Media coverage of the vietnam war

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This paper deals with the Vietnam War coverage published and broadcast from 1968-1975. It is based on a quantitative analysis of Time magazine’s war coverage, some reading in newspapers published in Vietnam during the war, and several secondary source comparative studies (Peter Braestrup’s Big Story, and Martin Herz’s The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing).

The current mainstream interpretation of the media’s role is represented by George Herring’s book, America’s Longest War. Herring states that General Westmoreland and Robert Elegant, among others, “have charged that a hostile [media] seized defeat from the jaws of victory by turning the public. . . . In fact, up till Tet, television coverage of the war tended overwhelmingly to be neutral or favorable to the government. The reporting during and after Tet was much more critical. [But] it seems more likely that the media’s shift to a critical position reflected rather than caused the parallel shift in public opinion.”1

Did Time magazine’s coverage fit the Herring model? In June 1971 Time Incorporated editor-in-chief Hedley Donovan laid out the magazine’s editorial philosophy. Donovan argued for “total withdrawal of U. S. forces from Vietnam” as quickly as possible. . . . Coming out of Vietnam means removing all American combat and support forces – land, sea and air – from South Vietnam, and ending air operations , carrier based and Thailand based, over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos,” even if immediate withdrawal meant losing a war which might have been possible to win.

In Herring’s interpretation, Donovan’s philosophy simply reflected American public opinion. Was that in fact the way a majority of American felt? Not according to sociologist Howard Schuman, historian Charles DeBenedetti, and pollster Louis Harris.

In his book, An American Ordeal, DeBenedetti indicates that in 1968 and 1969, the middle class’s main concern was that American boys were dying. As President Nixon withdrew American troops, and casualties declined, middle class support for the anti-war movement dropped away.2

Howard Schuman lived through this period, and noticed the same phenomena. It concerned him. He decided to do some research, find out why the middle class had fallen away from the anti-war movement, and what could be done to regenerate support. In Schuman’s research interviews those who expressed opposition to the war fell into two distinct categories. The first he called the university community, a minority group, representing about 1/3 of the sample. He called the majority 2/3 the general public. Schuman asked his subjects whether they were concerned about the morality of the war. The university community answered yes, what America was doing to the Vietnamese people was immoral, and should be stopped immediately. The general public answered no, this was war and they had no concern for the Communist enemy’s welfare. As American casualties declined, the general public’s main objection was that the war wasn’t being won.

Schuman then looked at the peaks in each group’s opposition to the war. When President Nixon aggressively escalated the use of American air power in support of South Vietnamese ground troops, the GP peaked in support of the this policy, and the university community peaked in opposition.3 So, for example, in 1971 when South Vietnamese troops drove into Laos, the general public supported the President, while the university community protested. When the troops withdrew, and the media reported that they had been routed, the general public opposition to the war peaked, while the UC interest faded.

How did the conflict between minority and majority opinion play out in Time magazine? In the spring of 1972 President Nixon began bombing North Vietnam, and mined Haiphong Harbor. In May 1972 Time devoted sixty-three column inches to an attack on “the reckless President Nixon [who] risked WW III by mining Haiphong Harbor. . . . [It was] the act of an emperor, a dictator” who acted alone against all advice. The article included three column inches stating that “A Lou Harris survey showed that 59% of Americans backed Nixon’s mining [and bombing] decision.”4

Thus Hedley Donovan’s editorial philosophy, calling for an immediate end all use of air power represented the minority university community’s view, in opposition to the majority public opinion. With regard to Time’s editorial philosophy, and the magazine’s coverage of the 1972 Easter Offensive, then, George Herring was wrong. Time represented the minority anti-war movement in opposition to the general public.

Were their other examples of this nature? Yes: Time’s coverage of the anti-war protest demonstrations. We know from Lou Harris’ book, The Anguish of Change, that a majority of American condemned the demonstrations as damaging the war effort by leading the Communists to believe that there was no need to negotiate, because sooner or later protest would force a unilateral American withdrawal.5 Time, however, from mid-1969 on, ran 429 CI describing the anti-war protest movement in very sympathetic terms, and only 8 CI describing the majority view. For example, beginning on October 10, 1969, Time stated that a variety of Congressmen, priests, rabbis, business leaders, doctors and lawyers were supporting the Moratorium Day anti-war demonstrations. Organizers “happily confessed that” support for Moratorium Day had grown so quickly that they were scrambling to keep up. Time quoted Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s son saying “everybody should be against the war” as he marched in protest. A former Green Beret and Bronze Star winner proclaimed, “Now I feel guilty for going over there. I feel ashamed. [The war] has screwed me up so bad and screwed the whole country up. . . . I don’t think its worth killing American boys on the pretense of helping those crummy bastards.”6

Thus in the great majority of its coverage of demonstrations after the Tet Offensive, Time represented the anti-war movements view in opposition to the general public.

Time took anti-war movement’s view against the general public in more extreme ways also. The March 1, 1971 issued stated the opinion that an American victory in Vietnam “would be a final outrage.”7 In April Time reported that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Arthur Hoope had written, “The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking I nodded and said ‘Good.’ And having said it I realized the bitter truth: now I root against my own country.” Time explained in its own editorial words that rooting for an American defeat on the battlefield “is not basically a matter of treason,” and that everyone should hold this position. Time was again expressing the anti-war movement view, in opposition to the general public.

How did Time’s coverage compare with the other national media? Martin Herz’ quantitative analysis of the national media in 1972 establishes that Time was more conservative (which by this period meant less anti-war) the CBS or the Washington Post.8 While the vast bulk of Time’s coverage represented the minority anti-war movement view, the magazine did provide some space to the differing, general public’s position. The Washington Post, Newsweek, and CBS did not.

What Time did not print, however, was probably more important than what it did print.

As it happens, there was a significant difference of opinion between sources as to how well the war was going. This first became apparent in coverage of the Tet Offensive. Peter Braestrup has demonstrated in his book, Big Story, that General Westmoreland, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Wheeler, President Johnson, and Douglas Pike all offered accurate military analysis to the media regarding the Communist’s objectives, and the nature of their military defeat during the Tet Offensive.9 The media, however, chose not to report these sources interpretation, and instead published an inaccurate portrayal of a Communist military victory. For example, by mid-February it was clear that the insurgency had suffered a military catastrophe. Time, however, reported that in the Tet Offensive the Viet Cong had “executed a tour de force unprecedented in the annals of military history.”10 Braestrup describes the media account as a distortion of reality.
A second example of the selective use of sources is the media coverage of the Fulbright Hearings. In February 1966, Senator Fulbright held a set of Congressional hearing in which he invited anti-war spokespersons to make their case against the war. These hearings were televised live, and received extensive coverage throughout the media.

In 1970, Senator Fulbright held hearings in which the most experienced Americans in Vietnam came to Washington to make the best case they could for continued funding based on progress toward winning the war. Well known media sources William Colby and John Paul Vann led the seven hundred pages of testimony, describing progress in the military development of the South Vietnamese forces, economic development (including land reform), progress in instituting local self government, development of the school system, refugee resettlement, and improvement in local security.11

A full range of print and television reporters attended the opening day of the hearings, but no stories were published or broadcast. As the days went by fewer and fewer media showed up.

Perhaps the administration sources were so obviously self deluded that the media was simply performing a public service by suppressing their interpretation? This seems unlikely. Economists Robert Sansom12, Stuart Callison13, and Henry Bush14 all did field research in Vietnam during the war. They indicate that America spent $15 billion on economic development. This bought an extended canal network to irrigate more fields, allowing more farmers to plant both a wet season and a dry season crop. They replaced hand pumps with motorized pumps to lift the canal water to the fields to irrigate. They replaced water buffalo with tractors and roto-tillers. They began to plant IR-8 high yield miracle rice, and use the subsidized fertilizer and insecticide this variety requires. Thus the yield per acre skyrocketed. Then, the LTTT land reform program gave the land, payment free, to the former tenants. As owners, they spent more of their increased earnings on farm machinery, further increasing yield and profit. They also spent part of their increased earnings on new concrete foundations, tile roofs, and furniture for their homes. This created jobs in the construction and furniture industries. The economists published the opinion that the newly wealthy farm and business owners seemed determined to fight to protect their improved status from the northern Communist invasion.

Political scientist Howard Penniman and others published the opinion that the Thieu government’s policy on freedom of speech, empowerment of the legislature, and autonomy of local government were more broad based, open and democratic then government’s of South Vietnam’s neighbors.15

Many sources indicate that after the Communist’s atrocities at Hue during the Tet Offensive, the people demanded rifles and training to defend themselves in case the Viet Cong ever came back. This was the beginning of the People’s Self Defense Forces.

These were the sources that the media selected against. The sources that Time chose to publish portrayed the Saigon government as hopelessly corrupt, unpopular and dictatorial, and the armed forces as being incompetent and unwilling to fight. The general impression from Time’s coverage was that the only rational choice was to end American support and withdraw completely as quickly as possible. Time published over 5,000 CI supporting this interpretation, and less then 300 CI representing the alternative interpretation.

Would it have been possible for the American media to have portrayed the war differently? Yes. At various times from 1969-1972 one of the world’s most respected news sources, the London Economist, published articles reporting progress in economic development, land reform, and military fighting ability. This culminated in a November 1972 article in which the Economist reported that, given the Nixon administration’s willingness to use air power to enforce the terms of the treaty offered by the Communists, the allies appeared to have won the war.16

This brings up the interesting question of whether the media coverage effected the outcome of the war? American involvement in the war ended with Congress, in the summer of 1973, outlawing the use of American air power in Indochina, and then cutting off funds to the South Vietnamese government. Time slanted its bias by over 5,000 to less then 300 in support of Hedley Donovan’s stated goal of withdrawing all American forces, including air power, as quickly as possible, even (in his own words) if it meant losing a war which conceivably might have been won. Consider the hypothetical alternative: suppose that Time (and the rest of the American media) had chosen to publish the views of the administration spokespersons who believed that progress was being made toward winning the war, at a 5,000 to 300 ratio over anti-war sources, culminating in an Economist like article reporting that, given the willingness to use air power to enforce the terms of the peace treaty, the allies had won the war. If you believe that Congress would still have vote to outlaw the use of air power in Indochina, and cut off aid to South Vietnam, even in face of media assertions it was voting to throw away a victory, then it would logically follow that the media coverage did not effect the outcome of the war. If you believe that Congress could not have taken these votes in the face of media assertions that it was throwing away a victory, then it would be logical to conclude that the media’s coverage did have a significant impact on American involvement in the war in 1973.

In either case, the current mainstream contention that the media simply reflected public opinion seems to be a remarkably deceptive misrepresentation of the media’s role in the war.

1George Herring, America’s Longest War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), p. 202-3).

2Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990)

3Howard Schuman, “Two Sources of Anti-war Sentiment in America”, American Journal of Sociology, 78:3 (November, 1972), p. 513.

4Time, May 22, 1972, pp. 11-13.

5Louis Harris, The Anguish of Change (New York: Norton, 1973), pp. 66-7.

6Time, October 10, 1969, p. 18; October 17, 1969, pp. 17-22.

7Time, March 1, 1971, p. 10.

8Martin Herz, The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing (Washington, D. C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980).

9Peter Braestrup, Big Story (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

10Time, February 9, 1968, pp. 24-5.

11United States Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee on Vietnam, Hearings: Policy and Prospects, Ninety-first Congress, second session, 1970.

12Robert Sansom, The Economics of Insurgency (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1970).

13Charles Stuart Callison, Land-to-the-Tiller in the Mekong Delta (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1983).

14Henry C. Bush, The Impact of the Land-to-the-Tiller Program in the Mekong Delta (Vietnam: Control Data Corporation, 1972).

15Howard Penniman, Elections in South Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy research, 1972).

16The Economist, November 4, 1972, p. 18-19.

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