Vietnam War coverage on U.S. television newscasts

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


1 News Coverage on Vietnam War
1.1. Formal Background: Conventions, Restrictions, and Methods
1.2. Depiction of the Vietnam War
1.3. Evaluation

2 The Role and Impact of U.S. Television





The Vietnam War was and still is a decisive chapter in U.S. history. It was the longest military conflict, which on top of everything ended in defeat for the Americans. This war had an enormous impact on various spheres both in private and public life. Above all, it drastically shaped the relationship between politics and public opinion and raised questions on the role the media played during the military conflict. The Vietnam War and its perception were unprecedented in their entire dimension. In general this was due to the climate of social and political change taking place during the 1960’s and, more specifically, because of a totally new institution being embedded in this situation– television. During this decade television expanded and became the most important source of information for the people. This medium offered totally new perspectives and dimensions both of war coverage and its perception, which is clearly expressed in the following statement: “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room”.[1] The fact that there was no experience with regard to the mechanisms, methods and effects of TV war coverage made a rather experimental reporting possible. Both journalists and politicians were facing a new situation, concerning the intertwining between television, politics and the Vietnam War issue.

This paper aims at examining this interrelation by analysing the way the Vietnam War was covered by U.S. television and by looking at the consequences of this coverage. This examination shall provide answers to questions asking for the impact of television on public opinion, U.S. politics and the course of war. The focus is put on television, because studies and surveys have shown that more than half of the American population received their information from television newscasts, which they considered to be more reliable than the press or other media.[2] In addition, there is comprehensive material on television reporting as well as profound analyses of it, which is a rather pragmatic reason for concentrating on the role of U.S. TV during the Vietnam War.

This paper is concerned with the contents and characteristics of war coverage and the effect it had on the role of the media during the Vietnam War. The first chapter deals with the coverage and provides formal media criteria and methods. Furthermore, a summary and an evaluation of the depiction of the Vietnam War in TV newscasts is given. The second chapter contains the discussion on the role of television with regard to the course of war.

1 News Coverage of the Vietnam War

This chapter aims at providing an overview of what kind of picture of the Vietnam War was presented in newscasts and by what it was shaped. First of all, sketching out the formal conventions shall reveal the methods of covering the war and, furthermore, help explaining which criteria determined the way of covering. Integrating these formal basic conditions and features of coverage on Vietnam the further examination is based on selected examples of reports and programs as parts of different TV newscasts. They will be studied according to differences and similarities in the way of covering and possible motivations and approaches of journalists. All in all, the examples serve to develop a comprehensive description and evaluation of the development of Vietnam War coverage in US TV News .

1.1 Formal Background: Conventions, Restrictions, and Methods

One of the most crucial characteristics of Vietnam War coverage was the fact that the US government made no official attempts to censor it, which was unprecedented in American history. Providing such a supposed openness, military officials wanted to prevent hostile reporting and, moreover, aimed at producing co-operative relations between US information officers and reporters to gain advantages in form of possible exertion of influence.[3] Furthermore, the government did not want to raise doubts on the efficiency of American war effort by imposing official censorship.[4] In addition, to censor the war coverage also could have been perceived as an attempt to manipulate the media. Another decisive reason for avoiding censorship was the fact that the USA never officially declared war to Vietnam. Due to this circumstance it would have been rather complicated to justify an official censorship.[5] Nevertheless, public information officers for the US command in Vietnam tried to establish informal restrictions to regulate reporting. Therefore, in 1965, they sketched a series of voluntary guidelines for the journalists, which placed restriction on identification of specific units or the disclosure of exact numbers of casualties in battles to ensure military security.[6] Military authorities told networks that in case of showing objectionable scenes of American casualties their reporters might be banned from combat zones.[7]

In 1967, there were about 700 journalists in South Vietnam of whom one-third worked as active reporters and the others were supporting staff. Altogether they were representing over 130 organisations.[8] They had been accredited by accepting those voluntary guidelines for the protection of military information and, consequently, received accommodation, transport and food from the army.[9] Often such relations between journalists and military establishments did not contribute to a more objective and detached access to information. Although the journalists were rather independent of military jurisdiction they often depended on military transport to the sites of possible fighting. In such cases the reporting worked within a fragile alliance between military establishment and journalists. Their work aimed at producing official news. On the other hand, there were TV, radio and press reporters working within the conditions and options provided within the competitive media system. The so- called on-the-scene journalists often had better communication networks with their offices in the United States and throughout the world. Thus, footage shot in the morning could be shown on TV already in the evening.[10]

However, this strategy of delivering voluntary guidelines did not guarantee full control over several hundreds of journalists and their work. It was impossible to have an impact on all investigating and reporting people in Vietnam. In order to compensate for this, official attempts to restrict reporting often aimed at higher ranks within the hierarchy of the editorial system in the United States. Consequently, political and military officials tried to establish a subtle form of censorship by influencing editors, network employees and other persons being involved in the decision making process concerning the production of reports on the war.[11]

The fact that every network depends on federal regulation concerning broadcast licensing, advertisement and is also influenced by affiliates[12] often prevented controversial topics and reporting.

The work of journalists is per se conditioned by the rules and conventions of the medium television, which in practice is reflected in the modes of covering with regard to form and content. It is especially newscasts that are characterised by immediacy, which implies that a report has to be short and compact and above all it needs to be up-to-date. As a result, journalists need to compress developments and events to meet the demands of brevity and intelligibility alike.[13] Furthermore, the requirement of immediacy usually leads to a focus on today’s events and does not provide necessary background and context, which makes it rather difficult to present a comprehensive and profound picture of a complex and long- lasting event like the Vietnam War. However, a basic aspect of journalistic work is to gather current and reliable information. In that respect it is necessary to mention which sources had been available and to what extent the journalists did rely on them. On the one hand, there were the daily news briefings in Saigon called “Five O’clock Follies”, where military officials provided limited information to the journalists.[14] Being an official source these briefings had to be considered with reservation. After it became obvious that the war would not be as short and uncomplicated as had been predicted both by the American government and military authorities, journalists tried to get new important sources to background information they could regard as more credible. In the face of increasing difficulties and worsening conditions in the war, some generals and other highly authorised officials and even average soldiers more frequently decided to deliver information to journalists whom they trusted.[15]

1.2. Depiction of the Vietnam War

When the military confrontations in Vietnam began the American public was rather uninterested in the course of events. And as far as the United States had not been involved in the development of the conflict the demand for information on the current situation in Vietnam as well as its causes did actually not exist. This attitude profoundly changed in 1964, after the Golf of Tonkin incident, which drew attention to American activities in the Vietnamese conflict.

By 1965, there were various prominent journalists expressing their support for president Johnson’s Vietnam policies, which largely reflected the opinion of most Americans. When he visited Vietnam in July/ August 1965, Walter Cronkite, the anchorman of the CBS Evening News, exclaimed that he was “impressed with our effort”[16], which clearly conveyed his agreement on the American participation. ABC ’s Howard K. Smith even more openly expressed his personal attitude towards the legitimacy of American engagement by saying that “It is entirely good what we’re doing.”[17] Much of the coverage during 1965 and 1966 conveyed agreement with the US war effort[18], which does not exclude reports about difficulties for the American troops. However, most reports did not question US involvement, but rather tried to cover the course of war. Journalists may take different approaches to cover an issue. Quite a common method of trying to evaluate events is the so-called extrapolation, which involves projecting current actions into later points of time. Thus, journalists speculate on future developments, which may often lead to misinterpretation and the reduction of complex structures. Walter Cronkite, the pioneer anchorman, labelled the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley a harbinger of “dramatic change”, while Dean Brelis saw it as the portent for more big battles like that.[19] Both views proved to be wrong, because the heavy losses they had suffered during the battle made the North Vietnamese utilize guerrilla tactics instead. A year later, Walter Cronkite speculated that a series of North Vietnamese military actions “could set the pattern of the war for months to come”, but this was a misjudgement, too, because this anticipated large offensive did not take place.[20] In February 1967, ABC ’s Bill Brannigan filmed the forced evacuation of civilians near Danang into a relocation camp. He assumed that this course of action will become the favourite method for reducing civilian support for the Vietcong.[21] When the American army altered this method later and, eventually, completely stopped it, Brannigan’s prediction also proved wrong, what shows that it is risky and speculative to guess the course of events by assessing current actions.

A further journalistic method to make sense of events is to compare them to previous ones. Measuring the scope, size, cost and outcome of different actions bears the tendency of simplifying its complexities and does not evaluate it within a larger context. According to this way of interpretation the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley was called “biggest engagement yet”, “the bloodiest, longest” battle since Korea and “the biggest American victory yet in Vietnam”.[22] This approach also includes the comparison of recent military actions with World War 2 operations. This approach combines events that actually have a totally different nature. In this way, journalists referred to emotions and attitudes being connected with the assessment of the Second World War. Consequently, such comparisons may regard American intervention in Vietnam as being part of a heroic tradition of American warfare. A striking example is Dean Brelis’ report in July, 1966, on “the First Infantry Division, the Big Red 1 of North Africa, Omaha Beach, Normandy and now the Cambodian border.”[23]

Here it is quite clear that Brelis refers to places of American military actions during World War Π that are commonly connected with certain emotions and evaluations like pride and heroism. Morley Safer reported on marines preparing for a landing, describing the scene as similar to those during the war in the Pacific. Such comparisons are misleading and, consequently, may construct a totally distorted image of the motivations of American involvement and the Vietnam War in general.

Another distinctive characteristic of the coverage was its exclusively American perspective, which expressed itself in emphasising American military superiority and in exclusively focusing on American soldiers. A journalistic device substantiating this argument is the frequently conducted combat interview. Morley Safer, a CBS journalist, had made a report about American soldiers including interviews with them and portraying their daily life away from the battlefield.[24] By showing them writing letters or talking about private thoughts Safer draws a personalised impression of war. However, reports showing North Vietnamese soldiers from a similar perspective were lacking. Often US journalists even fully forewent detachment when referring, for example, to “our” troops. At the same time they contributed to the formation of a negative and ideologically characterised image of the North Vietnamese by calling them “enemy” or even “Reds”.[25] In November, Peter Kalisher reported on pre-flight routines of the pilots and praised each mission as a “minor masterpiece” of planning and execution.[26] Here, the potential viewer of CBS News is only provided the perspective of American troops and their conditions. In the same month, Ray Maloney informed the viewers of “ABC Evening News” that the Vietcong were defenceless against the sophisticated B-52s and, furthermore, explained that air power was “turning the tide in Vietnam”.[27] In September, Chet Huntley explained that the A-4 bomb had made “spectacular” results and “should have even better shooting in the days ahead”, supposedly because of improving weather conditions.28] In September 1965, NBC correspondent Jack Perkins made a story on the First Air Cavalry Division arriving in South Vietnam. His description revealed his supportive attitude towards the American engagement by emphasising the capability and strength of US soldiers. Perkins described the unit as “completely portable” and thus able to “fight the war it was designed for”. In a report five months later he even intensified his statement by explaining that the division had achieved a “remarkable record of success” in killing North Vietnamese soldiers.[29] Using a term like “remarkable” does not testify to an objective attitude or neutral description at all. The coverage on the bombing of North Vietnam was also heavily dominated by favourable reports stressing the superiority and sophistication of American air power in contrast to that of the opposing side. Again many combat interviews with soldiers and pilots were conducted and aimed at assuring the success of the bombing. Bruce Morton from CBS had talked to some fliers in February 1967, and assumed that their professionalism and excellent training was responsible for the supposed effectiveness of the bombing.[30] In February 1967, John Hart’s report on defoliation and crop destruction was shown at CBS Evening News. Although he covered a rather unknown and unpopular element of the air war Hart did neither challenge its legitimacy nor did he mention the dangerous consequences of this method. Instead he approved the usage of such chemical weapons and even claimed that they did not cause any harm to the soil. He also failed to mention the fact that some scientists had even strongly advised Johnson against the employment of such herbicides.[31]

A report that appears to be realistic and comprehensive came from NBC ’s Ron Nessen. He analysed the abilities and advantages of the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong in a more objective way. He concluded that it was them who really dictated the terms of war by utilising unpredictable guerrilla tactics. Furthermore, he stated that even in case of withdrawing from the battlefield the fighting “could break out again” whenever the North Vietnamese wanted it.[32] Due to the circumstance that the opposing side, especially the soldiers of the National Liberation Front and the fighters of the Vietcong, was so hard to grasp, the journalists only rarely recorded real fighting. Even if they managed to capture some of these combat scenes, editors back home often cut the footage, because they were aware of the fact that the news were being broadcast during dinner time.[33]

This restriction concerned the coverage of American as well as Vietnamese soldiers. In December 1965, NBC reported on a marine colonel who had a severe leg wound. Actually, the footage contained the amputation of his leg, but, eventually, scenes showing details of the operation were cut.[34] Nevertheless, those stories surely had an emotional impact on their viewers.

On 14 September 1965, Walter Cronkite informed the viewers of CBS Evening News about another negative aspect of that war, namely the deteriorating living conditions in South Vietnam. He announced the topic of the report as “one of the ugliest and saddest aspects of the Vietnam War”. John Laurence, the correspondent being responsible for this film, describes how South Vietnamese civilians struggle to survive the devastating consequences of the war. He compares them to “flies” or “animals” rooting through the garbage of the US marines, which was quite dangerous, because it contained ammunition and could also cause infections. Laurence describes them as “scavengers of war”.


[1]. Antony Jay, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations. 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 235.

[2]. Daniel C. Hallin, The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 106.

[3]. Chester J. Pach, “The War on Television: TV News, The Johnson Administration, and Vietnam”, A Companion to the Vietnam War, eds. Marylin B. Young und Robert Buzzanco (Malden, ME: Blackwell, 2002) 451.

[4]. Michael Kunczik, “Propaganda und Berichterstattung im Krieg- ein historischer Rückblick“, Bertelsmann Briefe 126 (1991): 42f.

[5]. Hallin, The Uncensored War, 9.

[6]. Chester J. Pach, “The Vietnam War on the Network Nightly News”, The Sixties: from memory to history, ed. David Farber (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 1994) 92.

[7]. Ibid, 95.

[8]. Spencer C. Tucker, ed., and David Coffey et al., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: a political, social, and military history (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 260.

[9]. Hallin, The Uncensored War, 211.

[10]. Tucker, Encyclopedia, 259.

[11]. Mira Beham, Kriegstrommeln. Medien. Krieg und Politik (München: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, 1996) 81.

[12]. Pach, “The Vietnam War on the Network Nightly News”, 101.

[13]. Peter Braestrup, “Missing the Big Story”, Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 2nd ed., ed. Robert J. McMahon (Lexington, MA, and Toronto: D.C. Heath, 1995) 545.

[14]. Pach, “The War on Television”, 451.

[15]. Ibid, 457.

[16]. Ibid, 452.

[17]. Ibid, 452.

[18]. Ibid, 453.

[19]. Zit.nach: Pach, “The Vietnam War on the Network Nightly News”, 98.

[20]. Zit.nach: ibid.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Zit.nach: ibid, 97.

[23]. Ibid, 98.

[24]. Pach, “The Vietnam War on the Network Nightly News”, 96.

[25]. Zit. nach: Pach, ibid, 100.

[26]. Ibid, 96.

[27]. Ibid, 98.

[28]. Ibid, 99.

[29]. Zit. nach: Pach, “The War on Television”, 453.

[30]. Zit. nach: Pach, “The Vietnam War on the Network Nightly News”, 99.

[31]. Ibid, 100.

[32]. Ibid, 104.

[33]. Zit. nach: Pach, “The War on Television”, 454.

[34]. Ibid, 455.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Vietnam War coverage on U.S. television newscasts
Martin Luther University  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Vietnam War and American Society
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Vietnam, American, Society
Quote paper
Morena Groll (Author), 2004, Vietnam War coverage on U.S. television newscasts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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