When I was in my early twenties I gave serious thought to becoming a war correspondent. I was especially keen on the idea in 1965. I’d been in Vietnam for a couple of months, learning to deal with the long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. During those boring times we’d spend our off-duty hours doing the things GI’s do – complain. And why not? We had a lot to complain about. One of our buddies, a guy we knew affectionately as Foo the Farmer (his real name was Charlie Bock), would plunk away on a beat up guitar and sing, “And the money makers are makin’ more money all the time” over and over and over. We never tired of it. We’d sit in the glow of the parachute flares and the tracers from the AC47s’ miniguns that lit up the sky to our north and listen to Foo weave his magic spell. It didn’t matter that the guitar was out of tune or that Foo sang like the proverbial tone deaf organ grinder. He was telling the truth from our perspective and that’s what mattered. LBJ’s brain trust had their own reasons for our being there – the domino theory, alliances honored, right versus wrong. But, as we sat there listening to Foo, we felt a bit of strange comfort. Vietnam really was a huge sausage machine and the money makers were making a lot of money. But we had each other.
There were quite a few journalists covering the war. Most of them concentrated on the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, but there were some who took an interest in what it was like to be a living, breathing expression of what bad political policy can do to a human being. One of them was a guy named Tom Tiede. Tom wrote field dispatches for Stars and Stripes. We loved him for it. He told our story.
The more I read, the more I wanted to become like him. He embodied everything I believe was noble about journalism.
That was years ago. I came back home, got married, had three kids, and everything changed. Being a war correspondent, no matter how noble, wasn’t conducive to the family life. So, I moved on. I occasionally wonder what might have happened if I’d pursued my dream. Would I have won an Ernie Pyle award like Tom Tiede did in 1965? I’ll never know.
What made Tom so special to us who served? A couple of his post-Vietnam dispatches will help you understand the depth of feeling he put into his craft:
“I recall walking through a U.S. mortuary at the Saigon airport, in tow of an officer who lifted the sheets on bodies without arms, arms without bodies, and wiped away the roaches that had drowned in drippings of blood on the gurneys.”
“So what is the rub of all this? Apart from the dishonesty of selective reporting, the sanitizing of warfare contributes to the array of forces that perpetuate warfare, one of which is public delusion. American wars are displayed as smart bombs and snappy colonels speaking of benevolent liberation. They are in fact men, women, and children dying like beasts, shrieking in horror. Were the latter the message, and not the former, peace might prosper more than it does.”
I think of Tom Tiede and draw the inevitable comparison between him and today’s crop of journalists. It’s not a pretty picture.
I suppose it’s always been that way. Thomas Jefferson once lamented, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” Lyndon Johnson complained, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: "President Can't Swim.”
I’m not alone in my concern about the state of modern journalism. A just released Pew Research poll found that the public’s trust in news media has suffered serious declines since the beginning of the new millennium. In 2002, the New York Times was considered credible by 62% of us. In 2012, only 49% of us believe what the Grey Lady tells us. The same trend holds true for Fox, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, NBC, etc.
I think the survey is telling us two things. The public is longing for Tom Tiede’s, but they’re being bulldozed by celebrity journalists with even bigger agendas.
But, there is one sign of hope. Small outlets, those Pew described as “the daily paper you know best” are now deemed more credible than their giant counterparts.
Here in Emporia that means the Gazette. There’s a message in this for the Gazette’s young cubs. Journalism is a noble profession. It’s at its noblest when its practitioners put on the mantle of men like Tom Tiede. That’s what the public is hungry for.