The Vietnam War was divisive for America for many reasons, but the debate about the role of the media has become almost as controversial as the war itself. A popular assessment that emerged shortly after its end was that newspapers and television networks had contributed to the failure in Vietnam by becoming oppositional – bringing the brutality of war, as well as criticism of the government, into American homes, influencing public attitudes and ultimately bringing about the withdrawal. In political and military circles the media’s impact was deemed to be so decisive that the Department of Defense attempted the total exclusion of reporters from the invasion of Grenada in 1983, and introduced a new ‘media pool’ system for the Panama invasion of 1989.
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In his 1986 book, ‘The Uncensored War,’ Daniel Hallin challenged this view that during the war the American media shifted to an oppositional stance. In a strong empirical study, Hallin suggested the growth of critical coverage merely reflected the growing dissensus on the war, particularly within the political elite. Hallin has since drawn broad support, certainly from the academic field, and this essay supports his conclusion that the media did not become a force of opposition.
In arguing that the US news media had little independent impact on the course of the war, however, I believe Hallin is wrong. This essay will begin with a brief critique of Hallin’s 1986 study, as this will provide a useful framework for analysis of the media’s impact on the war. I will indicate why it is a sound conclusion that the media was not an institution of opposition, before stressing three omissions: the changing media; the impact of critical reporting; and the ability of an objective media to influence opinion and policy. The following sections will expand these arguments, in order to show that they are key to understanding the media’s impact, and that it must be considered a factor in the course of the Vietnam War. This essay will argue that the media did have some independent impact on the course of the Vietnam War through a vicious cycle of making information about the war available, and affecting public and elite opinion. Once negative opinions formed, these were reported by the press and led to a greater split, making the Administration consider the public’s reaction to military policy.
Hallin – a brief critique
Daniel Hallin (1986) argues that news coverage was broadly supportive until 1968, operating within a ‘sphere of consensus,’ with stories focused on a theme of ‘American boys in action.’ The shift to critical coverage was due to elements within the administration beginning to argue publicly over the course of the war, the media never moved into a ‘sphere of deviance’ where fundamental criticisms of the legitimacy of government action were made (Robinson, 2010). This shift at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive reflected a breakdown of consensus regarding the war, both in the political elite and wider society. Hallin attributes these findings to two factors: prevalent anti-communist ideology in the USA ensured journalists and government officials were united; and the media continued to practice objective journalism – the ideology and newsgathering routines of journalism did not change, the media continued using official sources and not favouring opponents of administration policy.
Hallin supports his theory using quantitative data relating to the content of news media and its progression through the War period. The strength of the study lies in this empirical approach; the data are thorough and support his conclusions well, such as the fact that only 8% of all Vietnam stories contained comments reflecting favourably or unfavourably on major actors. Thus Hallin provides a very persuasive response to the oppositional thesis, but his study is much less supportive to his argument that the media had little independent impact on the course of the war.
This is due to his failure to develop his argument in key areas. The first is the dramatic changes taking place in the media at the time of Vietnam. It was not the first war where atrocities were committed, nor the first to involve political debate about its course, yet these were faithfully reported during Vietnam as they had been in no war previously. Hallin does not discuss the reasons for this, and this is crucial for the evaluation of the media’s impact. The second is the influence of negative reporting. Hallin does not analyse fully the effect of broadcasts such as Walter Cronkite’s famous declaration of stalemate and the footage of General Loan killing an unarmed Vietcong prisoner. Hallin’s third omission is the consideration that an objective media by what it reports can still have a significant impact on public and elite opinion. The media reported stories damaging to support for the war, albeit from an objective stance, and its effect could have been compounded by a vicious cycle.
These omissions represent my arguments for the conclusion that the media did have some impact on the course of the Vietnam War, and they are discussed below.
A changing media
At the time of the Vietnam War there were significant changes taking place that affected not only the stories that were available to journalists, but also crucially the way in which the news was reported by the media. As has been seen since, these developments decreased the extent of the media’s deference in a time of war and enabled greater independence (Robinson, 2010).
Vietnam was a war of firsts in many respects. As Susan Carruthers (2000) notes, it was the first ‘television war.’ Vietnam received sustained, almost nightly, coverage for a number of years. It was the first war to be broadcast in colour (Culbert, 1998), and the first to benefit from new technologies such as satellites. In previous wars editors would order reporters to deliver ‘timeless’ pieces from the battlefield, such as troops securing an area or marching across countryside, as stories had to be physically brought back to the USA before broadcast. Without this problem broadcasts began to involve current battles and combat, as they were immediately relevant to the reporting of the war’s progression. This meant that much more detail about the war, particularly its human costs, reached the American public. Carruthers (2000) also points out that Vietnam marked the start of an age of investigative journalism that culminated in the Watergate scandal. As will be discussed below, the military’s ‘credibility gap’ encouraged journalists to root out stories for themselves, making reporting much more independent than it had been in previous wars, where the media had relied on information from military briefings.
Daniel Hallin (1986) does refer to these changes, and the historical context of the war in Vietnam. He concedes, “Vietnam did push journalists away from the deference of an earlier era,” but perhaps neglects the significance of this change in relation to the media’s impact on the war. Hallin notes that Vietnam was the first war in which reporters routinely accompanied military forces and were not subjected to censorship, giving the media “extraordinary freedom to report the war without direct government control.” I believe this freedom is extremely significant in the assessment of the impact of the media. It gave reporters unprecedented access to the war, which they could deliver first hand to the American public through their television sets and newspapers. In the words of Epstein (cited in Herman & Chomsky, 1988), the military lost its “control over the movements of the press,” who could step out of their hotels and find themselves “willy-nilly in the midst of bloody fighting.” This freedom led to damaging exposés such as Morley Safer’s report showing the burning of the village of Cam Ne in 1965, stories which would not have surfaced prior to Vietnam.
The most important development relating to the media’s influence in Vietnam was the increasing profile of television news. As Hallin (1986) attests, “Television news came of age on the eve of Vietnam.” CBS and NBC TV, America’s two biggest television networks, extended their nightly news bulletin from fifteen to thirty minutes in 1963, with ABC following suit in 1967. The growth of television news had a profound effect on the way news, and especially the war, was reported. News had to be selective and visually dramatic. Carlyle Thayer (1992) explains the effect this had: “the war that Americans saw was almost exclusively violent, miserable, or controversial: guns firing, men falling, helicopters crashing, buildings toppling, huts burning, refugees fleeing, women wailing.” For the first time the American public experienced the human suffering of war, not expressed by words or statistics, but by pictures that showed them details previously unknown to them.
It must be said that Hallin (1986) credibly shows that mainstream media refrained from exposure of war’s human costs for the considerable part of Vietnam. He receives support here from Lawrence Lichty, whose study of 2,300 network evening news reports from 1965 – 1970 showed that only 76 showed ‘anything approaching true violence’ (Lichty cited in Thayer, 1992). Again, these are strong arguments in terms of disproving the oppositional thesis, but both Hallin and Lichty undervalue the effect that critical reporting can have on society.
These dramatic changes in the information available to journalists, and the way in which they could report it, greatly increased the potential impact the media could have on the Administration and wartime policy.
The impact of critical reporting
Daniel Hallin (1986) demonstrates that there was a growth in critical coverage around the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive. In assessing the impact of the media on the war, I believe he underestimates just how critical, and how negative, some of the coverage of the war was during this period. While overall coverage may have remained objective, this is not to say that certain broadcasts were not detrimental to the war effort – some are still remembered as turning points in the war.
The CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was described as the most trusted man in America. On 27th February 1968, upon returning from an inspection of the war, he proclaimed, “to say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion,” while describing Vietnam as a “bloody experience” (Carruthers, 2000). Upon hearing this broadcast, President Johnson is alleged to have told aides, ‘it is all over’ (Thussu & Freedman, 2003). Its effect was clear to see. On 31st March Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek a second term as President, and in a speech to the media shortly afterwards made clear that they were in no small part responsible for his decision (Carruthers, 2000). Cronkite directly contradicted the government line on the state of the war, and went further on CBS Radio, speaking of the “misleading picture of those optimistic stories we’ve heard about the progress of the war,” and asking, “Can we, as a nation, face up to the prospect of an overwhelmingly costly and bitter Asian War?” (Braestrup, 1977). Here it is clear that Cronkite and CBS strayed in to Hallin’s ‘sphere of deviance.’ The anchorman claimed the public had been misled by their government, and questioned the war itself.
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This was by no means the only instance of extremely critical reporting. Hallin is silent on the issue of the footage of General Loan, Chief of Police of South Vietnam, shooting an unarmed Vietcong sympathiser in the head, aired by NBC on 2nd February 1968. David Culbert (1998) is correct to emphasise the impact of both the footage and the still photograph, which appeared in newspapers around the world, on viewers and policy-makers alike. He also records the words of Frank McGhee, commentator for the unedited footage aired on 10th March, “the war is being lost by the Administration’s definition,” showing another arm of the media questioning the legitimacy of the war.
It is impossible, of course, to determine the actual effect of such reporting on public and elite opinion, but it is unwise to discount its impact altogether. This ignores the compelling visual evidence about the war that was offered to the American public. Culbert (1998) presents a quote from Peter Braestrup on the Loan killing that demonstrates this argument well: “It was a kind of ultimate horror story that you captured in living colour. But in terms of information it told you almost nothing.” This is a crucial point, and one that will be returned to in the following section, that viewers were left to fill the information void with their own meaning, drawn from what they saw. No context was given to the incident, giving the impression that it was a common occurrence. ABC’s anchorman Howard Smith even resigned in February 1968 claiming the media did not provide any context for the Loan shooting or the violence of the Tet Offensive as a whole (Culbert, 1998).
Many scholars have dismissed the claim that television had such a large impact on the American public during the Vietnam War. Among them is John Mueller (1971), who argues that the media followed a shift in public opinion against the war, which had actually occurred in the two years prior to the Offensive. Mueller cites rising casualties as the reason for dwindling support for the war, suggesting a similar pattern could be seen in Korea, where television coverage was minimal. Thayer (1992) notes that one survey in 1968, the time at which critical coverage is meant to have had the greatest effect, found that less than half of the television households watched the news on a given evening. This provides a certain amount of perspective for the argument that television news played a role in shaping public opinion.
Nevertheless, in focusing on the violence, the controversy and the human costs of the Tet Offensive, the media contributed to turning what was a military success for the USA into a defeat for public opinion and elite consensus.
Objective influence, and the ‘vicious cycle’
The most important argument against Hallin’s assertion that the media had little impact on the course of the war is the role the media plays in the forming of opinions at home. Again, Hallin is correct in saying that the media maintained an objective stance, and his study is very convincing on this subject. However, the public shape their opinions based on the information available to them, and, as demonstrated above, the media reported stories that were politically very damaging. As Melvin Small (1987) suggests, if the media does not cover it, then it might as well not have happened, “as far as the impact on the President, his advisors, the general public, and even other nations is concerned,” and during Vietnam the various arms of the press resolved to provide all information about the war, whether positive or negative. This is clearly an objective position, but by reporting the negative side of the war the media informed the public that there was in fact a negative side, influencing the debate. Hallin (1986) claims that it is ‘unclear’ whether the effect of public opinion would have been any different had the media been subject to censorship, but this is a weak argument. If censorship were enforced, the public would have received most of their news about the war from the government, which as it is often repeated, was painting a rosy picture of Vietnam.
David Culbert (1998) claims that in a time of uncertainty, compelling visual evidence has a power denied it in ordinary circumstances. While this is true of television broadcasts, it can be applied to the media as a whole in a time of limited war. As Phillip Knightley (2004) argues, Vietnam was “a war like no other, a war with no front line, no easily identifiable enemy, no simply explained cause, no clearly designated villain on whom to focus the nation’s hateâ€¦and, therefore, no nationwide fervour of patriotism.” Combine this with the ‘credibility gap’ created by the military and the government – the positivity about the war consistently presented at military briefings was at odds with what reporters in the field were seeing themselves, and this divergence became clear to the public – and the media were granted an exceptional role in shaping public opinion on the war. It must also not be forgotten that multiple news sources can also influence elite opinion, and so indeed can the public, and this is the basis of the vicious cycle that played some role in ending the war.
It is widely agreed that the Tet Offensive was the key period of coverage of the Vietnam War, as this was the start of the shift to more critical reporting by the media. This is important because negative coverage in mainstream news encourages opponents of government policy to speak out. Hallin (1986) agrees that the anti-war movement was given increasing airtime, but says they remained fringe voices. However, how these voices were presented is not significant – Hallin proves they were not afforded any favourable treatment; it is the fact that they were aired at all that had the impact.
Once mainstream media carries the question of the legitimacy of government action, the public and members of the Administration are free to consider it a credible response to the situation, and encouraged to question their own position. As William Hammond (1998) attests, the broadening of the debate affected the attitudes of network anchormen and reporters: “Earlier in the war, Walter Cronkite had thought nothing of referring to the Viet Cong as ‘the Communists.’ After Tet he did so rarely.” Government officials beginning to discuss alternative actions publicly ensured this cycle continued. It is impossible to say which factor starts this process, which is why the theory of the media being the first in a ‘domino effect’ is unconvincing. It can be said, however, that critical coverage encouraged opponents to speak out about the war, were given credibility by the media, influencing public opinion and forcing the Administration to carefully consider its actions with regard to public reaction.
This was clearly evident in Vietnam. I concur with Hallin that it is impossible to be certain how news affected the audience, but we can be sure that the media had an impact on the course of the war in directly influencing military decisions. Hallin (1986) agrees that considerations of public opinion were partly responsible for the limitations placed on the use of military power. Many from political and military circles maintain that intensive bombing of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia could have produced victory (Carruthers, 2000), but it was rejected because the media would have shown its human costs. Targets were limited because extensive civilian casualties were seen as politically damaging – this was only the case because the media had access to the stories of civilian casualties, and would certainly report them. The media prevented the conducting of the war by what the military deemed as the most appropriate means.
“Whatever the intention behind such relentless and literal reporting of war, the result was a serious demoralisation of the home front,” was President Nixon’s assessment of the impact of the media in Vietnam (Robinson, 2010).
Its impact is still widely debated due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to determine the exact effect of news coverage on the American public over its duration. It is clear that both public opinion and the breakdown of elite political consensus were decisive in the course of the war, and its end. What Hallin’s study and many that support it fail to recognise is that the news media play a crucial role in the shaping of these opinions.
The potential impact of this role was increased in Vietnam due to the unusual circumstances of limited war, and the dramatic changes that were occurring in the US news media at the time. The willingness of high profile journalists and broadcasters to make critical statements about the war compounded this effect. The combination of these developments meant that the media had greater access to information both positive and negative about the war, but that the negative was more akin to the emerging style of television news. The media did not become an oppositional force, though some instances of critical reporting did directly question the legitimacy of Administration policy. In reporting, from an objective stance, negative views of the war, the media invited Americans to question the credibility of the war and their government, part of a vicious cycle that led to more negative feeling about the war.
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