Vietnam: How did media coverage affect the American involvement in and attitudes towards the Vietnam War?
Of the surplus of myths which burgeoned from the carnage of Vietnam, perhaps none is more deceptive than the legend of an audacious, antagonistic mainstream media turning Americans against the war. In brief, two main factors characterise this debate. The first asserts that America lost the war due to damaging media coverage, particularly on television, which undermined political and military endeavours. The second affirms that the majority of journalists and reporters opposed the war, and their subsequent opinions polluted popular support for Vietnam. These suppositions have been reinforced by former correspondents like Robert Elegant, who, in 1981, argued that the outcome of war was “determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.” Neither of these widely accepted lines, however, can be convincingly verified. Many scholars now argue that the media in fact did not guide public opinion, but merely shadowed the ebb and flow of fluctuating social and political sentiment. Although there was some unfavourable press representation, which gained momentum as war raged on, it was inspired by a lack of perceptible confidence concerning Vietnam policy on the part of the administration and bolstered by a social view that Vietnam was an enduring conflict which had taken its toll on American lives and finances. The press, the most visible exponent of a society which appeared to have turned against Vietnam, became scapegoat, providing a convenient explanation for anti-war sentiment.
In 2000 an article in the French paper Le Monde Diplomatique emphasised the ubiquity of coverage of the Vietnam War in the United States over any other issue. Quoting George Bailey’s detailed study of the three leading television news networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) between 1965 and 1970, the article cites the study’s conclusions as suggestive of one sided representation in press portrayals. Bailey determined that almost half of Vietnam reports dealt with action by ground troops and air force; twelve percent comprised of direct quotes from government sources; while only three percent recorded the ‘enemy’ viewpoint. In relation to the assumption that the media adversely manipulated public opinion against Vietnam, these statistics seem incongruous. Indeed, if the bulk of news media is now considered hostile to the war, then evidence should corroborate this claim. A marginal three percent of accounts which documented enemy perspectives hardly signifies a disapproving media. Furthermore, inundated with information about United States strategy and tactics, yet starved of facts about the devastation war was imposing on Vietnamese civilians, the public were destined to have little affinity or compassion for the Vietnamese. Hence, implications of these findings hint that waning support for Vietnam had its roots grounded in influences other than the media.
‘The media lost the war’ is a term which has embedded itself in American cultural understanding of Vietnam. This view insinuates that although America may have been victorious on the battlefield, media misrepresentation undermined public support. Conveniently, this myth combines patriotism, support for the military and admonishing a liberal media whilst still reassuring the public that the high American death toll was not in vain. Elegant has spoken of an inexperienced, naïve clique of reporters prone to dramatization and misrepresentation who were not adverse to manipulating events in order to exaggerate terror. Peter Braestrup has argued that the media were so powerful that they were directly causal of the public turning against the war after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Procuring no conclusive evidence, Braestrup claims that by portraying Tet as a victory for the Viet Cong when in fact it was a defeat, the media misled the public, and by the time it was clear that this was the case the next big story had broken, the media had moved on, and there was a reluctance to retract statements.
Following Tet in February 1968, trusted and esteemed broadcaster Walter Cronkite delivered a televised speech now referred to as the ‘Cronkite Moment.’ Cronkite suggested that Vietnam was ‘mired in stalemate,’ unwinnable and therefore should be brought to an end. Many scholars claim that the magnitude of Cronkite’s statement lies in his popularity. Cronkite was a household name. President Johnson is alleged to have commented after the broadcast that if he’s lost Cronkite, he’d lost Middle America. There has been a tendency to overstate the importance of this atypical instance of dissent. David Halberstam wrote that “it was the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by an anchorman.” In fact, the Presidents supposed anecdote and the leading role which the broadcast is said to have taken in coercing opposition proffers an example of legendary exaggeration, as W. Joseph Campbell has pointed out. Cronkite did not formulate these views out of thin air. His broadcast was encouraged by an already pervasive social discord with Vietnam, and would have arguably been ineffective without pre-existing social discontent. Moreover, American involvement in Vietnam persisted for a further five years after this broadcast, until the last troops withdrew in 1973.
 John Pilger, Heroes, (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 254.
 Robert Elegant, How to Lose A War: The Press and Viet Nam, Reprinted from Encounter (London), vol. LVII, No. 2, August 1981, pp. 73-90.
 William M. Hammond, ‘The Press in Vietnam as Agent of Defeat: A Critical Examination’, Reviews in American History, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 1989), p. 321.
 Ignacio Ramonet, Show United States the Truth About Vietnam, Le Monde Diplomatique, http://mondediplo.com/2000/04/15vietnam, April 2000 [accessed 1/2/2012]
 Ramonet, Truth, http://mondediplo.com/2000/04/15vietnam, 2000
 Elegant, How to Lose A War, pp.73-90.
 Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1983) p.
 Walter Cronkite, ‘We are Mired in Stalemate’, broadcast CBS 1968, https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ebolt/history398/Cronkite_1968.html (2 November 2011)
 Dennis M. Simon, ‘The War in Vietnam,1965-1968,’ http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change-Viet2.html [accessed 10/2/2012] 2002
 David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (New York: Knopf, 1975) p. 514.
 W. Joseph Campbell, Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (California: University of California Press, 2010) chapter 5.
 Braestrup, Big Story, p.
- Quote paper
- BA HONS Leila Fielding (Author), 2012, How did media coverage affect the American involvement in and attitudes towards the Vietnam War?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/203181