparent amnesia of the wider American public. We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth.”

This post was contributed by Burl Barer, an Edgar Award winner, two-time Anthony Award nominee and New York Times best selling author of true crime, mysteries, thrillers, and pop culture. You can find out more about this author and his books by visiting his website at, following him on Twitter or joining him on Facebook.

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