Rethinking American Press Coverage of the Vietnam War, 1965-68
Huebner, Andrew J., Journalism History
Many scholars and other observers of U.S. press coverage of the Vietnam War have criticized the media for showing either too much or too little. Some have charged the press with sensationalizing the war's difficulties, while others have pointed out their reproduction of the official, optimistic viewpoint, particularly before the Tet offensive of early 1968. This article takes the middle ground, accepting and modifying elements of both positions in this highly partisan debate. Using stones from both print and television, it argues that journalists presented disturbing portraits of the American GI and the war before Tet, alongside more optimistic dispatches. Despite common assertions about the shattering effect of the Tet offensive, press coverage of those attacks repeated, albeit in more dramatic and consistent fashion, earlier gestures about the war's dark sides.
If most American presidents believe the press distorts the truth about their administrations, Lyndon Johnson may have given that frustration its most colorful expression. The notoriously ribald president once said of the media, "I feel like a hound bitch in heat in the country. If you run, they chew your tail off, if you stand still, they slip it to you." On the matter of the Vietnam War in particular, he believed the news organizations opposed his actions and delivered biased, negative coverage, showing "bad things" from the war zone designed to make readers and viewers "hate us."1 After the war a wide variety of commentators-from scholars to politicians to former military and diplomatic officials-echoed and elaborated upon Johnson's view, accusing the media of sensationalizing the war with bloody, misleading, or "oppositional" dispatches2 The political scientist Guwnter Lwwy, for example, wrote in 1978 that television had offered "one-dimensional" portraits of "devastation and suffering:" "War has always been beastly, but the Vietnam war was the first war exposed to television cameras and seen in practically every home, often in living color."3
An equally diverse set of observers has provided a vital corrective to such critics of the Vietnam-era press corps. Far from showing too much, these writers have argued, the media showed and said too little of the dark sides of war. In his oral history of Vietnam veterans published in 1981, Mark Baker contended that journalists covering the Vietnam War on television sanitized the horrors of modern combat. He introduced Nam with these words:
We didn't see it all on television. The Technicolor blotch of napalm flickering on the screen while Walter [Cronkite] recited the day's body count like a grim blessing over our suppers had litde to do with gagging on the stench of a burning man. We sanitize war with romantic adventure and paranoid propaganda to make it tasteful enough for us to live with it.4
Other writers have agreed that the press offered fairly bloodless and uncritical reporting, especially in the years between the commitment of American ground troops in March 1965 and the Tet offensive of January-February 1968.5 These scholars have stressed that before Tet, most television and magazine reports reproduced the viewpoint of the Johnson administration, while editors withheld particularly gruesome realities of combat. As Daniel Hallin put it, before 1968 "most news coverage was highly supportive of American intervention in Vietnam." In terms of violence, William Hammond suggested, "What the public saw . . . was hardly the carnage that critics of the press have tended to allege."6
Despite the usefulness of such interpretations, the common implication that Tet was a turning point in news coverage-as well as the emphasis on journalists' commitment to the war effort before it-may obscure the fact that troubling images of American GIs did circulate in the media early in the Vietnam War. News from Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 presented the war as anything but a "romantic adventure." Although the mainstream press was not explicitly "antiwar" before Tet, it did lay bare the confusion, misery, difficulty, and tragedy of the conflict. …