Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975

Article excerpt

Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975. New York: Library of America, 1998. Part One: American Journalism, 1959-1969, 858 pp.; Part Two: American Journalism, 1969-1975, 857 pp. $35 each.

In 1968, on my third day in Vietnam, a fellow Army journalist took me to a Stars and Stripes bookstore. He picked out books by French writer Bernard Fall and Washington Post correspondent Ward Just. "Read these. They'll tell you everything you need to know about what's going on here." If not everything, those works provided a valued framework for understanding my year there. Now, Reporting Vietnam, a remarkable collection of more than eighty writers, including Fall and Just, shows the depth, clarity, prescience, and eloquence of the best of Vietnam-era journalism.

The two volumes include everything from brief unsigned pieces to Michael Herr's Dispatches in its entirety. The journalists most associated with Vietnam are here-Peter Arnett, Homer Bigart, Phil Caputo, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Sydney Schanberg, and Neil Sheehan-along with relatively unremembered writers and a few surprises.

Beyond the political and military history and its literary qualities, Reporting Vietnam has much to offer students of media history, although not unconditionally. Like the war itself, the collection invites its own contextualization. The presentation is chronological and episodic, and how the editors selected the pieces is unsaid. The selections must stand on their own merits, and for the most part they do.

The editors take a broad view of "journalism," including in the anthology newspaper stories, magazine articles, columns, excerpts from books, two entire books, and the text of Walter Cronkite's 1968 "Mired in a Stalemate" broadcast. Some is deadline reporting; much is not. The reportage comes from Vietnam, from Washington, and from small towns in Alabama and Ohio.

If the anthology offers much, there is much that it leaves out. Photojournalism is not represented, although photographers are mentioned often. Cronkite's is the only broadcast text, although several pieces reference Morley Safer's television report on Americans torching civilian huts with cigarette lighters. A Library of America press release explains the editors' goal of providing "compelling evidence of the enduring power of the written word in the age of television," but this leaves a gap for the media historian seeking to assess what was-and is remembered as-highly visual journalism.

Moreover, an anthology of excellence must omit examples of much of the news that reached readers and viewers across the United States. One cannot overstate the influence of these pieces on what Americans generally were receiving and perceiving. …