Vietnam: The Television War

Because the conflict with Vietnam was never officially declared a war, the military was unsure how to react to the media presence.  Correspondents were free to move around the war torn battlefield with no official guidelines from the United States government.  This opened to door to extensive coverage of the conflict.

Vietnam had been called the first “television war.”  There were more images of conflict and battles in Vietnam than any previous war. Many scholars consider Vietnam to be one of the most well documented wars in modern times.   War reporters began to report on the bloody battles of the Vietnam War and the Washington politics surrounding it.  The American people began losing faith in the war effort and the government.  “Reports during the Vietnam War and images from the front line on television were crucial factors in turning public opinion against the war. Dean Rusk, U.S. Secretary of State, once said, ‘This was the first struggle fought on television in everybody’s living room every day… whether ordinary people can sustain a war effort under that kind of daily hammering is a very large question,”

Along with the “Big Three” network stations of CBS, NBC, and ABC, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Commission had had established bureaus in Saigon in order to report from the Vietnam War.   The reporters stationed at these Saigon bureaus were given an enormous amount of freedom to work independently on their stories without daily interference from the home offices.  The news teams in Saigon were able to make their own decisions about what to shoot and how to shape their stories. These journalists became embedded, not with the government forces or military, but with the Vietnamese society.   “To gain US military accreditation, the would-be war reporter needed only to present a letter of introduction from any outlet (a local TV station would do); this entitled crews to seats on ‘any aircraft, anywhere’ in the war zone, greatly expanding the range of story possibilities, and soldiers of all ranks from privates to generals could be interviewed, if they agreed, without supervision and uncensored, right there in the battlefield” according to the article“From Vietnam to Iraq: Negative trends in television war reporting(Maniaty).   There are many instances in the war that exemplifies the press’s freedom.

Vietnamese police chief kills Viet Cong prisoner (photo courtesy of Vo Suu and Eddie Adams and www2.ljworld.com)

NBC cameraman Vo Suu and reporter Eddie Adams filmed the famous shooting of Viet Cong suspects by a South Vietnamese police chief during the Tet Offensive.

This picture won the author Nick Ut various awards (photo courtesy of Nick Ut and 1stcavmedic.com)support began to dwindle, these images became a metaphor for the conflict. The Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief

As support began for the war began to dwindle, these images became a metaphor for the conflict.  The Associated Press’s Saigon bureau chief George Esper later remarked regarding those images saying, “People looked at it and said, “This war has got to end”

War reporters began to report on the bloody battles of the Vietnam War and the Washington politics surrounding it.  The American people began losing faith in the war effort and the government.  This may have started when coverage of the war began focusing on the savagery of war and pathological issues it was having on United States soldiers.  Journalists played a major role during the Tet Offensive as well. “The Tet Offensive is remembered as the event that ―shattered American morale at home, and this battle is most often pointed to as the event that demonstrated just how powerful the media truly was,” said Jacqueline Phinney in the article “And That’s the Way It Is: The Media’s Role in Ending the Vietnam War.(Phinney).

The My Lai massacre was another significant event during the war.  This event shocked Americans due to actions conducted by the American military.  “On March 16, 1968, the agitated and frustrated American soldiers of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, entered the village of My Lai in the South Vietnamese district of Son—an area known to be heavily flooded with the disguised Viet Cong enemy” (Phinney).  However, there were no Viet Cong in this village.  The soldiers, under the orders of Lt. William Calley, began executing the villagers, including women, children and the elderly.   The estimated number killed was 347 Vietnamese civilians (Phinney).   Investigative reporting by journalists had uncovered the story of the massacre and brought it to the American people.  “Allegations from My Lai survivors that there were many more unreported casualties started flooding television networks and newspapers. The media also started covering the investigation and trial of Lieutenant Calley, and photos from the ―My Lai Slaughter‖ were published in the news on November 20, 1969” (Phinney).   These incidents helped to spark the anti-war movement back home in the United States and changed people’s opinion about the government.

However, as future conflicts erupted, the Pentagon and the United States government decreed the media would be forced to work with the military.  Correspondents would not be allowed free reign in any war zone.  “The freedom given to correspondents there to go anywhere, see everything, and write what they liked is not going to be given again” (Maniaty).

However, this freedom proved to fatal for many reporters.  Comparatively, between the years 1965 and 1975 71 television, photo and print journalists were killed, “33 in Vietnam, 34 in Cambodia and four in Laos, according to Richard Pyle, a reporter who worked at that time for the AP and was the AP bureau chief in Saigon” (Ganey).  The reason for this is partly due to the intentions of the force opposing the United States.   Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal remarked that when reporters identify themselves as press, they will become more of a target.  Reporters in Iraq are subjected to random acts of terrorist activity, shootings, bombings, and kidnappings.  George Esper of the Associated Press, who covered the war in Vietnam, said it was very unlikely for a member for the Viet Cong to deliberately target a member of the press.

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