Mar 1 1996

James Reston:

The Insider's Journalist in the Service of Empire

The death of long-time New York Times reporter, editor and columnist James Reston on Dec. 6, 1995 was followed by an outpouring of accolades to the “influential,” “respected,” “giant” and “non-pareil” journalist.

Even in the accolades, however, there was repeated mention of his exceptional connections to the powerful. R.W. Apple, in the New York Times (12/8/95), noted that “Mr. Reston was forgiving of the frailties of soldiers, statesmen and party hacks–too forgiving, some of his critics said, because he was too close to them.”

Burt Barnes, writing in the Washington Post (12/8/95), stated that “Mr. Reston’s work was required reading for top government officials, with whom he sometimes cultivated a professional symbiosis; he would be their sounding board and they would be his news sources.” Barnes also used the word “conduit” in describing Reston’s relation to his news sources.

In Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics (1994), Eric Alterman speaks of Reston as one of the “giants who walked the earth in punditry’s golden age.” But while lauding Reston for his “infectious decency,” Alterman criticizes the “passive” model of punditry that Reston represented. Reston himself spoke of his reliance on “compulsory plagiarism” of “well-informed officials,” and he even once bylined one of his articles: “By Henry Kissinger With James Reston.”

This close relationship with sources was hardly compatible with independent and critical reporting. Alterman says that insider access made Reston, unwittingly, “a kind of advance man for U.S. government policy, and a public relations executive for its favored supporters.” British diplomats, according to historian Bruce Cumings (Origins of the Korean War), referred to Reston as Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s “mouthpiece,” and Cumings himself referred to “Reston’s lips moving but Dean Acheson speaking.” Reston was, in short, an object lesson in the compromising effects of insider access.

Imperial Apologetics

Reston’s identification with the powerful extended to their imperial view of the U.S. role in the world. “I don’t think there is anything in the history of the world to compare with the commitment this country has taken in defense of freedom,” he declared in 1989 (11/5/89–references are to the New York Times unless otherwise cited). Genocidal atrocities could be defended in the name of this “commitment”: In 1966, after the CIA-backed Indonesian military had massacred hundreds of thousands of landless peasants and other “suspected Communists,” Reston described the situation (6/19/66) as a “gleam of light in Asia.”

Reston’s imperial apologetics were clearly evident in his reporting and commentary on the Vietnam War. He took it as a premise that the U.S. had a right to intervene in that distant country to “stop Communism,” and accepted without question (8/27/65) the official claim that North Vietnam was an aggressor pushed by a “Chinese expansionism” that we were striving to contain.

The idea that the U.S. was the aggressor rather than responding to somebody else’s provocation Reston considered outlandish. He once noted sarcastically (12/8/65): “If the Communists use force in Vietnam it is a crusade; if America uses force it is ‘aggression.'”

Reston could hardly avoid observing that “our” Vietnamese were not fighting well even with our help, and that we were killing vast numbers of South Vietnamese civilians trying to “pacify” the South (8/29/65). This didn’t bother him unduly, and he even mentioned (12/17/65) the chemical destruction of peasant rice crops that “would otherwise have been harvested by the Communists,” as if it were a creditable (and lawful) endeavor.

Peace Talk Propaganda

The U.S. fought off every attempt to negotiate a settlement in South Vietnam, because that would require accepting significant or dominant Communist political power; the aim of U.S. policy was to use our enormous military strength to either cow or crush the enemy into submission, as President Lyndon Johnson attempted to do in escalating the use of military force from early 1965. Reston’s statement of Feb. 26, 1965, that this assault on Vietnam reflected the “guiding principle…that no state shall use military force or the threat of military force to achieve its political objectives,” was journalism straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

The policy of escalating force in Vietnam quickly led to opposition at home as well as abroad. One important propaganda response was periodic suspensions of the bombing of North Vietnam and offers of “unconditional talks” or “negotiations.” As the whole point of the bombing and U.S. invasion was to get the enemy to accept the U.S.-chosen government in South Vietnam, there was always a hidden agenda in the peace offers–made clear to the enemy and obvious to honest observers at the time. The offers were designed to fail, but to create a moral environment for greater use of force. (See George Kahin, Intervention, 1986; for a contemporary account of the war-propaganda policy, see Richard DuBoff and Edward Herman, America’s Vietnam Policy: The Strategy of Deception, 1966).

James Reston took each of the peace offers at face value, asserting (10/18/65) that “the problem of peace lies now not in Washington but in Hanoi,” and marveling (12/31/65) that “the enduring mystery of the war in Vietnam is why the Communists have not accepted the American offers of unconditional peace talks.”

Reston also completely missed the cynicism and manipulative quality of Nixon’s use of POWs. While admitting that it is not common for POWs to be released prior to a war’s ending, Reston argued (4/21/72) that “the Americans are a funny people. They care more about the human problems than the political problems…. The guess here is that they will be more likely to get out of the war if the prisoners are released…than if Hanoi holds onto them as hostages and demands that Mr. Nixon knuckle under to them.”

The ready transformation of the POWs into “hostages,” the sheer silliness of this statement about the U.S. public’s sensitivity to “human problems” (the Vietnamese apparently did not count), and the failure to see the managed quality of this concern over POWs: These are the hallmarks of Reston’s featherweight journalism, in the service of Nixon-Kissinger propaganda aims.


Reagan and Other “Moderates”

As the journalist insider working in the land of the good, Reston leaned over backwards to find its leaders reasonable and benevolent, and always part of, or moving toward, a moderate consensus. In a 1970 interview on the Nixon administration’s performance (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 11/25/70), he found Nixon to be doing nobly: “cutting back the inordinate commitments we have taken overseas…deep into the SALT talks…trying to combat inflation without stumbling back into recession.” And finally, “he’s trying to restore order and attack anarchy in this country without slipping over into repression and a challenge to the civil liberties of the people.” Nixon couldn’t have asked for a better (and more misleading) summary of his activities.

Writing on Reagan (1/21/81), Reston found his inaugural speech “wise and compassionate,” and he is “talking in gentler ways now that he has entered the White House.” Reston (2/22/81) even found the Reagan economic program admirable, asserting that “a serious attempt has been made…to spread the sacrifices equally across all segments of the society.”

This was the Reagan claim, but it was false, as the Congressional Budget Office and many others made clear at the time. In that same column (2/22/81), Reston went on to say that people “may not quite understand the theory that Reagan will help the poor by unleashing the big corporations and by giving the rich a big tax cut. But they are worried and even scared and are, I believe, ready for a new road.” How does a “big tax cut” jibe with the allegedly “equal” sacrifices?

Reston admitted (6/16/91) that in 1988 he had considered George Bush a fine choice–a potential “Gentleman President.” “I admired his record…. My wife Sally and I flew around with him in the 1988 presidential campaign…and I felt sure he would bring a more pragmatic spirit to the White House.” He hadn’t realized his warrior tendencies and his continuation of the “wonderful and goofy…American determination to reform the world.” Reston always took at face value claims by U.S. leaders that they aimed to reform the world. In this instance he was referring to Bush’s aims in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Questioning the Gulf War

Curiously, despite his description of the U.S. effort as in the “reformist tradition,” Reston rose to unusual journalistic heights during the Gulf War. He quoted President John Adams, who urged that we help other nations but that we “go not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.” Reston himself (6/16/91, 9/20/91) criticized Bush for demonizing Saddam Hussein as “another Hitler,” and for “scarcely mentioning the 150,000 Iraqis who were slaughtered in the process.” He also noted (10/21/90, 6/19/91) the double standard in ignoring the UN when invading Panama and then using it to go after Iraq.

He pointed out (11/13/90) that before Bush’s aggressive response to the invasion of Kuwait, Bush’s envoy had told Saddam that Washington doesn’t intervene in Arab squabbles. In the same column, he expressed strong doubts that the U.S. was exhausting the peaceful means of settling the dispute required by Article 33 of the UN Charter, although he offered no details on the negotiations sabotaged by the Bush administration. He even stated (9/20/91) that Bush had “snookered us into the war,” and derided his claim of supporting democracy in Kuwait, given that he was rescuing “the same old family autocracy there.”

This overall critique was relatively impressive. Maybe Reston had mellowed; or, having retired in 1987, perhaps he was freed of some of the insider connections that had compromised his earlier journalism. Or perhaps he was in retirement from imperial service as well as from mainstream journalism.

Edward S. Herman, professor emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of several books, including Corporate Control, Corporate Power; Beyond Hypocrisy; and (with Noam Chomsky) Manufacturing Consent. His latest book is Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics and the Media, published by South End Press.