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News media and the Vietnam War

Beginning during the Vietnam War (1955–1975) and continuing into the present, there has been a contentious debate over the actions and influence of the news media on the course and outcome of the conflict. This debate has centered upon a set of basic assumptions shared across the American political spectrum. On the one side are those who charged that the media misrepresented the U.S. military effort, causing a collapse of American will to prevail in a war that could and should have been won. Post-1968, the charge that the press had "lost Vietnam" had become an article of faith to many political conservatives, military officers, veterans, and members of the public. Ranged against them were those who claimed that the news media had simply fulfilled its function as "watchdog of the state," revealing to the public the truth about failed policy, which in turn forced decision-makers to alter the course of the war. Both sides staunchly believed that the media had been a "decisive actor" on the stage of the Vietnam conflict and that changes in the coverage of that war produced a shift in public opinion and, by extension, American policy. A third supposition, one that was held by both groups, was that the communist Tet Offensive of 1968 was the turning point of the Vietnam War as far as the American public was concerned and that all opinions created and decisions made after its conclusion were a direct result of it. Upon investigation, however, the verity of all three of these suppositions tends to collapse.

Early days, 1960-1964

To emphasize that the United States (U.S.) was only assisting the Saigon government in fighting communist aggression, the U.S. diplomatic mission sought to emphasize the South Vietnamese role in releasing news to the press. Although official U.S. spokesmen might brief correspondents on the activities of Americans in Vietnam, they followed South Vietnamese press guidance in all matters involving the country itself. The position of the U.S. mission was that although South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem had a right to dictate and impose press restrictions during what was viewed as a war of aggression waged by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the American press should be allowed to report on the conflict unhindered, due to the fact that the support of the American public and Congress were absolutely necessary for the continuation of U.S. aid to the Saigon government.

According to press historian Clarence Wyatt, however, between the 1950s and 1962 "the fundamental fact was that the American press was simply not interested in Vietnam. The American government had no independent information-gathering system in Vietnam and was forced to rely on a regime that the Pentagon Papers described as "discouraging realism". Wyatt related that "in many ways the relationship between the American press and the United States government in Vietnam during this crucial period was one of the blind leading the blind. Reporting of the situation in Southeast Asia was also initially controlled by the bipartisan Cold War consensus that identified foreign policy decisions with national security and there was little editorializing about Vietnam in the pages of American newspapers. In the tradition of objective American journalism, reporters "just gave the facts". But they were not just any facts. They were official facts that doomed objectivity and opened wide the channel through which official influence flowed. This would not have mattered except for the fact that the policies of the Kennedy period in South Vietnam did not succeed.

Soon, however, two different pictures of the conflict in Vietnam began to appear in the news media. One was increasingly critical of the way the war was being conducted by the South Vietnamese, critical of the Saigon government, and pessimistic about the prospects of both. The other was supportive of those Americans who led the advisory effort and optimistic about the wars future course. As the conflict increased in scope and length, the number of lower-echelon American sources in the field available to reporters increased, and comparisons by reporters of official statements of success and progress with those of the personnel "on the ground" who were more skeptical, were the seeds of a "credibility gap" that would only continue to widen. President Ngo Dinh Diem believed that the U.S. government controlled its media (as he did), and blamed the U.S. diplomatic mission for its increasingly critical stories. The U.S. embassy blamed the reporters for their insensitivity to the need to win Diem's confidence while the reporters, in turn, accused the diplomats and chief military advisors of misleading them in order to protect Diem.

Thus, the U.S. mission's own ambivalence and the tensions that grew between the Diem regime and the foreign press undermined official U.S. relations with reporters from early 1962 onward. Although the number of full-time reporters covering the conflict was small (in 1960, they numbered only around eight individuals), that number belied the impression that they made on Diem. Two reporters in particular had aroused his ire: Homer Bigart of the New York Times and Francois Sully, a stringer for Newsweek, both of whom had condemned the repressive measures of the regime and derided its military capabilities. In March 1962, Diem, emboldened by perceived military successes and official American optimism, summarily ordered both men deported from South Vietnam. U.S. Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting stepped in to try to convince Diem to retract his order and Bigert was rotated home in July. Sully was not so lucky. Although other incountry reporters disagreed over the subject of Sully's fate, they "were united in their belief that the whole affair had been an attempt to intimidate them.

Ap Bac

In January 1963, South Vietnamese forces engaged the communists at the Battle of Ap Bac. The reporting of what became a debacle for the South Vietnamese military and the condemnation heaped upon it by the Western press became a cause celebre at the time. Both the U.S. mission and Washington condemned the reports and questioned the motives of the correspondents involved. The Kennedy administration then went on the offensive, bombarding news editors in the U.S. with complaints concerning the accuracy of the reporting of the Saigon press corps. This chain of events led to the interesting conundrum of American periodicals attacking the accuracy of their own on-the-spot reporters. The correspondents, however, did not question the black and white assumptions of the time that the conflict in Vietnam was a part of the larger struggle between the free world and totalitarianism or whether the war was beyond America's ability to win. They perceived their issues with the Saigon government as a conflict over tactics, not principles - Diem's government and military were hindering a positive solution to the problem. According to the reporters, the solution was for the U.S. to either get rid of Diem or take over direct control of the war itself.

Although the U.S. mission was irate over the reporting of the battle, even the U.S. Public Information Office (PIO) in Saigon had to admit that, working from partial information on an emotional subject, the reporting was "two-thirds accurate" and that the correspondents had done quite respectably. Ap Bac and the controversy surrounding it, however, marked a permanent divide in the relations between the official U.S. position and the news media in Vietnam. Before the battle, the media had criticized Diem and argued for more U.S. control of the war, but they were still agreeable to the position of the diplomats and the U.S. military assistance command. After it, correspondents became steadily more convinced that they (and, by extension, the American people) were being lied to and withdrew, embittered, into their own community.

Buddhist Crisis

This situation was only exacerbated during the Buddhist Crisis of May 1963, when the Diem government considered the foreign press as its enemy and was unwilling to communicate its side of the story effectively. While the top levels of the U.S. mission in Saigon were inordinately closemouthed around reporters during the period, others, especially those who disagreed with the policy of supporting Diem, were not. They leaked information from discussions with Diem to the press, embarrassing him and thwarting the embassy's vigorous efforts to win an end to the anti-Buddhist repressions. Once again, however, despite occasional factual errors and conflict between the press and the embassy, most of the news commentaries were reasonably accurate. The U.S. Army's official history of military-media relations reported that "Although marred at times by rhetoric and mistaken facts, they often probed to the heart of the crisis. During the Buddhist Crisis the number of correspondents in South Vietnam swelled from an original nucleus of eight to a contingent of over 60.

By 1964 the leadership of both the U.S. and South Vietnam had changed hands. President John F. Kennedy had been felled by an assassin's bullets and Diem had been murdered during a U.S.-backed military coup. Instead of paving the way for political stability, however, Diem's demise only unleashed a maelstrom of political unrest. Coup followed coup as South Vietnamese generals vied for power. There were seven governments in Saigon during 1964 - three between 16 August and 3 September alone. The war in South Vietnam ground on and the communists were making serious headway. Following the recommendations of an internal report, the new U.S. headquarters, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), made the decision that since news correspondents were "thoroughly knowledgeable" about the war, its Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) would attempt to woo reporters by providing them with "up to date, factual information on current operations and policies.

Problems

Although Operation Candor was a welcome relief for correspondents, it did not halt the media's dubiousness concerning the efficacy of the Saigon government or further American involvement with it. Reporters had also become quite aware that all sides (the South Vietnamese and American governments, the U.S. mission, MACV, the Buddhists, and the communists) were trying to manipulate them. It did not help matters that JUSPAO was also MACV's propaganda arm, a fact that was well known to news correspondents. The American public was also dissatisfied with the course of events in Vietnam. A January 1965 Gallup poll indicated that two out of three Americans agreed that the country would never form a stable government and that four out of five Americans felt that the communists were winning. Few, however, wanted a unilateral U.S. withdrawal and 50 percent believed that the U.S. was obliged to defend independent nations from communist aggression.

At this early stage of the conflict (and continuing to its end) the South Vietnamese people themselves were viewed by the media with the condescension, contempt, and disdain that characterized the American attitude toward them. The media exhibited the "Cold War myopia, ethnocentrism, cultural bias, and racism embedded in American ideology. American journalists arrived in Vietnam with almost no knowledge of its culture, history, society, or language, nor did they attempt to learn. Although the U.S. Department of Defense offered a brief introductory course for journalists on the history and culture of Vietnam, few ever bothered to attend it. Although the "pacification" of South Vietnam's villages was the continuously touted supreme goal of the Saigon government, the U.S. Mission, MACV, and the media, there was little real discussion within the media as to why it was so difficult to convince the Vietnamese peasant to join the side of the Saigon government.

As for the armed forces of the North Vietnamese and National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), American readers rarely encountered the argument that the communists were waging a war of reunification rather than "a campaign to further the interests of a communist conspiracy masterminded by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The domino theory was utilized to justify the American intervention in order to prevent regional domination by China, overlooking centuries of hostility between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Throughout the war communist troops were continuously portrayed as "brutal, cruel, fanatic, sinister, untrustworthy, and warlike. Most depictions of [them] employed hateful imagery or reinforced racial stereotypes of the era associated with Asians. The media went so far as to follow the lead of the American military by refusing to refer to communist forces by their correct titles. NLF forces were referred to by the derogatory term Viet Cong and northern troops of the People's Army of Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA.

Escalation, 1965-1967

During 1964-1965 period in which the new administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson made the key decisions to escalate American involvement in the war, there was little debate or discussion within the American media. According to media historian Daniel Hallin, this was due to the fact that "the 'objective journalist' would not report on criticism of administration policy unless it came from 'responsible sources' - which meant, in effect, from within the government itself...The president's control over the political process was still strong enough that...very little controversy emerged.

The initiation of bombing campaigns in North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder) and in the Kingdom of Laos (Operation Barrel Roll) raised immediate concerns at MACV and in Washington over the possible imposition of press censorship in order to protect operational security. Many in the U.S. mission were convinced, however, that since South Vietnam was a sovereign nation, neither censorship nor involuntary restraints on the press would do any good. Reporters were free to travel by other than U.S. military means and to file dispatches through cables and telephones operated by the South Vietnamese. The U.S. could influence the Saigon government to impose censorship on the foreign press, but considering the authoritarian nature of that government, "there was no guarantee that it would confine its supervision to military matters" and that censorship would thus lead to more political and public relations problems than it would solve.

Censorship?

An Information Conference was held in Honolulu in March 1965 to consider the issue of press censorship. The new commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, believed that censorship might indeed be the only solution to the problem but that "practical considerations" made it impossible. The media, political, and public uproar that was certain to follow the imposition of such a measure was problematic. Censorship
would require the legal underpinnings of a declaration of war as well as an enormous logistical and administrative effort. The censors would need jurisdiction over all communications and transportation facilities connecting South Vietnam with the rest of the world and parallel authority over civilian mail. That would necessitate a large number of multilingual military personnel to do the censoring and expanded, U.S. controlled teletype and radio circuits in South Vietnam to move the censored material...In any case, many of the Saigon correspondents were foreigners beyond the reach of American military regulations and likely to resist any attempt to bring them under control.

The answer seemed to lie in a system of voluntary cooperation between the military and the media. In return for accreditation, military transportation around South Vietnam, and access to briefings and interviews, correspondents would have to abide by certain rules designed to protect military security. MACV and the diplomats believed that they had created a system that was both capable of giving the American people a reasonably accurate accounting of the war without at the same time helping their enemy.

Under the new arrangement, correspondents agreed to withhold certain categories of information from their reports. These included:

never to reveal future plans, operations, or air strikes; information on rules of engagement; or the amounts of ordnance or fuel on hand to support combat units. During an operation, unit designations, troop movements, and tactical deployments were to remain secret. So were the methods, activities, and specific locations of intelligence units; the exact number and type of casualties suffered by friendly forces; the number of sorties and amount of ordnance delivered outside of South Vietnam; and information on aircraft taking off for, en route to, or returning from target areas. The press was also to avoid publishing details on the number of aircraft damaged by enemy antiaircraft defenses; tactical specifics such as altitudes, courses, speeds, or angles of attack; anything that would tend to confirm planned strikes which failed to occur for any reason, including bad weather; the types of enemy weapons that had shot down friendly aircraft; and anything having to do with efforts to find and rescue downed airmen while a search was in progress.

The system seemed to work. Between 1962 and 1968 only three news correspondents were disaccredited for infractions against these guidelines. There was no evidence that the military ever considered the press a source of significant damage to military operations or security. Officials sometime complained of diplomatic damage done by press coverage, but again there was little evidence that this was extensive. The most significant example was the revelation in the New York Times of Operation Menu, the secret bombing campaign that began in Cambodia in 1969, which caused no political fallout whatsoever until it was confirmed in 1972.

Restrictions also covered still photography and television news coverage. Newsmen were tasked with abiding by a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) ruling that pictures of recognizable American dead or wounded servicemen would not be released until their next of kin had been notified. Pictures of disfigured wounded, of amputees, or of men in severe shock were also to be withheld unless the permission of the individual had been obtained first. Television coverage of combat was more problematic. Television coverage was shot on motion picture film and, since there were no facilities incountry for developing it, there was no opportunity to review it before it left South Vietnam. This situation, however, was resolved by the complicit cooperation of news editors at the networks (see below).

Correspondents, however, refused to bend as far as South Vietnamese performance was concerned. When Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey addressed a press gathering in Saigon, he informed the group "When you speak to the American people give the benefit of the doubt to our side. I don't think that's asking too much. We're in this together." One newsman present turned to his companion to grumble "Benefit of a doubt? Hell, what do they think we've been doing for the past six years?

Dealing with the press

From 40 in 1964, the press corps in South Vietnam had grown to 282 by January 1966. By August that number had jumped to 419. Of the 282 at the beginning of the year, only 110 were Americans. 67 were South Vietnamese, 26 Japanese, 24 British, 13 Korean, 11 French, and seven German. Of the Americans present, 72 were more than thirty-one years old, and 60 of them were over the age of thirty-six. The same was true of the 143 non-Americans. Correspondents with valid accreditations had to show their credentials in order to receive a card that gave them access to military transportation and facilities. All other correspondents had to present a letter from their editors stating that they represented a bona-fide newsgathering organization which would take responsibility for their conduct. Freelance correspondents were required to produce a letter from one of their clients affirming that agency's willingness to purchase their work.

The U.S. Mission and MACV also installed an "information czar", the U.S. Mission's Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs, Barry Zorthian, to advise Westmoreland on public affairs matters and who had theoretical responsibility under the ambassador for the development of all information policy. He maintained liaison between the embassy, MACV, and the press; publicized information to refute erroneous and misleading news stories; and sought to assist the Saigon correspondents in covering the side of the war most favorable to the policies of the U.S. government. Zorthian possessed both experience with the media and a great deal of patience and tact while maintaining reasonably good relations with the press corps. Media correspondents were invited to attend nightly MACV briefings covering the day's events that became known as the "Five O'Clock Follies". The Saigon bureau chiefs were also often invited to closed sessions at which presentations would be made by a briefing officer, the CIA station chief, or an official from the embassy who would present background or off-the-record information on upcoming military operations or Vietnamese political events.

According to Daniel Hallin, the dramatic structure of the uncensored "living room war" as reported during 1965-1967 remained simple and traditional: "the forces of good were locked in battle once again with the forces of evil. What began to change in 1967...was the conviction that the forces of good would inevitably prevail. During late 1967 MACV had also begun to disregard the decision it had made at the Honolulu Conference that the military should leave the justification of the war to elected officials in Washington. The military found itself drawn progressively into politics, to the point that it had become as involved in "selling" the war to the American public as the political appointees it served. This change would have far-reaching detrimental effects.

Tet, 1968

One of the chief criticisms levelled against the news media (both then and later), was that it had misinterpreted both the Tet Offensive of January 1968 and its outcome. These critics blamed the media for altering the American public's perceptions of the war and shifting it into an antiwar stance. When the first large-scale deployment of U.S. troops had taken place in 1965, a majority of the American public had supported it. Yet, even at that early stage, public opinion polls revealed that 25 percent opposed the U.S. commitment. Over the following three years majority support for the war declined steadily, finally being surpassed during the third quarter of 1967 - well before the onset of the offensive. According to historian Clarence Wyatt, "Tet was less the occasion for a sudden shift in such opinion than it was a confirmation of characteristics and trends that had been around a long time. This undercut the popular notion that Tet was "the turning point" of the war as far as the American public was concerned. Surveys taken post-Tet only indicated that, for the first time, a majority of Americans opposed the war. When viewed over a four year period, Tet had only reinforced a growing public perception that U.S. involvement in Vietnam had been a mistake.

Many contemporary commentators (and later historians) had already criticized the media for the negative light in which it portrayed the war in general. During and after Tet, media coverage of the offensive became the quintessential example for those that held the view that it had misrepresented the facts. They believed that possibly the greatest allied victory of the Vietnam War had been turned into political defeat by the negative reporting of the media. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle G. Wheeler complained of "all the doom and gloom we see in the U.S. press" post-Tet, while General Westmoreland would later write: "The war still could have been brought to a favorable end following the [communist] defeat...But this was not to be. Press and television had created an aura, not of victory, but defeat. One of the most commonly cited critical works on the media's coverage of the offensive was Peter Braestrup's Big Story. In it, the author exhaustively analyzed printed and televised coverage of the offensive and concluded that the press (and especially television) had misreported it as a defeat for the U.S. and that the "crisis journalism" of the event amounted to a "portrait of defeat". Braestrup concluded that there was a direct causal relationship between both the coverage and the loss of will on the part of both American political leaders and the public to continue the war. He did acknowledge, however, that no empirical data supported this conclusion.

These conclusions, however, have come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. Public sentiment had already turned against the war in 1965-1967, when the press media's reporting of the war had been most favorable to the administration. In his history of U.S. newsmagazine coverage of the war (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report), William Landers charged that Braestrup had over-exaggerated the alleged misdeeds of the media, claiming that "when compared to the historical record...[they] presented an accurate account of the event. Media analysts Daniel Hallin and Clarence Wyatt have found virtually no evidence to support any causal relationship between editorial tone and bias in the media with loss of public support for the war.

John E. Mueller, in his groundbreaking analytic study War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, dispelled any notion that the offensive (or coverage of it) had drastically altered American public opinion. His analysis came to the following notable conclusion:

support for the war changed so little between the fall of 1967 and the spring of 1969, despite a series of presumably momentus events: the Tet Offensive, the replacement of General Westmoreland, President Johnson's decision not to run again and his partial bombing halt, the opening of preliminary peace talks...the combined, net impact of them all seems limited at most.

Probably the most often cited example of the alleged "anti-war sentiment" of the television media was CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite's special report on 27 February 1968. Cronkite, whose previous comments on the war, according to Stanley Karnow, had been "mostly balanced, even bland," went to Vietnam for a two-week tour during which he met with American and South Vietnamese officials, toured the country and reported from ongoing Battle of Hue. Upon his return, to New York he directly criticized the military leadership and the Johnson administration: "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest cloud." He concluded by saying that the U.S. was "mired in a stalemate" and called for a negotiated end to the conflict. Yet, even Cronkite had reported on 14 February that, "first and simplest, the Viet Cong suffered a military defeat.

"Living-room war"

Coverage of the war by television correspondents was especially decried by media critics for bringing the horrors of war into the living rooms of American citizens and that its graphic content turned viewers against the military effort. By 1965 television news coverage had increased dramatically. CBS and NBC had gone to half-hour evening news broadcasts in September 1963. ABC followed suit in early 1965. A series of surveys taken by the Roper Organization for the Television Information Office summarized from which medium people "got most of their news" in 1964: 58 percent said television, 56 percent newspapers, 26 percent radio, and eight percent magazines. By 1972, television led newspapers by 64 to 36 percent. These numbers, however, were elaborated upon by a survey conducted by the A.C. Nielsen Company in 1969 which reported that of the 57 million households in the U.S. that possessed televisions, 30.8 million had their sets turned on during the evening news hour, but only 24.3 million had them tuned to the news.

The three television networks did not systematically preserve tapes of evening news broadcasts and no complete record of network evening news existed until 1968, when the Vanderbilt Television News Archive was established. In 1963, CBS had begun saving some transcripts and rundown sheets listing the day's stories, but this collection too was incomplete. Due to an incident in 1965, however, the U.S. Defense Department began copying evening news coverage pertaining to Vietnam. A combination of these three sources allowed a study of all three networks from mid-1965 until 1973.

What a review of this record revealed was that television coverage of the Vietnam War by the three television networks was most often banal and heavily stylized. Until Tet, television (and the press media in general) had followed the conventions of reporting established during the Second World War and was neither critical in tone nor graphic in its depiction of combat. American television executives showed little "courage" in their approach to Vietnam and saw the conflict as "an American war in Asia - and that's the only story the American audience is interested in," while they let other, equally important aspects of Vietnam go uncovered.

There was, in fact, an actual scarcity of combat footage depicted on television, since such footage only ranged from three to six percent of all war segments broadcast, depending on how the scenes were categorized. Factors that limited the graphic depiction of combat included the manner in which the war was fought - most of the operations that were covered took place in extremely remote areas of Vietnam and involved little or no contact with the communists and the technological limitations of the equipment - three-man television crews, carrying 80-100 pounds of bulky equipment each. The chief limiting factor, however, was that the television networks had no desire to broadcast gruesome battle scenes during the dinner hour in America, which might have prompted viewers to switch channels or turn their sets off. The result was that the American public, "although treated to nightly scenes of combat and men in battle...rarely, if ever, before 1968 and the Tet Offensive, saw the war in all its bloody detail." The result was that from August 1965 to August 1970, only 76 out of more than 2,300 television news reports originating in Vietnam depicted heavy fighting.

Critics of the media also claimed that statements by news commentators or reporters on television were overly critical of the war effort. A random sample of 779 television broadcasts between 20 August 1965 and 27 January 1973, however, has shown that 49 percent of all criticism of administration war policy came from public officials of one sort or another. 35 percent of the rest was attributable to citizens on the street, antiwar activists, and soldiers in the field, while only 16 percent originated from commentaries and interpretations by reporters themselves. Roughly up until the Tet Offensive, television "was lopsidedly favorable to American policy in Vietnam...television's turnaround on the war was part of a larger change...from the halls of the Pentagon, to Main Street U.S.A., and the firebases of Quang Tri Province.

Regardless of these rebuttals of the effect of television coverage on public perceptions or attitudes, official and public belief in television's implied power remained in place. Consider, for example, the following British official and public statements on the power of the media during the war: Air Vice-Marshall S.W.B. Menaul stated that television had "a lot to answer for in the collapse of American morale" while Alister Burnet, editor of the Economist, wrote that television reporting made it very difficult for two American administrations to continue the war effort. Robin Day of the BBC informed a military seminar that the media had made the Americans far more anti-militarist and anti-war than anything else and that "One wonders if in future a democracy which has uninhibited television coverage in every home will ever be able to fight a war, however just.

Watchdogs

The view that held that journalists had served their function as a "watchdog" and had reported "the truth," of the war to the American public, thereby altering public opinion does not hold up under close scrutiny either. From 1965-1967, far back in the journalistic mythology of the press as adversary of the state, it had been rather docile. Even an issue as provocative as Vietnam (an undeclared war, without censorship or restrictions on access) failed to alter the basic premise that the media were, after all, "an establishment institution, both prior to and after Tet. What had changed was that the establishment itself, and the nation, was divided over the war. Post-Tet, the news media simply followed the influence of disenchantment with the progress in the war emanating from the administration, the Pentagon, the public, and American troops.

Some journalists who covered the conflict (some for as many as five years) did become increasingly skeptical that American policy was succeeding. Conscientious reporters themselves were the first to admit that objectivity sometimes went out the window for some of their colleagues. Ron Stienman, NBC's Saigon bureau chief from 1966 to 1968 described how this occurred: "We were developing a new breed of reporter...they often developed egos that limited their ability to express anything other than heated excitement. Some correspondents injected themselves too deeply into the story...and became part of the story, skewing it from the inside. Self-importance clouded the tales they were there to tell, and nuance and subtlety died on the battlefield.

During the fast-breaking (and extremely dangerous) Tet period, correspondents did make mistakes in their coverage. Historian David Hallin has concluded, however, that, in general, reporters interpreted Tet:

for what it said rather than what it did - as proof, regardless of who won or lost it, that the war was not under control...It may be one of the ironies of Tet coverage that it gave the American public a more accurate view of the overall course of the war through the inaccurate view it gave of the outcome of a particular battle. Before Tet, 48 percent of the public thought the war would last two years or less, 32 percent that it would last more than two years, with the rest unsure. After Tet, the respective percentages were 35 and 30, with fully 35 percent unsure - a much more realistic assessment.

As for news media coverage altering the perceptions and opinions of the American public, John Mueller's comparisons of the effect of media on public opinion during the Korean and Vietnam Wars "found that support for both wars among the general public followed a pattern that was remarkably similar - television had no impact on opinion - casualties did. Public support for each war had dropped inexorably by 15 percentage points whenever total U.S. casualties increased by a factor of ten. It should not be forgotten that public support for the shorter and less costly limited war in Korea had also dropped as its costs rose, despite the fact that television was in its infancy, censorship was tight, and the Second World War ethic of the journalist serving the war effort remained strong.

Other side

Although admittance to North Vietnam by western correspondents was difficult, it was not impossible, especially when the northern authorities (who heavily oversaw and restricted any such visit) saw an advantage in the situation. During a bombing halt in December 1966, Harrison F. Salisbury of the New York Times, became the first correspondent from a major U.S. newspaper to go to North Vietnam. His reporting of the bombing damage to civilian targets forced the Pentagon to admit that accidents and "collateral damage" had occurred during the bombing campaign. For his effort, Salisbury received heavy condemnation and criticism from his peers, the administration, and the Pentagon. Other correspondents who later made the journey to North Vietnam included Mary McCarthy, Anthony Lewis, and Michael McLear from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and R. K. Karanjia from India, while Agence France Presse maintained a bureau there throughout the war.

The highly dangerous task of reporting with the NLF and North Vietnamese forces in the South was left to Wilfred Burchett, an Australian who had begun reporting on the war in 1963. He free-lanced for the Japanese Mainichi group, the British communist daily Morning Star, and the American National Guardian. Burchett made no pretense of his communist sympathies, but his reporting of communist schools, arsenals, hospitals, administrative structure, and logistics made what Phillip Knightley called "intrguing reading." He was later joined by Madeline Riffaud of the French communist newspaper L'Humanite.

Withdrawal, 1969-1973

On 3 November 1969 President Richard M. Nixon made a televised speech laying out his policy toward Vietnam. He promised to continue to support the South Vietnamese government (through Vietnamization) and held out a plan for the withdrawal of American combat troops. This "silent majority" speech, not the Tet Offensive, marked the real watershed of the American involvement. In it, Nixon permanently altered the nature of the issue. "No longer was the question whether the United States was going to get out, but rather how and how fast. Nixon's policy toward the media was to reduce as far as possible the American public's interest in and knowledge of the war in Vietnam. He began by sharply limiting the press's access to information within Vietnam itself.

Changes

The peace talks in Paris, the viability of South Vietnam, of its military and its government, and its effect on American disengagement, became the prime stories during this period for the news media. The reportage of the Tet/Khe Sanh period had been unique, and after it was over reportage settled back into its normal routines. According to Clarence Wyatt, the American disengagement was:
like watching a film running backward. American troops were leaving, until there were only a handful of advisors left. The communists were once again on the advance, spreading their influence closer and closer to the major cities. The South Vietnamese military was once again on the defensive, and the leadership of the nation was isolated and increasingly paranoid...Nixon's goal, like Kennedy's, was for the press to have nothing to report.

The gradual dissipation of American support for the war was apparent in changes in the source of news stories. The traditional sources - press conferences, official news releases, and reports of official proceedings were less utilized than ever before. Reporters were doing more research, conducting more interviews, and publishing more analytical essays. The media never became "acutely critical...but more sober, and more skeptical It did not, however, examine or reexamine its basic assumptions about the nature of the war it had helped to propagate. Never, for example, did historian Daniel Hallin hear an American correspondent or commentator utter the word Imperialism in connection with the U.S. commitment on television. On those rare occasions when the underlying reasons for the American intervention were explicitly questioned, journalists continued to defend the honorableness of American motives.

Television's image of the war, however, had been permanently altered: the "guts and glory" image of the pre-Tet period was gone forever. For the most part television remained a follower rather than a leader. According to Daniel Hallin, It was not until the collapse of consensus was well under way that coverage began to turn around; and when it did turn, it only turned so far. The later years of Vietnam were "a remarkable testimony to the restraining power of the routines and ideology of objective journalism...'advocacy journalism' made no real inroads into network television.

As the American commitment waned there was an increasing media emphasis on Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese government, and casualties - both American and Vietnamese. There was also increasing coverage of the collapse of morale, interracial tensions, drug abuse, and disciplinary problems among American troops. These stories increased in number as U.S. soldiers "began to worry about being the last casualty in the lame-duck war. The U.S. military resented the attention and at first refused to believe that the problems were as bad as correspondents portrayed them. The media demonstrated, however, "that the best reporters, by virtue of their many contacts, had a better grasp of the war's unmanageable human element than the policy makers supposedly in control.

The next "big story" to come out of Vietnam occurred in May 1969 with the Battle of Hamburger Hill (Dong Ap Bia or Hill 937). The high number of American casualties (70 dead and 372 wounded) produced an unusual burst of explicit questioning of military tactics from correspondents in the field and from Congressmen in Washington. After the battle's conclusion, major battles of attrition involving American ground forces became rare - as did commentaries from correspondents like those surrounding Hamburger Hill. Tensions between the news media and the Nixon administration only increased as the war dragged on. In September and October 1969, members of the administration openly discussed methods by which the media could be coerced into docility. Possible methods included Internal Revenue Service audits, Justice Department antitrust lawsuits against major television networks and newspapers that could be accused of monopolistic business practices, and the monitoring incidents of "unfairness" by television broadcasters that would be turned over to the Federal Communications Commission for possible legal action.

As part of the campaign to manage the media, Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew began a series of acerbic speeches in November during which he stated that "'in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues in our nation,' the news media had thwarted 'our national search for internal peace and stability" by concentrating on bad news to the detriment of the good. The media vehemently went on the counterattack. NBC news president Reuven Frank commented that it was just another case of "the messenger being blamed for the message. Time produced one of the most potent critiques: Agnew's tirades were dangerous due to his contention that newscasters and writers "ought to reflect majority opinion rather than their own judgement and that this was objectivity. No such thing as objectivity existed. Newscasters and editors had to judge the importance of events on the basis of their own experiences...We're not infallible, but we try.

Big stories

The key stories of the Nixon period - the My Lai massacre, the covert bombing of Cambodia, and the release of the Pentagon Papers - were broken not by Vietnam correspondents but by insiders. After Ron Ridenhour's letters to Congress sparked a Pentagon investigation, the My Lai massacre was kept under wraps until exposure by Seymour Hersh, a former AP correspondent working for the newly-inugurated Dispatch News Service, and he only discovered it after Army Lieutenant William Calley was undergoing a court martial trial in the United States, four years after the massacre had taken place. Once Ron Haeberle's photographs of the incident were published, mainstream media coverage exploded, verging on infringing on Calley's right to a fair trail. A great deal of the coverage, however, focused on the legal issues in the trial rather than on the massacre itself or the underlying reasons for its occurrence.

Although Calley was convicted of mass murder, his eventual sentence was reduced to a slap on the wrist. The image of the U.S. abroad was, ironically, improved by the revelations. The Bologna Italy Il Resto del Carlino, for example, expressed horror at the massacre, but noted that "the crime was being discussed in the United States with a sincerity and frankness that had no precedent in the sad history of such things." The La Stampa of Turin noted that "The American press has done its duty" and the Brussels Belgium Le Soir commented that "the feeling of aversion which the news of the massacre has provoked...pleads in favor of American institutions.

Coverage of the bombing of Cambodia (Operation Menu) began almost immediately after it began when leaks from within the administration emerged in 1969, but the story was dropped when the White House flatly denied the rumours. Only William Beecher of the New York Times stayed with the story, providing a detailed description of the campaign on 9 May 1969. When Beecher's story caused no public reaction, it too was dropped. It was not until four years later, when the fact concerning the illegal operation came out as part of the Watergate investigations, that it caused even a brief stir.

The leaking by Daniel Ellsberg of the Department of Defense's classified history of American involvement in Vietnam, (known collectively as the Pentagon Papers) to the New York Times and their serial publication which began on 13 June 1971 brought forth an immediate reaction from the administration. President Nixon was initially unconcerned, since the documents dealt only with former Democratic administrations, but his deep concern over "secrecy and Executive freedom of action" led him to seek an injunction against further publication on 15 June. For the first time the U.S. government had sought prior restraint during peacetime. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, overturned the injunction on 30 June. As with My Lai, the mainstream media made very little of the substance of the Pentagon Papers. The controversy over the leaking of the classified documents and their publication, on the other hand, was "hard news" rather than "mere history", and was covered extensively.

As for media coverage of the antiwar movement, negative statements about it outweighed positive ones by about two to one. Indeed, 49 percent of all domestic criticism of administration policies reported on television came from public officials and former public officials, 16 percent came from reporters in commentaries, and 35 percent came from all other sources, including antiwar protesters, soldiers in Vietnam, and "the man on the street".

By the time of the Cambodian Campaign of April 1970, there were at least 450 accredited print and television journalists resident in Saigon. During the operation, that number would swell to 497. Besides a large contingent of American and South Vietnamese correspondents, 21 other nationalities were represented, including 32 from Japan and Korea, 21 from Great Britain, 17 from France, and seven from Australia. MACV and the South Vietnamese imposed more stringent press restrictions and initially forbade American correspondents from accompanying troops during the incursion. During 1970 and 1971 official American sources began to shut their doors to reporters. General Creighton W. Abrams, Westmoreland's successor, no longer met with the Saigon bureau chiefs and the twice-weekly intelligence briefings held by MACV were suspended.

The watershed of this process was Operation Lam Son 719, the disastrous South Vietnamese invasion of Laos that began on 29 January 1971. The days of "maximum candor" were over. MACV announced an embargo on all information concerning the impending South Vietnamese campaign. Even the reporting of the blackout itself was forbidden. Rampant speculation by the news media outside Vietnam, however, made such an embargo a moot point. Reports on the press blackout prompted speculation that Laos was the target and the extension of the embargo by MACV probably did more harm than good. The South Vietnamese military commanders of the incursion had no intention of giving reporters the true story of the operation or allowing correspondents to accompany their troops across the border. Their reticence only backfired upon them when the incursion became a military fiasco for the South Vietnamese.

The end

In the end, the controversy that developed between the U.S. military and the media over the goals, success, and the expansion of the war during the Cambodian and Laotian incursions was probably inevitable. On the American side, the military and the news media had become fatigued, both with the war and with each other. As the conflict lengthened and the withdrawals continued, the two sides became more and more antagonistic toward one another and they battled constantly over the issues of combat refusals and the drug and morale problems of American troops. Although MACV officially remained dedicated to providing evenly balanced public affairs information, the situation was exacerbated by the manpower drawdowns at the Public Affairs Office itself.

The Easter Offensive of 1972, a conventional North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam was generally depicted by MACV and Washington as a "true test" of the policy of Vietnamization. It was also readily apparent to the media that American airpower had saved the day. The press reported heavily on the "mixed" capabilities of the South Vietnamese defense and on the retaliatory U.S. bombing effort in North Vietnam, Operation Linebacker. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird declined to criticize the negative reporting of the press, which he described as "generally balanced.

By the end of 1971 the number of accredited American correspondents had declined to fewer than 200. By September 1973 that number had dwindled to only 59. As the war became more and more a South Vietnamese affair, the Saigon government tried to silence unofficial news sources, tightening its information guidelines and stringently punishing any who violated them. Even as the Easter Offensive waned, President Nguyen Van Thieu passed a martial law decree that made circulating news or images "detrimental to the national security" a criminal offense.

With the breakdown of peace negotiations with Hanoi, President Nixon launched Operation Linebacker II, an extensive aerial campaign by B-52 bombers and tactical aircraft that began on 16 December 1972. Nixon, in an effort to conceal the fact that the talks had broken down, ordered that the public explanation for the bombing be linked to "a possible enemy offensive in the South. With no information flowing from the White House, the Pentagon, or MACV, North Vietnam's propaganda was all that correspondents had to go on and it was extensively reported by the media. The American people, however, were unconvinced. According to a Harris poll, fewer than 50 percent agreed that it was "inhuman and immoral for the U.S. to have bombed Hanoi's civilian center" and an impressive 71 percent believed "what we did in bombing Hanoi was no worse than what the communists have done in the Vietnam War. The result of the campaign was unequivocal. Hanoi returned to the negotiating table and (after some wrangling with the Saigon government) the Paris Peace Accords were signed on 27 January 1973. For the United States, the Vietnam War was over.

Conclusions

Critics of the media within the military paid great attention to the mistakes made or violations of the rules by a few correspondents, but little to the majority of reporters, who conscientiously attempted to tell all sides of the story in tens of thousands of news reports. The Army's most experienced public affairs officer, Major General Winant Sidle, noted that "with some notable exceptions, most of the reporting was either advantageous to U.S. government policies...or a reasonably neutral approximation of what was happening in the field. The good and bad points of the South Vietnamese Army and government, the wars in Laos and Cambodia, the policies and objectives of Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, the pacification program - all received less coverage in the press, positive or negative, than they probably should or could have. It is undeniable, however, that press reports were still often more accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam.

The chief problem with the relations between the U.S. government and military and the media during the war was that both Presidents Johnson and Nixon enlisted the military as spokesmen for their views. MACV had to justify both presidents' efforts and endorse their claims of progress, especially the Vietnamization program. Johnson found this effort easier, at least until his "success offensive" and the Tet Offensive. Nixon, embittered by what he considered biased press coverage of his administration and increasingly suspicious of his political opponents, attempted to intimidate the media into silence. In the end neither succeeded in their attempts to manage news coverage.

As for the view that the media had altered public perceptions of the war, James Hammond believed that the American public's reactions

had nothing to do with softness, moral laxity, lack of will, or inability to face the necessary frustrations of a long war. It was simple common sense. If more men, more bombs, and more killing had proved earlier to be of no avail...why prolong the struggle? The American people had had enough...and followed their own, third course, marked by independence of judgement and a substantial measure of contempt for all those who sought to manipulate the public mind.
Despite the enormous amount of news coverage, the essential causes and nature of the conflict remained unknown to the average American. A Gallup poll conducted in mid-1967 revealed that half of all Americans had no idea what the Vietnam War was about. As Phillip Knightley has stated, "Clearly those charged with informing the U.S. public (45 of whom had been killed and another 18 listed as missing) about Vietnam had not fulfilled their task. Given that the issues were complex and the facts unpalatable, this failure has never been satisfactorily explained.

The interdisciplinary nature of the Vietnam War required a new kind of war correspondent, one that was able to deal with complex political issues that often intruded on the military aspects, where military success was necessary, but where it alone was insufficient, a war where unwarranted optimism, propaganda, and news management could often deeply obscure the issues. Vietnam also stands out in the history of journalism as the first war in which journalists began to seriously question the ethics of their business. Although many of them would have agreed with Juilian Pettifer of the BBC in the belief that "There was simply no point in arguing whether the war was right or wrong. You're always left with the fact that it is there and it's your job to cover it." Others went through deep and sometimes agonizing examination of their motives. Photographers in particular became increasingly troubled by the voyeuristic nature of their profession.

Those who tended to view the media as the source of domestic discontent and lack of will in the United States tended to overlook much more obvious sources. How long could the people of any nation be expected to maintain popular support for a conflict that had lasted 12 years, was causing spiraling inflation with resulting domestic hardships at home, costing large numbers of casualties to seemingly no purpose, creating tremendous public discontent, and which was obviously failing to achieve its objectives - irrespective of the slant of the news media? Press historian Daniel Hallin best summed up the long-term perspective:

For policymakers or military commanders, it was (and is) easier to blame the media rather than face up to their own failings. For the public too, it was (and is) probably easier to tell the story of Vietnam as a story of betrayal by particular actors like the media and the anti-war movement than to remember it as a serious error of collective judgement.

References

Notes

Sources

Published government documents

  • Darley, William H. War Policy, Public Support, and the Media. Parameters, 2005.http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/05summer/darley.htm
  • Hammond, William C. The U.S. Army in Vietnam: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968. Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1988.
  • Hammond: William C. The U.S. Army in Vietnam: The Military and the Media, 1968-1973. Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1996.

Document collections

  • Library of America, Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism, 1959-1975. Two volumes. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Memoirs and biographies

  • Stienmann, Ron, Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal. Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
  • Westmoreland, William C. A Soldier Reports. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Secondary sources

  • Braestrup, Peter, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1977. ISBN 0-89158-012-3.
  • Hallin, Daniel C. The "Living-Room War": Media and Public Opinion in A Limited War, in Andrew Weist, ed., Rolling Thunder in A Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited. London: Osprey Press, 2006.
  • Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University press, 1986.
  • Hallin, Daniel C. Presentation Given at the American Media and Wartime Challenges Conference. March, 2003. http://pubpol.duke.edu/centers/tiss/pubs/documents/Hallin.pdf
  • Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History. New York Viking, 1983.
  • Kaiser, Charles, 1968 In America. New York: Grove Press, 1997
  • Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers. Hanover NH: University Press of New England, 1977.
  • Knightley, Phillip, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University press, rev. ed. 2002.
  • Landers, James, The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam. Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
  • Lichty, Lawrence W. "Comments on the Influence of Television on Public Opinion" in Peter Braestrup, ed. Vietnam as History. Washington DC: Wilson Center, 1984.
  • Maitland, Terrence and Stephen Weiss, Raising the Stakes. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Mueller, John E. War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973.
  • Schmitz, David F. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
  • Willbanks, James H. The Tet Offensive: A Concise History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Wyatt, Clarence, Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War. New York: Norton, 1993.
  • Zaffiri, Samuel, Hamburger Hill. Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1988.

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