Watching the war

Sacramento’s John Berthelsen, who covered the Vietnam War for Newsweek, considers the role of today’s embedded journalists

John Berthelsen believes the trouble with today’s war coverage lies less with the reporters than with their editors.

John Berthelsen believes the trouble with today’s war coverage lies less with the reporters than with their editors.

Photo By Larry Dalton

John Berthelsen understands firsthand the challenges faced by reporters working in the battlefield. The Sacramento-based journalist began his career as a Vietnam War correspondent for Newsweek back in 1966. He feels it was anger over the press coverage of that war that ultimately led to the press being banned from traveling with the U.S. military for the next 30 years.

Berthelsen, like other journalists, hitchhiked across Vietnam on military planes, helicopters and in Jeeps, urgently trying to get to wherever the action was. His biggest challenges were finding transportation and staying alive. Berthelsen and his peers did not spend weeks with the same units and were therefore less likely than today’s embedded journalists to forge deep bonds with military personnel.

“There was the challenge of not getting shot,” said Berthelsen with a chuckle. “And transportation was a problem. The military was very good in that they would let you get on wherever they were going. I think we had a much better chance of seeing action because if you’re embedded with some unit that’s not going into combat, you’re going to sit there forever.”

Berthelsen and his colleagues earned a reputation for hard-hitting coverage that didn’t always present the U.S. military in the best light. Back then, he recalls, it was not unusual for the press to report the exact opposite of what the military reported. But Berthelsen has reservations about the effectiveness of today’s embedded journalists.

“I think the Financial Times described it as 500 people looking at the same situation through soda straws; and I think it’s a pretty apt description,” said Berthelsen, who believes these firsthand images are weakened by the absence of a greater context. “They’re on the ground; they’re seeing what’s happening. Everyone is falling for [the idea that] I can sit on a tank, and I can phone in the war on my cell phone. Isn’t this great? But that is not telling the American people what they need to know about the situation in the Middle East. It’s hard to say if the corporate press has fallen for this. Everybody is saying, ‘Gee whiz, bang! We’re decimating the Iraqi troops,’ which we are, but how is this going to play itself out in terms of American diplomacy in the next 20 years?”

Berthelsen believes the problem lies not with the reporters, who in many cases are risking their lives, but with editors back home who are not saying there’s a bigger picture to be reported. “There seems to be very little questioning about how the impact of the war is playing out in the Middle East,” he said, “and the greater implications about whether the U.S. is going to be able to effectively exert its influence in the Middle East. You see some of it in The New York Times, and you see some of it in The Washington Post, but by and large, nobody is covering that picture.”

After spending subsequent decades reporting for the Asian Wall Street Journal on political and economic issues in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand (he currently writes for the Internet-based news source Asia Times), Berthelsen still remembers his years in Vietnam vividly. “I was traveling with a Marine unit one time, and some mortars started coming in, and this huge guy jumped on top of me,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Wow!’ I was really grateful. He was covering me up.”

Although Berthelsen said he never felt his objectivity was compromised when he covered the Vietnam War, it’s not difficult to see how it could happen. “Yeah, there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome obviously. These people are protecting you. But at the same time, you did not get as attached as these guys who are spending weeks with their units.”

Whether the American military will allow reporters to accompany units in future wars remains to be seen, but Berthelsen gives today’s embedded journalists credit for doing a dangerous job. “I think they could be more objective than they are now, but then again, it’s hard to say. If you cover the police beat in Sacramento, do you get attached to cops?

“Well, you do and you don’t,” said Berthelsen, answering his own question. “I think you can still report what’s going on, and you do. Certainly, look at the press in Vietnam. I think it did a pretty good job.”