“I am teaching you to use a tool more deadly than a pistol.” This is the message beginning journalism students hear from an instructor who spoke last year at a conference on “Our Enemies’ Use of the Media,” sponsored by Accuracy in Media. In a world of Goliaths, count Accuracy in Media as one of the Davids of our time. This handful of men have shown over and over again the incapacity of television networks and newspapers to remember simple facts. Recently, it was only AIM’S complaints that forced ABC’s Good Morning America grudgingly to retract its claim that Lenin overthrew the Czar instead of the democratic government of Kerenski—only an American would call this entire series of events “the Russian revolution,” and only an exile from Russia like Lev Navrozov would remember the facts. The lives of millions depend on the memory of such facts. Weapons are useless without such memory.

The professional journalists at the AIM conference insisted that incompetence, not bad faith, made the media reckless. They readily admitted that Soviet journalists (identified by defectors as KCB agents) receive better training in languages and the history of the countries they cover. This casual admission of incompetence made me uneasy. “Other peoples’ misery is an opportunity for us journalists,” Edwin Diamond, who writes on media for the New York magazine, remarked. But surely he knew reporting disasters does not cause them—in fact accurate reporting helps prevent man-made calamities. Michael Pakenham, the editorial page editor of the Daily News, reminded us of the necessary imperfectness of institutions in democracies. Beautiful words. But he did not mean them. He used them to accuse the critics of media in free countries of envying the perfectionism of totalitarian regimes—as if there were no difference between criticism and the Utopian lust that most of all dreads doubt.

The professionals also admitted that terrorists and their victims manipulate the media to keep governments from risking the use of force: from June 15 to June 30 the networks devoted more than half the evening news to the seizure of the TWA hostages in Beirut. Sixty percent of the images were of grieving families—”the pornography of grief,” George Will calls it. Diamond casually admitted that he would yield to terrorist blackmail to save his family—though writers from the Gulag say such surrender never works. These professionals seemed to want to convince us they knew no shame. How can they feel shame while they remain confident that their errors will never be criticized in media of equal circulation—their ring of Gyges? Unacknowledged shame was palpable.

The criticism of independent writers went deeper than the self-criticism of the professionals. Irene Boden Leacock, leader of the “Nicaraguan Miskito Indian Women of the Resistance,” a woman whose unassuming simplicity and beauty makes lying unthinkable, marveled that the barefaced lying of communist leaders like Ortega in Nicaragua escapes challenge by Western journalists intent upon exposing the minor duplicity of American politicians. In support of her point. Reed Irvine remarked that most American newspapers had not bothered to check and deny a Soviet assertion at a Geneva-Summit press conference of recent attacks on 350 synagogues in the United States. John Rees, an editor of Early Warning, contrasted the lavish attention newspapers pay to Nelson Mandela, who has not renounced violence, to their silence concerning the murder of Bartholomew Hlapane, a former South African Communist Party member, and his wife, and the crippling of his 15-year-old daughter, in South Africa in 1982, three months after he had testified before the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism. They rarely mention that the African National Congress is a Marxist-Leninist organization with Soviet-trained terrorists under KGB control.

Peter Rollin’s new film Television’s Vietnam: The Impact of the Media provided the pith and marrow of the AIM conference. This film brings back events of 17 years ago; the Vietcong attacks throughout South Vietnam at Tet and the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968. It shows participants then and now in a contrast that works on viewers like a dream. For that past is half forgotten and at the same time just beneath the surface of consciousness: General Westmoreland now remembering in the uneasy comfort of civilian clothes and in battle fatigues wandering about the American Embassy in Saigon in 1968 to make sure the Vietcong had not broken into the building, as the media had reported; a soldier who had returned to Khe Sanh after a month’s leave in the United States retells his bewilderment at the contrast between the effective resistance he knew (199 Americans killed in action, 1,600 wounded; 9,000 to 14,000 Vietnamese dead) and the intimations of a defeat on the scale of Dien Bien Phu in the press and television at home. A former high Vietcong official, now in exile in the West, explains communist strategy: “Fight and Negotiate. Fight and Negotiate.” He means the alternation of violence with the raising and disappointment of the enemy’s yearning for settlement in order to break his will—a strategy not unlike the technique for “reeducation” in totalitarian concentration camps. The communists realized that Tet had brought them a military defeat in South Vietnam but had secured the political victory in the United States necessary for eventual conquest of the South. You can win on the battlefield and lose a war.

The film makes viewers concentrate on what actually happened in order to contrast it with contemporary accounts. This is real history. Over and over again you ask yourself, Why didn’t anybody say this at the time? The authors of this film do not think that now, 17 years later, it is too late to go back to see what actually happened. They understand that until we confront the facts we will not be able to see what is going on now all around us: in Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Phillipines—and that is not the end of the list. Only this sort of concentration on facts can overcome the polarization of ideological recrimination. Such facts could precipitate a crisis in the nontotalitarian left among those who allowed themselves to be misled in those years—but such facts could also pave the way for a future consensus. The long silence among the nontotalitarian left shows that many there are groping for a way out.

Rollin’s film does depart from the known into the speculative when it depicts the media’s distorted representation of the Tet Offensive as the reason for Johnson’s decision on March 31, 1968, not to run for reelection. We cannot know the effect of media on Johnson. But we do know something much more important: Johnson never challenged the media’s interpretation of Tet. (See Peter Braestrup’s Big Story [Yale University Press, 1977].) Johnson never used his facts, the battle reports of American officers and American intelligence, to refute the media’s account. He never tried. It would have been much better to try and lose than not to try at all. In this defeat, the government’s silence is perhaps more important than the media’s distortions.

And the government’s silence only deepens: without any American lives directly at stake. President Reagan did not face the media with a word of support for Israel’s attempt to deal with the situation in Lebanon in 1982. How can any government deal with a world that has always been dangerous but is now even more dangerous because so many people who wish it safe lack a voice? And this silence persists at the same time that four out of five media stories come “from above,” from the government—as one of the participants at the conference pointed out. No wonder the media are so suspicious of governments: dependency does not make for self-respect.

The United States, as Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor of the Washington Times, pointed out in a speech at lunch, is the only free country without a two-party press—with all its major media more or less in agreement. With some newspapers critically loyal to it, the government might find its voice. Can you have a two-party government without a two-party press?