Methods to Report the Vietnam War and Influence on Public Opinions

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8th Feb 2020 Journalism Reference this

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Introduction:

The Vietnam war, which is commonly known as the televised war[1] [5] was the second Indochina war, 1954-1975. It was when united states and members from the SEATO (“southeast Asia Treaty Organization”)[2] [8] joined arms with south Vietnam to confront the communist forces – which consisted of Viet Cong’s, the north Vietnamese army and the Vietnamese guerrillas [3][8]. The united states had slowly exerted influence in the region after the withdrawal of the French government. They publicly supported Ngo Dinh Diem, in order to control the spread of Communism. At the time Mao’s communist party had won the civil war in China (1949) and the U.S. government feared the expansion of communism in Asia. This worry soon became known as the “Domino Theory”[4] [6] -If one country fell into communism, then the surrounding countries will also be tempted to have a communist system of governing.

The 33rd president of the united states, Harry Truman, announced his support to countries that are in threat of becoming communist. He showed his determination to tackle communism after the war by promising to provide military assistance and financial funding to “Turkey and Greece”[5] [7] to stop the development of communism in Europe. This became known as the “Truman doctrine”[6] [7]. Before the Vietnam war, the united states previously sponsored France to maintain their influence in Vietnam, to stop the spread of communism. However, Frances strong presence in the province caused tensions within the Vietnamese community; the intense Indochina war between the French government/republic of Vietnam and the communist group called Viet Minh wasn’t helping the situation. As a result, the French government was defeated and eventually pulled their troops out of Vietnam in 1954 after 100 years of colonial rule. The republic of Vietnam was now left to fend off for themselves against the communist with the financial backing of the united states [7][9]. The U.S. sent military advisors in 1955 and then sent another 400 in 1961 to teach south Vietnamese fighters about methods such as “counter insurgence” [8][10]. The united states presence increased after successful strikes from 26,000 Viet Cong; at the time, the 35th President of the united states, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was in charge. He increased the number of military advisors significantly, to the extent that it passed 16,000. In addition, 8,000 soldiers were also deployed into Vietnam – and this was the start of the Vietnam war. The Vietnam war was the second longest war the united states fought in – with the Afghanistan war being first.

The Vietnam war caused disagreement between people in Europe, Australia and the United states.  The war received little press at first. There were only few reports created at the time and their main focus was on the rise of communism. However, it gained a lot publicity after 1960, when many civilians were killed in a coup opposing Diem[9] [4]. As the intensity of the war increased, the number of press corps in Vietnam saw a spike. The war coverage started to infiltrate living rooms, with often bad news and this shifted public opinion [10][1]. However, the extent that it shifted public opinion is often debated by scholars[11] [1]. The war resulted in U.S. failing to achieve its goals and south Vietnam eventually being captured by the north.

The war is a hot topic and it continues to sway political and military decisions made today. The question I’m researching is; How was the Vietnam war reported between 1964-1975 and how did this shape public attitudes and opinions? The aim of my project is to investigate the methods used by media outlets to report the Vietnam war and to what extent this had influenced public attitudes/opinions from supporting the conflict at one point to vocally opposing it on another. In this project, I intend to look at major news outlets that reported on the war and if they were for/against the united states involvement in Vietnam. I will also be looking into the head publisher/editor of the media outlets to get better insight into why the media has suddenly started to take a hostile approach towards the war. Finally, I plan to thoroughly explore the “mirror” and the “elitist opinion” theory [12][1]. Two theories that have appeared after the war. I will be using multiple online articles to support my points and would be referring to authors/ historians. In addition, I will also be referring to personal experiences written by citizens who lived in the states during the war and their take on the media coverage.  

Reporting of the war:

The first source I thoroughly studied was an article titled ” Television coverage of the Vietnam war and the Vietnam veteran”. It was written by Erin McLaughlin, who was the “daughter of a Vietnam veteran” and posted on the “The WarBird’s Forum”. When Erin McLaughlin was young, she assumed that most Americans had great respect for the veterans who served in the Vietnam war, such as her dad. However, with the constant portrayal of the Vietnam veterans as “Violent psychopaths” on television, prompted her to write this article. Erin believes that, the deep-seated feeling of strong dislike for the veterans and the stereotypes often seen on television was both generated by the media. She thinks that subjective coverage of the Vietnam war during the last decade was ultimately shifted public attitudes and what lead to the end of the war. Erin McLaughlin also goes on to talk about how the initial coverage of the Vietnam war was in favour of the U.S. involvement and how this all changed when the communist forces launched the Tet offensive; she talks about the tactics the media used to alter attitudes and opinions of their audiences about the war by broadcasting the deaths of many U.S troops on television every night, they also used images of U.S lead massacre at My Lai and limited the coverage of the daily atrocities committed by the communist lead North Vietnamese regime. Moreover, she also speaks about how the “anti-war movement” gained “media attention”. Although the coverage of the war and its impact on public attitude has been debated for many years by media scholars and journalist; Erin McLaughlin however believes that they weren’t the most “qualified individuals” to do so. She believes that the veterans who served in the war are the best people to ask these types of questions to for they truly understand ”what really occurred in the jungles of Vietnam” and could “compare the truth to what was portrayed on television. Therefore, she interviewed four veterans in order to fully understand “how they interpreted the coverage and how they feel it contributed to the image of the Vietnam veteran”.  

The second source I have mainly looked at was the book titled “The uncensored war: the media and Vietnam” written by Daniel Hallin who is a professor of communication at the university of California. Daniel Hallin challenged the idea that the media’s clear opposition to the war is was what lead to or resulted in shifting public opinions or attitudes towards the war. Instead, Hallin suggested that the growth of critical coverage of the war only reflected the growing discontent and displeasure of the people. Hallin stated in his book that, television coverage neither showed the horrors of war and did not play a major role in the collapsing support in favour of the war: He states that the media’s coverage went from showing a popular glamourized picture of the war in the initial years and rapidly shifted towards a more critical view only after there was elite divisions over the war and unpopular public views. Hallin backs his theory by using quantitative data linked to the content produced by these media outlets and its correlation to the developments taking placing during the war. Some of his study is based on empirical research; however, his data is well detailed and backs his findings and conclusion well. Daniel Hallin talks about how the growth in critical coverage increased during the 1968 Tet offensive. However, he underestimates its importance of it and how it was a crucial in shifting public opinions at the time. This book by Daniel Hallin contested many popular theories such as the ones put forward by Peter Braestrup that the media’s coverage is what primarily lead to the war being lost due to emotional and twisted reporting of the conflict. This is a really useful book to use when talking about how the Vietnam war was reported and how it shifted public opinions and attitudes at the time. This is because it provides its different and challenges the idea that media had an influence in shifting views. 

Daniel Hallin claimed that news reporting was generally supportive until 1968 with a general agreement with the U.S. army; the many of the stories based on the “American boys in action” theme[13]. The move to critical coverage was just after concerns of the war started to arise within the administration, publicly debating over the direction of the war. This change at the time of the war during the 1968 Tet offensive – reflected a collapse of agreement concerning the war, both with the broader society and politicians. Hallin argued that media had little impact on the overall war of Vietnam and its intentions weren’t to shift the publics overall view of the war; Instead they were reporting what was happening objectively and letting its audience come to their own terms of the war. As a result of this, during this break down in consensus in 1968 during the Tet offense, he made the assumption that the media sustained their ability to report objective journalism. His understanding is that the media outlets continued to stay true to their philosophy and they also continued to conduct their routines of gathering news the same[14]. The media did not script nor create any events taking place during the war. Instead, they carried on using official sources and was not in supportive of opponents of the administration policy. In addition, correspondents maintained an unwavering protection over its objective ethical journalism. As the “Fourth estate”, the media had to stay true to its reporting of the war and even if it defied official government sources[15]. He backs this theory by using data such as only “8% of all Vietnam stories contained comments reflecting favourably or unfavourably of major actors”.

Daniel Hallins is often referred to as a mirror theorist. The core belief of this theory is that journalist have stuck to their philosophy, stayed objected and provided balance by providing a platform to both sides. In addition, reporters must be resistant to political pressure and present both sides of the matter from an unbiased viewpoint[16]. Hallin says that the media reported the Vietnam war methodically[17]. Hallin however does believe that there was a time when the media outlets soon started to be subjective in there every day to day reporting. For instance, Hallin believes that when the elites started to question the war and voice their concerns on the tactics of the military officials of the United States, the media took on an anti-establishment slant[18]. The publics opposition towards the war shifted from “political fringes of society into its mainstream[19]”. Hallin states the fact that the elites were questioning the war was news itself; never mind the war. Hence, why the media echoed that rupture[20].

Eddie Adams award winning picture

A chain of events leading up to the killing of Nguyen Van Lem

One of the most famous pictures of the war, taken by Eddie Adams which shows a Vietnamese man being executed by a South Vietnamese General (Nguyen Ngoc Loan). Adam won a prize for this iconic photo which was said to be more influential than the video of the execution of this young man that followed after it.

Importance of television

Erin McLaughlin believes that[21] television was the most important and popular source to get information from during the 1960’s. she states that “by the mid-1960’s, television was considered to be the most important source of news for the American public, and, possible, the most powerful influence on public opinion itself”[22]. This deduction is supported by the book Vietnam veteran by David E. Bonior, Steven M. Champlin, Timothy S. Kolly – “that 93% of homes owned a television by 1966”[23]. A survey conducted by the “Roper Organisation for the television information office from 1964 until 1972”[24] stated 58% of the average medium of people surveyed got their news from the television; by 1972, that number had increased by 6%[25]. In addition, the number of people who relied on newspapers had dropped by 50%[26]. The interoperation that Erin McLaughlin drew from this was that as the war dragged on, more and more people tuned in to watch it on TV. She believes that this data can be used when analysing how big of an affect the media had on shifting public attitude. Erin goes on to talk about how the Roper organisation survey asked a group of people on which platform they trust if the media had given conflicting accounts of the war. In 1972, 48% had said the television whereas only 21% had said newspapers[27]. This data confirms Erin McLaughlin conclusion that the Television had the biggest impact on public attitudes.

Reporting influencing public opinion

Erin McLaughlin believes that people tuned in to get their news from the television because it was “more attention-grabbing, interesting, personally relevant, emotionally involving and surprising because of two elements: visuals and personality”[28]. She believes that the “visual element”[29] makes viewers become more sympathetic and “feel as if they’re part of the action”[30]. The broadcast of the battle and images of the wounded or dead made Americans feel as if they were in the rough terrain of the jungles in Vietnam. “Intense visuals”[31] had taught & shown the difficult nature of war to the American public; who could not comprehend nor understand the “military’s technical language”[32]. Erin Mclaughlin  feels that at the time “Anchors and reporters quickly became trusted-household names because the public turned to them every night for their daily information”[33]. An example she uses in Walter Cronkite, who was labelled as the “most trusted man in America”[34]. Erin Mclaughlin believes that this trust is what allowed television news coverage in the united states to influence the way the average viewer thought; in addition, due to these TV personalities being adored by the public, their opinions were more valued and important in comparison to government reporting.

Erin Mclaughlin states that “the television news industry is a business with a profit motive before it’s a public service”[35]. What she meant by this is that the news outlets will often opt out to broadcast “conflicts, human impact or morality”[36]. In the earlier broadcast of the Vietnam war, news coverage of the war was low because the united states involvement in the war was low. However this only increased when the number of troops deployed to the country had increased to 175,000 in July 1965[37]; and media responded with this by dedicating more time to the war. Erin Mclaughlin says that “Combat, interviews with American soldiers, and helicopters scenes all provided the television news industry with the drama that it required”[38]. The interpretation that Erin Mclaughlin was making here was that the news outlets saw this as an opportunity to profit of it. As a result, they’ve increased their media coverage on the subject and have increased capital investment in the region; an example of this is when they built “permeant bureaus in Saigon and sent hundreds of correspondents there throughout the war”[39]. Erin Mclaughlin supports her view by providing statistics such as “from 1965 through the Tet offensive in 1968, 86% of the CBS and NBC nightly news programs covered the war, focusing mostly on ground and air combat”[40].

Conclusion

In evaluating the effect of the media on the war, I think Hallin thinks little of exactly how basic, and how negative, a portion of the scope of the war was reported amid this period. While general scope may have stayed objective, it is not necessarily the case that specific communicates were not inconvenient to the war exertion – some are still recognized as defining moments in the war.  

The CBS anchor-man Walter Cronkite was depicted as the most trusted man in America. On 27th February 1968, after coming back from an investigation of the war, he broadcasted to say that “we are stuck in a sticky position where the realistic conclusion is unsatisfactory”. while portraying Vietnam as a “nightmare”. After hearing this broadcast, President Johnson is claimed to have told foreign aides, ‘it is all finished’. Its impact was obvious to see. On 31st March Lyndon Johnson reported he would not look to run for another term as President, and in response to the media, he later on clarified that they were not responsible for changing his mind on his presidential stance. Cronkite specifically denied the presidents line on his choice to not run and insinuated that the president did not run because of the war. He went on a CBS Radio, to talk about the “misguided picture of optimistic stories that the government have told us about the progress of the war”. In addition, he also asked, can we, as a country, look up to the possibility of an overwhelmingly expensive and intense Asian War? The anchor-man indicated that the people in general had been misguided by the government and should scrutinise the war itself.  

This was not the only time of an extreme critical reporting done by the media. What Hallin fails to mention and is quiet on is the issue of the recording of General Loan, Chief of Police of South Vietnam, shooting an unarmed Vietcong sympathiser in the head. This clip circulated by NBC on 02/02/1968. David Culbert (an historian who wrote an article on this) is right to underline the effect of both the recording of the still photo, which showed up in daily papers far and wide, on the effect it had on the watchers/readers and policy makers. David Culbert also records the reaction of Frank McGhee (who was an American journalist, best known for his work with NBC) commentated over the footage that “the war is being lost by the Administration” demonstrating how the media once again scrutinised the authenticity of the war. It is unimaginable, obviously, to decide the genuine impact of such reporting on the attitudes and opinions of the public and the elite. However, it would be rash to discredit it. 

The most critical argument against Hallin’s declaration that the media had little effect on the course of the war is the role the media plays in shaping or forming public attitudes at home. Once more, Hallin is right in saying that the media kept on being objective, and his evidence for this is exceptionally persuading, regarding this matter. Nonetheless, the general population shaped their opinions based on the data accessible to them, and, as shown before, the media reported detailed stories that were politically and extremely harmful towards the war. Amid Vietnam there were many different media stations and press which insisted on providing all data about the war, regardless of whether positive or negative. This is obviously an objective position, yet by revealing the negative side of the war the media educated the general population that there was in actuality a negative side, which affected the debate. Hallin claims that it is ‘misty’ regardless of whether the impact of public attitude or opinion would have been different had the media been liable to censorship, yet this is a fragile argument. On the off chance that the media was censored, the general population would have received the majority of their news about the war from the government, which usually dictated the war positively.  

I agree with Hallin, that it is difficult to be sure how news influenced the general public. However, what we can make certain of is that the media affected the course of the war by directly impacting military choices. Hallin, agrees that the attentiveness to take into consideration, popular public opinions were partly responsible for the constraints set on the actions that the military can take during the war. Many political and military personals agree that carrying out a concentrated bombing of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia would/could have led to victory, however it was rejected on the grounds that the media would have shown the human cost of it. Targets were restricted in light of the fact that civilian casualties were seen as being politically harmful – this was the case because the media outlets had free entry to access counts of civilian casualties and they would unquestionably report them. The media steered the direction of the war and stopped the military from taking immoral actions that were esteemed as the most suitable. 

Bibliography:


[1] Ronald Steinman. 2017. – The first televised war

[2] History Net. Vietnam war. Facts, information and articles about the Vietnam war

[3] History Net. Vietnam war. Facts, information and articles about the Vietnam war

[4] Kubia. 2013. Domino theory

[5] Christopher McKnight Nichols. 2014. Consequences of the Truman doctrine

[6] Christopher McKnight Nichols. 2014. Consequences of the Truman doctrine

[7] Wikipedia. 2018. War in Vietnam 1954-59

[8] The history place. The Vietnam war. 1999

[9] Alan Rohn. 2014. Media Role in The Vietnam War

[10] Angie Dahm. The Media and Vietnam

[11] Angie Dahm. The Media and Vietnam

[12] Angie Dahm. The Media and Vietnam

[13] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 11

[14] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 5

[15] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 5

[16] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 68

[17] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 69

[18] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 513

[19] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 514

[20] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 514

[21] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[22] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[23] Vietnam veteran, David E. Bonior, Steven M. Champlin, Timothy S. Kolly – PG 16

[24] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 106

[25] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[26] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin

[27] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 106

[28] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[29] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[30] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[31] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[32] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[33] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[34] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 106

[35] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[36] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[37] The “uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam by Daniel C. Hallin – PG 115

[38] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[39] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

[40] Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran, Erin Mclaughlin

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