If American journalism should have learned one thing over the years, it is to be cautious and skeptical during the first days of a foreign confrontation like the one now playing out on the Korean Peninsula. Often the initial accounts from the "U.S. side" don't turn out to be entirely accurate.
While you can delve back through history for plenty of examples, today's U.S. journalists might remember events like the Gulf of Tonkin clash that opened the door to the disastrous Vietnam War and the misplaced certainty about Iraq's WMD that led to a bloody U.S. invasion and occupation.
In both cases, contrary claims from the "enemy side" were discounted and mocked as U.S. journalists puffed out their chests and waved the flag.
Today's Korean crisis over an exchange of artillery fire between North Korea and South Korea is similar. Though the evidence is that South Korea fired first, you wouldn't know that if you've been watching most U.S. news shows and reading the major newspapers, which have laid the blame squarely at the doorstep of North Korea.
To get an inkling of the actual chronology, you'd have to read between the lines or carefully examine a graphic published in the New York Times. Along with a map of the conflict zone, the Times included this notation: "South Korea had been firing test shots from Baengnyeong Island, according to a South Korean official."
But you wouldn't find much about that fact in the accompanying news articles. Instead, the Times, like other major U.S. news outlets, offered up ready-made narratives for the crisis that North Korea was acting in an aggressive and provocative manner to shake down the international community for more aid, or to solidify the power of the ruling family, or some other self-serving reason.
And, who knows? There might be some truth to that. However, it's also possible, as the North Koreans have stated, that they were reacting to what they interpreted as an unprovoked barrage by the South Korean military from an island only a few miles off the North Korean coast.
In a backhanded way, the New York Times lead editorial does acknowledge this possibility, although the article mostly parrots the conventional wisdom about North Korean recklessness and the failure of China to rein in its dangerous neighbor.
"On Tuesday," the Times wrote, China "was still in denial. After the [North Korean] shelling [of a South Korean military base], China called only for a resumption of six-party nuclear talks."
However, the Times editorial then notes that the North Korean "attack on Yeonpyeong Island occurred after South Korean forces on exercises fired test shots into waters near the North Korean coast. We hope South Korea's president is asking who came up with that idea. But the North should have protested, rather than firing on a populated area."
So, at least the Times marginally acknowledges a competing narrative, that the ever-paranoid North Koreans interpreted a barrage against their shoreline as a provocation that merited a muscular response directed against a South Korean military base.
Still, for the most prominent newspaper in the United States, a country that has repeatedly invaded and bombed other nations and killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of their inhabitants, isn't it a bit hypocritical to lecture a small country about how it should respond to an enemy firing at it?
But such is the never-ending disconnect between the U.S. news media's righteous indignation about what adversarial countries do and what the United States and its allies do.
The U.S. government, with its vast nuclear arsenal, leaves "all options on the table" when discussing how to confront fledgling nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran (which denies it even wants nuclear weapons). Meanwhile, Washington refuses to acknowledge that its ally, Israel, is a full-blown rogue nuclear state with a sophisticated and undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own.
So, instead of anything approaching "objectivity," the U.S. news media dishes out selective outrage. And those double standards were out in force regarding the latest Korean crisis.