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12 The Media and the Vietnam War Clarence R. Wyatt The role ofthe news media remains one ofthe most controversial aspects ofAmerican involvement in Vietnam. Understanding what the press did (and did not do) and why is, of course, important to achieving a clearer sense ofhow and why American society approached the conflict in Vietnam , and the parallel conflict at home, as it did. This issue ofthe press and the Vietnam War also has implications for today. First, the issue of government information policy, especially regarding national security information, is still very much with us. From the Grenada operation in 1983 through the Gulf War to the current conflict in Iraq and the global war on terror, information policy and press access have been a major part of government and military planning . The degree to which the public has confidence in the information that it receives, whether from the government, the military, and news organizations, greatly affects the degree to which it will support any military conflict. In addition, ideas about the role of the press are an important part of the mythology that has developed around the Vietnam War. As it has for all previous major U.S. military engagements, American society has developed a kind ofpublic "consensus ofmemory" that designates certain topics and conclusions as safe while dismissing, or ignoring altogether, others. That consensus has evolved over time, but, at each step, it has lim265 266 Clarence R. Wyatt ited the questions that we can ask ofthat experience and the answers that might help us view current and future conflicts more clearly. Background Since the end ofthe Vietnam War, two images ofthe press have presented themselves in this public memory. The first appeared only briefly, toward the end of the war and immediately afterward. In that conception , the press was something of a deliverer, dispelling government lies and enabling the American people to bring an ill-advised, unjust war to an end. But that image was soon replaced by that of betrayer. In this latter manifestation, individual journalists and entire news organizations deliberately distorted news of the war to suit their own political biases. In this view, the press downplayed or ignored progress in the conflict and emphasized (or outright invented) negative reports. Over time, this barrage ofbad news eventually sapped the public's will to bring the "noble cause;' as President Ronald Reagan called it, to a successful end. Thus, the news industry became a villain that misled the American public, dishonored the sacrifice of American soldiers, and abandoned the people of South Vietnam to Communist oppression.1 Neither image, however, is based on a real understanding oftwo larger issues. First, they are not based on a thorough sense of the institution of U.S. journalism. Over the course of the twentieth century, the news media in America underwent some significant changes. The institutional characteristics that developed derived from economic and cultural issues rather than the supposed political motivations on which the two images of the press are based. Second, during the Cold War a "national security mentality" developed. The potential Armageddon represented by a Soviet Union in possession of nuclear weapons encouraged and justified a culture of official secrecy. The ability and willingness of the federal government , especially the executive branch, to control and manipulate information -often for legitimate security reasons, but frequently for more self-interested political reasons-grew dramatically. An exploration of the relationship between the press and government and the role that that relationship played in American involvement in Vietnam should include these two elements. The Media and the Vietnam War 267 American Journalism Journalism in the United States possessed several key characteristics during the period of the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. The first is ethnocentrism, what Herbert Gans described as the tendency ofnews organizations to focus on stories featuring the members oftheir "home" societies as one ofthe "enduring values ofthe news:'2 For American editors and news directors, this meant that a story was really news only ifAmericans were somehow involved. Other stories that did not directly affect or involve Americans were shunted to the background, if they were covered at all. American news organizations were not alone in exercising such judgments. A British editor once declared that it would take the deaths of a thousand Africans or fifty Frenchmen to equal the newsworthiness of the death of one Englishman: "1,000 wogs equals 50 frogs equals one Englishman:' in his more colorful phrasing. This ethnocentrism played into how...


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