The Media’s Role in the Vietnam War 2/3

         As the war began to escalate, the close relationship established between the media and the government began to dissolve. This split was painstakingly evident to the public, as media coverage became more and more negative throughout the war. The initial downturn of public opinion began with the “credibility gap” that began to rise during Kennedy’s presidency. According to Hallin, the government, not the media, caused the credibility gap. As Hallin notes, the government attempted to address the American people, the North Vietnamese, and the South Vietnamese with the same messages. According to Hallin, the measures the administration’s public relations strategy took to “signal its determination to its adversaries contradicted its efforts to keep Vietnam off the domestic political agenda” (Hallin, 36). 

            After the “credibility gap” had been established, the media and the American people alike retained hope that the war was winnable. During the period between 1965 and 1967, troops were well established in Vietnam, as were journalists; thus, so was the American public. The government was no longer able to filter the information coming out of the region, because journalists were directly involved; likewise, the leadership could no longer downplay the brutality of war or de-humanize the Vietnamese people (Bushey, 6). According to General William C. Westmoreland, “one problem was the youth and inexperience of many correspondents. Having little or no knowledge of military history… some reporters were ill-equipped for their assignments. A second problem was what may be called a herd instinct among the reporters…If it came to be generally accepted by the press… seldom did anybody among the press elect to challenge the prevailing view” (Bushey, 6). Due to the fact that the press was not censored, it was within their rights to portray the war as they saw it, and convey any messages (intentionally or unintentionally) to the general public. The bigger picture in the reports was often omitted, leaving behind only the graphic details and horrors of war. According to Bushey, “the result was a movement away from the government and its policies in Vietnam by the American press and the American people” (Bushey, 7).

            As the decade progressed, by the mid-1960s, the television had replaced the newspaper as America’s primary news medium. Vietnam became the first war in U.S. history to be covered by both print and television. This had a remarkable impact on the way the American people saw the war. Hallin argues, that because television is a visual medium, it “shows the raw horror of war in a way print cannot” (Hallin, 109). He argues that it is very difficult for a viewer to get a sense of purpose of the political or strategic aspects of what they are viewing; resulting in the viewer simply seeing “senseless killing”. Hallin also address the fact that television focuses on the negatives of a given story, in order to boost ratings and appeal to audiences, in a way that newspapers do not (Hallin, 109). According to CBS correspondent Morley Safer, “the camera can describe in excruciating, harrowing detail what war is all about…It is true that on its own every piece of war film takes on a certain antiwar character…in a battle…men are blown to pieces” (Bushey, 8). As Safer has alluded to, the nature of film requires that a framework be laid to describe what a viewer is seeing; this of course, was not always done by the media outlets airing the film. The collage of war images broadcasted to the majority of Americans was just a fragment of a much larger picture; id est, the long-term goal of American intervention in Vietnam. According to Nixon, the effect of this fact was devastating; he writes, “whatever the intention behind such relentless and literal reporting of the war, the result was a serious demoralization of the home front” (Hallin, 3). Another factor that affected the American viewers was that the images on the television passed by so quickly that the audience had little time to reflect on what they were actually seeing.

 

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