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Media’s role during the Vietnam-Era

Vietnam was the first war that issued full freedom to the press, allowing media to cover the war as they saw it. Without censorship, appalling images enabled the public to see war, as they never had before. Many people believe that it was the media that sparked the lack of support for the war. The Tet Offensive, for example, would become one of the most controversial and climactic events in which the media played a role. Up to that point, the media had portrayed the U.S. as winning the war. When the North Vietnamese sprung an attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, however, the American public watched on as if they were there. As the images filtered across TV screens and magazines pages, people began to doubt President Johnson’s creditability. In just a few days American support for the war took a rapid turn around.

As stated earlier, news coverage of the war was generally supportive until the Tet-offensive of 1968. Before Tet, there was no reason to think about press censorship, due to the problems reporters had in getting their stories out of South Vietnam. By Tet, though, the sight and sound of gunshots could be moved from the battlefields and into American homes in less than 24 hours. Reporters had previously used the W.W.II idea of combat coverage in the early years, by portraying soldiers in ways that were sympathetic to their experiences. Many people argue, though, that the news media began to over emphasize combat coverage and under report the context in which the war was played out. The camera’s blurred the cultural, social, and historical aspects of the war, therefore, distorting American perception (6).

The Tet offensive was clearly a military failure, but thanks to media coverage it came across as propaganda-like triumph for the Communists. In other words, television footage boosted the morale for the "enemy". The media widely reported that Vietcong soldiers had invaded the U.S. embassy building, when in fact they never made it. Twenty-six men did make their way inside the walls of the embassy compound, but three marines kept them from entering the actual building. The media, however, never retracted their stories. This pattern was repeated throughout the war (7).

Many media sources were against the U.S. role in Vietnam and held a critical attitude toward the war. The images they captured effected everyone who viewed them. They had the power to leave unforgettable and lasting impressions on an entire nation. One of the most memorable scenes of the war was a South Vietnamese officer firing a pistol into the temple of a smaller man who has his hands tied behind his back. In just one reel of tape the world was able to see a Vietcong being punished by death, over and over again. What is more disturbing is that it was silent footage, and NBC added the sound of a gunshot for effect (7).

In the wake of such death and destruction, it isn’t surprising that peace, love and sexual freedom became the mantra of a new generation. The youth movement challenged authority on all fronts, and authority frequently fought back. As the Sixties unfolded, no institution remained untouched, no belief unchallenged. It was a climatic decade. A dashing young president was shot only two brief years after being elected. The struggle for civil rights was gaining momentum, while riots broke out in the wake of Dr. King’s death in April 1968. And in a brief moment of American pride, families across America watched as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969. All of these events occurred in the backdrop of what seemed to be the never-ending war (2).

Media images continued to capture mass audiences in every arena it could. During the Democratic Convention of 1968, Chicago cops, rather than the convention, became the focus of controversy. Television cameras caught helmeted cops clubbing demonstrators in Grant Park and zoomed it across televisions nationwide. After riots broke out in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, police had been ordered to "shoot to kill." In five fateful days in August, demonstrators taunted and harassed police and National Guardsmen, hurling concrete and bags of urine. In turn, the police relentlessly attacked protesters, delegates, reporters and bystander’s (5).

The convention took place in a time of tension. The Tet offensive, Dr. King’s death, along with Bobby Kennedy’s death had just occurred. Anti-Vietnam activists were coming out of the woodworks. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, leaders of the Yippies, organized their followers into a huge "international festival" to compete with the Democrat’s convention. Cops prepared for the worst and camera crews stood waiting with their lights. Although the protester's lashes were mild, the cops charged the crowd. Camera’s recorded while police bloodied heads and knocked people to the ground. As cops bashed away, the alarming scene was displayed on family television sets nationwide. It is little surprise, therefore, that Nixon’s "law and order" campaign boosted his chances in the upcoming election. Meanwhile, due to the uprising, the convention was in shambles. The anti-war forces, never more than 10,000 at a time, prompted police to overreact (1).

Seeing that they were involved in more violent protests, left-wing activists were often more prominent in news media coverage than right-wing activists. Unfortunately, being more restrained in their behavior often left right-wing activists in the shadows of the Vietnam era. The Vietnam War changed the perception of the word "conservative." In fact, many people seem shocked when the term the "The 60’s" and "Conservative students" are put in the same sentence.

Most of the media’s attention and almost all of historical reflection on the 60’s has focused on the more leftist radicals. What is ironic, however, is that the young conservative activists had a broader following and more lasting influence. Many leftist groups collapsed soon after Vietnam ended, while more conservative groups went on to expand on their already strong political foundation (3)

The media not only failed in mentioning the growing conservative trend among the American youth in the 60’s, they did them a disservice. As one conservative recounts: "the press was predisposed to portray American youth as Peace Corps volunteers, pacifists, and civil rights activists. There was, of course, nothing wrong with being any of those, but that wasn’t what most young Americans were all about. We were unabashedly patriotic, anticommunist, and a little suspicious of civil rights leaders (perhaps to a fault, in retrospect)." While media gave onlookers the idea that pacifists and idealists were leading the anti-war movement, it was actually the hard-core Marxists who were leading the way. Rather than peace, these men and women wanted a Communist victory. By steering their cameras away from the communist and Viet Cong flags that were held during rallies and practically ignoring organizers of the "peace movement" reporters softened left-wing ideology and ignored the conservatives entirely (3).

There are three main reasons why right-wing activists have been harder to find in history books than their counterparts. One, they were not as visibly dramatic; they didn’t chain themselves to trees or lock themselves in buildings. Two, they were overshadowed by protests against Vietnam. And three, most of the press was unsympathetic and opposed to their cause. The result of these three put together, is an incomplete and one-dimensional account of recent U.S. history. This is just more proof that media plays a huge, and sometimes destructive, role in people’s perceptions of historical time periods (3)

Due to the explosive response to the Vietnam War many people have said that television should not be present in warfare situations. As the notorious author, Michael Herr, stated, television camera’s can cause some soldiers to create "war movies in their heads, doing little Guts and Glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire." And as NY Times Magazine’s Jack Raymond put it, it causes men with guns to do things that they wouldn’t have done for a pad and pencil (6).

Unlike previous wars, the participants and interpreters of the Vietnam war have yet to reach any kind of consensus, and it is unlikely they ever will. This has a great deal to do with the authenticity of oral history accounts. The Vietnam War has been written, and then rewritten. Americans either won the war, lost the war, or were neither winners nor losers. There is a wide range of revisionist history one must sort through, when studying this era. Inevitably, some sources will be unreliable. This does not necessarily mean the narrator is not telling the truth, it means that each person is approaching the same remembered event or emotion from a different perspective and is therefore limited to interpretation. Writing history is by its very nature unreliable because it requires the selection of incidents for recording, the treatment of time and its effects, and the kind of connection, which the historian establishes between events (4).

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Last Update: 10 May 2000
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