With this week’s 50th anniversary of North Korea’s illegal seizure of the USS Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968, and the capture of the crew, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how news reporting has changed over the ensuing decades. At the time, coverage in the papers and on television was sober and thoughtful. Items buried deep inside the stories would be headlines today, when informing the public is often less important than winning clicks and eyeballs.
And then of course there was the predictably fierce war of words between the two countries, culminating in the pronouncement by North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung that war was imminent. For the most part the parry and thrust was reported by the news media more in sorrow than in anger. Certainly nobody argued that U.S. rhetoric heightened the risk of armed confrontation.
In retrospect, the relative restraint with which the news media treated the crisis probably helped the administration to resolve it without bloodshed, even though negotiations for release of the crew dragged on for 11 months. 1 True, there were understandable efforts to exploit the situation. When nominated for president by the Republican convention in Miami Beach that year, Richard Nixon used his acceptance speech to play the event as part of the Democrats-are-too-soft theme that endures in some quarters to this day:
When respect for the United States of America falls so low that a fourth-rate military power, like North Korea, will seize an American naval vessel on the high seas, it is time for new leadership to restore respect for the United States of America.
But that was politics, and to be expected, and to some extent fair game. The difference was that only a handful of papers, led perhaps by the Chicago Tribune, actually sought to stoke the anger.
Yes, the Pueblo incident was a disaster for U.S. foreign policy. Yes, it probably contributed to Nixon’s victory in the fall, although, to be sure, his campaign theme was supported by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the urban uprisings following the assassination of the Martin Luther King Jr., and the “police riot” at the Democratic convention in Chicago. But the journalists of the day played a mostly admirable role, reporting the news only as news and without histrionics, leaving fury and spin to the politicians.
- No, the journalists weren’t perfect in this regard. For example, they far too readily allowed administration spokesmen (yes, all men at the time) to get away with answers that consisted not of evasions but of flat refusals — “No comment” and “Classified” and “We have no information” and the like — and only rarely pressed for more. It was as though the aura of national security was sufficiently intense that even veteran reporters were blinded by its glare. The fading of that aura is a good thing, even if the news media of today, in their rush to get a story out, sometimes are too caught up in their own enthusiasm, and so parade weakly sourced tales as glowing truths.