The Media’s Role in the Vietnam War
The story of American involvement in Vietnam is a story that must be told through the perspective of the American people. Indeed, public support and lack of support have done much to determine the policies that shape American military conflicts throughout our brief history. In the case of the Vietnam War, the public’s interpretation of the justification and projected outcome of the war was diminished through the means of media coverage. In time, media contradicted the positive view the American people had towards war and the soldiers who fought in it. These changes in both media coverage and public opinion are directly tied to the events that unfolded in Vietnam, and at home.
By 1964, a time when the war started to escalate and American intervention increased dramatically, 80% of Americans owned a television. This development led to near real-time updates on the events in Southeast Asia. In the early years of the war, the vast majority of media coverage was in favor of American intervention; Cold War Era mentalities that desired to prevent the spread of communism were prevalent. Another factor that led to a more positive outlook on the war in the early years is that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had no problem controlling the media output. Journalists had little access to details and information in Vietnam, or the policy decisions being discussed at home. For example, “during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, journalists had no direct access to the crew or cables, thus impeding the news transmission process” (Bushey, 2). Along with the lack of access the media had to information in the early years, the administrations also utilized propaganda to keep the view of intervention positive, and more importantly, off the front page headlines (Hallin, 25). According to Hallin, the government succeeded in managing the media by “making the North Vietnamese appear more as criminals than as a political movement or rival government. Like most twentieth-century war propaganda, television dehumanized the enemy…” (Hallin, 158). The public, influenced largely by the media, passively accepted the decisions made by the government in the war.
One of the most puzzling and shocking phenomenon associated with the war in Vietnam comes from the idea of the “burning monk”. The background of the “burning monk” phenomenon starts with government oppression in South Vietnam against the Buddhist monks. President Diem of South Vietnam was a Catholic leader who banned public Buddhist practices, and began persecuting the monks. In protest, many monks set themselves on fire in direct protest to the oppression. The most famous of the “burning monk” photographs derived from journalist Malcolm Browne in June, 1963. The image depicts a monk burning alive in vivid and shocking detail; the photograph spread to news outlets in the U.S. less than 15 hours after the event took place. A horrendous shock captured the American people from the top down. President John F. Kennedy says, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one” (Smith).