Television Power and Vietnam War

By- ErinMcLaughlin


     Growing up asthe daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I’ve always been proud to say that my father is a warhero. When I was younger, I enjoyed bragging to classmates and teachers aboutmy father’s honors because I believed that all Americans respect Vietnam veterans as much as I do. As I grew older, however, I noticed inmovies and on television that the Vietnam veteran is not portrayed as a brave soldier; rather, he is aviolent psychopath who continuously experiences flashbacks of the war. What wascoverage of the war like, and did it affect the image of the Vietnam veteran? Many Vietnam veterans feel that uncensored and overly negative televisioncoverage helped turn the American public against the war and against theveterans themselves.

      Thehorrors of war entered the living rooms of Americans for the first time duringthe Vietnam War. For almost a decade in between school, work, and dinners, theAmerican public could watch villages being destroyed, Vietnamese childrenburning to death, and American body bags being sent home. Though initialcoverage generally supported U.S involvement in the war, television newsdramatically changed its frame of the war after the Tet Offensive. Images ofthe U.S led massacre at My Lai dominated the television, yet the daily atrocities committed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely made the evening news. Moreover, theanti-war movement at home gained increasing media attention while the U.Ssoldier was forgotten in Vietnam. Coverage of the war and its resulting impact on public opinion hasbeen debated for decades by many intelligent media scholars and journalists,yet they are not the most qualified individuals to do so: the veterans are.

     Journalists based in Saigon daily reported facts aboutbattles, casualties, and the morale of the troops, yet only a soldier couldgrasp the true reality of war. Veterans understand what really occurred in thejungles of Vietnam, and only they can compare the truth to what was portrayed ontelevision. Furthermore, their homecoming stories most accurately reveal howthe American public has cruelly mistreated the Vietnam veteran. Therefore, after having researched the power oftelevision and its coverage of the war, I interviewed four Vietnam veterans in order to understand how they interpreted the coverageand how they feel it contributed to the image of the Vietnam Veteran.

Section 1: Television Power and theVietnam War

Why Television?

      By themid-1960’s, television was considered to be the most important source of newsfor the American public, and, possibly, the most powerful influence on publicopinion itself. Throughout the Korean War, the television audience remainedsmall. In 1950, only 9 percent of homes owned a television. By 1966, thisfigure rose to 93 percent (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.18). As televisionsbecame more popular in the home, more Americans began to get their news fromtelevision than from any other source. A series of surveys conducted by theRoper Organization for the Television Information Office from 1964 until 1972demonstrates the growing power of television. With multiple answers allowed,respondents were asked from which medium they “got most of their news In 1964, 58 percent said television; 56 percent,newspapers; 26 percent, radio; and 8 percent, magazines. By 1972, 64 percentsaid television while the number of respondents who primarily relied onnewspapers dropped to 50 percent (Hallin, 1986, p.106). Thus, as the VietnamWar dragged on, more and more Americans turned to television as their primarysource for news.

      While alarge audience is crucial in influencing public opinion, credibility is a muchmore significant factor. The Roper surveys mentioned above also askedrespondents which medium they would trust if the media gave conflictingaccounts of a story. In 1972, 48 percent said television while only 21 percentsaid newspapers (Hallin, 1986, p.106). Television is “consistently evaluated asmore attention-grabbing, interesting, personally relevant, emotionallyinvolving, and surprisingNeuman, Just, Crigler,1992, p.56) because of two elements: visuals and personality. The visualelement of television allows viewers to feel as if they are part of the action.When news programs aired images of battles and death, Americans at home felt asif they too were in the jungles of Vietnam. Additionally, intense visuals helped explain the complex natureof war to Americans who could not understand the military’s technical language.Anchors and reporters quickly became trusted, household names because thepublic turned to them every night for the day’s information; Walter Cronkitewas even referred to as the “most trusted man in America” throughout the war (Hallin, 1986, p.106). This trust allowed theopinions and biases of television news personalities to have some influence onthe way in which many Americans viewed the war. Thus, Americans increasinglydepended on television for images and accurate accounts of the Vietnam War;what they were watching, however, were edited, thirty-minute versions of anextremely complex war.

Early Coverage

     The televisionnews industry is a business with a profit motive before it is a public service;consequently, producers and reporters attempt to make the news more entertainingby airing stories that involve conflict, human impact, or morality. Televisionnews did not find material that was dramatic enough until the number ofAmerican troops was raised to 175, 000 in July 1965 (Hallin, 1986, p.115).Combat, interviews with American soldiers, and helicopter scenes all providedthe television news industry with the drama that it required. The networks setup permanent bureaus in Saigon and sent hundred of correspondents there throughout the war. From1965 through the Tet Offensive in 1968, 86 percent of the CBS and NBC nightlynews programs covered the war, focusing mostly on ground and air combat(Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.4). This coverage was generally verysupportive of U.S involvement in the war and of the soldier himself until 1967.The media labeled the conflict as a “good guys shooting Reds” story so that itcould fit into the ongoing saga of the Cold War (Wyatt, 1995, p.81). As part ofthe human impact frame, network correspondents relied on American soldiers for theirmost important sources. During this early part of the war, the soldier wasportrayed as a hero. One example is a striking story reported by TVcorrespondent Dean Brelis. As he was having his leg amputated, Marine colonel Michael Yunck said:

 , they can’t be right around in there. So I didn’t call bombs and napalm on these people. But that’s where they were. I’m sure that’s where they were. God damn it. I hate to put napalm on these women and children. I just didn’t do it. I said, they can’t be there (Bonior, Champlin,Kolly 1984, p.13-14).

      Thus, theanti-communism frame significantly contributed to the positive coverage thatvilified the war, not the soldier (Bonior, Champlin, and Kolly, 1984, p.13).

The Turning Point

     By the fall of1967, 90 percent of the evening news was devoted to the war and roughly 50million people watched television news each night (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly,1984, p.4-5). Up until this time, the war had strong support from the media,the public, and Congress. The military continuously reported that the U.S wasmaking encouraging progress. Gradually, however, support for the war began todecrease. Because no military censorship was established, journalists couldfollow the military into combat and report their observations without formalcensorship. Thus, as journalists saw more grisly combat, they presented thepublic with more graphic images. Also, for the first time, interviewed soldiersexpressed their frustration with the progress of the war.

     Support beganto decrease in the fall of 1967, but the major turning point in television’scoverage of the war occurred during the Tet Offensive in late January 1968.Though North Vietnamese soldiers swept through more than one hundred SouthernVietnamese cities, Tet was actually a U.S victory because the North sufferedenormous casualties. Television, however, portrayed the attack as a brutaldefeat for the U.S; the media, not the military, confirmed the growingperception that the U.S was unable to win the war. The percent of televisionstories in which journalists editorialized news jumpedfrom 5.9 percent before Tet to 20 percent in the two months after (Hallin,1986, p.170). The most significant statement came from the “most trusted man inAmerica Walter Cronkite. In a CBSspecial, Cronkite concluded, `To say that we are closer to victory today is tobelieve, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in thepast…to say that we are mired in a bloody stalemate seems the only realistic,yet unsatisfactory conclusion” (Hallin, 1986, p.170).

     After the TetOffensive and Cronkite’s statement, coverage of American involvement in the warbecame predominantly negative. Before Tet, journalists described 62 percent oftheir stories as victories for the United States, 28 percent as defeats, and 2 percent as inconclusive. After Tet,44 percent of the battles were deemed victories, 32 percent defeats, and 24percent inconclusive (Hallin, 1986, p.161-162). Combat scenes were also moregraphic. Films of civilian casualties increased from a pre-Tet average of 0.85times per week to an average of 3.9 times per week. Films of militarycasualties also jumped from 2.4 to 6.8 times per week (Hallin, 1986, p.171).The most negative change in coverage was the portrayal of the U.S troops.Before the Tet Offensive, there were four television stories devoted entirelyto the positive morale of the troops and zero negative stories. After Tet, twoand a half stories mentioned positive morale while the number of negativemorale stories increased to fourteen and a half (Hallin, 1986, p.180). Most ofthese negative references included increasing drug use, racial conflict, anddisobedience among the U.S soldiers.

     Televisioncoverage of the massacre at My Lai was perhaps the most damaging image for the U.S soldier’sreputation. Though initial reports stated that the operation killed 100 enemysoldiers in March 1968, it was revealed a year later that First Lt. WilliamCalley and his taskforce had killed up to 350 South Vietnamese civilians(Hammond, 1998, p.192). The massacre and Lt. Calley’s trial became one of thewar’s leading stories. Moreover, it introduced the subject of American warcrimes into television’s remaining coverage of the war.

Withdrawal from Vietnam

      Theintensely negative coverage of the war influenced both politicians and thepublic. Americans depended on television to see and understand the war, but thedeath and destruction they saw appeared as irrational killing when prospectsfor the war became increasingly negative. Therefore, the majority of Americanswithdrew their support for the war after the Tet Offensive. War coveragedeclined from 90 percent of all newscasts to 61 percent from Richard Nixon’selection through February 1969 (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.7). Though themedia had been covering the anti-war movement before 1968, it now overshadowedthe war itself. Draft-card burning and demonstrations provided television withfresher conflict, human impact, and moral issues. With the massive loss ofpublic support for the war, politicians initiated withdrawal policies.Television no longer focused on combat, but on the political process. From 1965to 1969, the percentage of combat stories had been 48 percent; from 1970 untilthe end of U.S involvement, only 13 percent of news stores involved soldiers incombat (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.8). Thus, Bonior, Champlin, and Kolly(1984, p.16) best sum up the damage done to the Vietnam veteran’s image:

In the rush to declare the Vietnam War over through stories on Vietnamization and the Paris Peace Talks, in the rush to judgment without second thought on Tet, in the rush to avoid controversy at any cost, the U.S public was left with one               climactic image of their soldiers in Vietnam-losing the Tet Offensive while massacring civilians at My Lai.

Section 2: Veteran Perspective

     Most veteransreturned home from Vietnam after television coverage began to focus on the dissent at home.Three million veterans served in Vietnam, yet only 200,000 had been discharged by 1967; the majority of allveterans served after 1968 (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly 1984, p.16).

      Accordingto a Louis Harris poll conducted in 1979, nearly 60 percent of all Vietnam veterans felt that television was not positive. Additionally, morethan two-thirds felt that the coverage of My Lai influenced the public’s view ofthe typical Vietnam veteran (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly 1984, p.16). I interviewed fourveterans (asking the same questions to each veteran) in order to understand howthey feel the coverage truly reflected what they actually saw in Vietnam. Moreover, I asked them a series of questions regarding how theyfeel the coverage contributed to the Vietnam veteran’s image.

Veterans’ Pre-War Interpretations

     My fatherenlisted in the U.S Army in January 1965 and was sent to Vietnam in September 1966 at age twenty. He served there for one year as ahelicopter door gunner. At the time of his departure from the U.S, he believedthat the U.S had a reason to be involved in the conflict. Throughout his timethere and after reading extensively about the regime for which the U.S wasfighting, however, he changed his mind. Personally, he wanted to go to Vietnam. Two of his uncles had died in World War II, and so he felt a senseof duty to follow in the tradition of his family. Before he left, my fatherunderstood television to be extremely “pro-war.” Most of the stories he sawframed the conflict as one in which the “U.S soldiers were portrayed as thegood guys fighting communism.” He also argues that public opinion was in heavyfavor of being involved in the war.

      Thesecond veteran I interviewed was Mr. Ron Leonard. He was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1968 at age twenty as well. He served there for thirteen monthsas Sp-4 Crewchief on a helicopter gunship. He too wanted to serve in Vietnam for “honor and country.” Unlike my father, Mr. Leonard has alwaysmaintained that the U.S was correct in becoming involved with the war. Whenasked what public opinion was like before he left for Vietnam, he responded, “I didn’t notice. I drive my own train. I wentbecause it was the right thing to do. I was a jockey, a professional athlete.It was my duty to fight for this country.” Mr. Leonard interpreted the coverageto be completely negative, most likely because he left for Vietnam during 1968.

      Veteran C(he wishes to remain anonymous) was drafted in 1966. Because he did not want togo to Vietnam as an infantryman, however, he later volunteered for Army schoolsand ultimately went to Vietnam in 1969 at age nineteen. Throughout his seven months there, heserved as a commissioned officer and flight leader in an assault helicoptercompany. He did not want to go to Vietnam, nor did he feel that the U.S should have been involved in thewar. Before he left for Vietnam, Veteran C understood public opinion to be mixed. When he wasdrafted in 1966, he thought that there was much confusion about the war andthat the American public was “essentially ignorant of the issues.” By 1969, heargues that the public was still confused:

 People confused patriotism and loyalty to the nation with patriotism and loyalty to  the government. In other words, many persons who considered themselves patriots and loyal U.S citizens were not comfortable disagreeing with the government or the president, and much disconcerted by images on TV of others openly and sometimes violently against the war policy.

      Though public opinion was mixed, Veteran Cinterpreted the television coverage to be polarized by the time he left for Vietnam. While there was a lot of coverage devoted to the anti-wardemonstrators, he also feels that there was a lot of coverage that simplyregurgitated the government’s press releases.

     Mr. AlexHorster, the fourth veteran I interviewed, left for Vietnam in 1970 at twenty-five years old. He volunteered for Vietnam, where he served for six months as a Marines Corps helicopterpilot. Like both Mr. Leonard and my father, he felt that the U.S was right tobecome involved in the war. Before his departure, Mr. Horster understood publicopinion to be very “anti-war.” Because he was attending college and workingfull-time, he did not pay much attention to television coverage of the war. Whathe did see, however, he believed to echo public sentiment.

Experiences in Vietnam versus Portrayal on TV

Vietnam veterans are the most qualified people to assess television’sportrayal of the war because they are the only group of people to directlyexperience the atrocities of war. Though reporters were sometimes present inthe field, they could not experience the frustration, grief, fear, andconfusion of a U.S soldier. John Laurence, a CBS reporter who covered theVietnam War from 1965 to 1970, admits that the truth rarely got reported: “Wedecided where to go, what to observe, what to film, what not to film, whatquestions to ask, and how to describe what we saw and were told” (Laurence,2001). After interviewing the veterans about pre-war coverage, I asked them tocompare what they saw in battle to what television portrayed.

All four veteransagree that they witnessed a lot of events that occurred during the war thatshould have been covered by television news but were not. Primarily, theyreferred to atrocities committed by the North Vietnamese (NVA) and Viet Cong(VC) armies, which outnumbered committedatrocities by “one thousand to one” (Mr. Leonard). Both my father and Mr.Leonard made it a point to inform me that the NVA and Viet Cong committedatrocities as policy, yet the media failed to report on the enemy’s policies.My father pointed out that, “The North Vietnamese thought nothing of attachinga bomb to a little kid and sending that kid into a group of American soldiers.”Mr. Leonard added that, “Their favorite ploy to gain acceptance of thevillagers (by fear) was to execute the village chief and threaten the villagethat worse could happen.” He also condemns the media for not covering theflamethrower death of the entire villageBu Dop at the handsof the NVAIndeed, in all of my research forthis paper, I never read about any coverage of Bu Dop or the NVA’s policy; yet,My Lai was mentioned inevery book devoted to media coverage of the war. Mr. Leonard also noted thatthere were not enough positive stories about the U.S soldier. He specificallymentioned the free medcaps they did for the villagers, the orphanages theyfinancially supported as individuals, and the rebuilding of villages that theViet Cong destroyed.

After asking the veterans what they believe did not have enoughcoverage, I asked if there were any events or subjects thatthey feel was given too much television coverage. I suspected that theywould all mention My Lai and human casualties, yet I did not receive the unanimous answerthat I suspected. Veteran C felt that “My Lai was covered appropriately forwhat it was.” He was more disturbed by the media’s focus on body counts, whichhe believes to be part of the limited coverage that the government and themilitary would permit.  

      Mr.Leonard and my father have a somewhat different opinion of My Lai‘s coverage than does Veteran C.They both said that My Lai‘s coverage was too extensive because television news did not coverthe fact that the NVA and VC everyday committed worse acts as a matter ofpolicy. My father attributes the massacre at My Lai to inadequate leaders, yet itwas by far typical of the U.S troops. He said that, “Though what happened at My Lai was wrong, it wasn’t policy.”They both agree with Veteran C that extensive coverage of mistaken deaths ofcivilians and American body bags demeaned the war and the U.S soldiers evenmore.

     Mr. Horsteranswered the question differently than the other three veterans. Instead ofplacing the blame for television’s extensive coverage of My Lai and casualtiessolely on the media, he claims that the media only covers what makes a profit:“The media tends to cover what they think they will sell, so while I have nouse for the bulk of them (media types), I do not feel they ought to get all theblame.”

Overall View of Television Coverage

     All fourveterans agree that television coverage was negative, yet they each providedsomewhat different answers for why they believe it was negative and how itaffected the outcome of the war.

     My father feelsthat television coverage of the war was extremely negative, but he places someof the blame for this on the government. “The Tet Offensive was the majorturning point in the war, even though it was a total victory for the U.S,” hesaid. “After Walter Cronkite made his statement against the war, all of theother journalists followed his lead. So did the American public.” Because thegovernment and the military lied to the media about the progress of the war, hesuggests that the media wanted to expose the war in a negative light. Thus, aspart of an anti-war agenda, news producers and journalists purposely selectedstories that depicted the war as uncontrollable and the U.S soldier as a crazedbaby-killer. According to my father, television’s slanted view of the war, theanti-war movement, and the chaos of the Civil Rights Movement caused Americansto grow tired of violence and war. All of these factors combined to turn theAmerican public against the Vietnam War.

     Veteran C alsoblamed the government for negative coverage, but he does not feel that it wasas negative as my father feels it was. Whereas my father said that anchors andreporters “absolutely” revealed their anti-war biases, Veteran C answered thatthey did only “sometimes.” Moreover, he does not believe that television set ananti-war agenda. Instead of deliberate negativity, he suggests that coveragewas “fragmented, inaccurate, and incapable of providing a coherent story line”because the media was often reduced to reiterating military press releases.Because the government did not trust its citizens to understand its goals inthe war, these press releases did not reflect the actual lack of progress.Veteran C, therefore, does not believe that the media cost the U.S the VietnamWar; rather, he blames the lies and deceptions of the government.

      Mr.Horster and Mr. Leonard both emphasized profit motive as the reason behind thenegative coverage. Mr. Horster claims that the media covered what it couldsell, and that the anchors and reporters were a “product of their environment.”He continued by saying that while war is never positive, television did notcover the U.S military’s humanitarian efforts, its attempt to spread democracy,or the heroism of the troops after 1967. He used the slogan “We the unwilling,led by the incompetent, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful” to describethe Vietnam War era. Mr. Leonard believes very strongly that television set ananti-war agenda and that journalists revealed their biases because thetelevision audience consisted of sixteen million draft dodgers. He gave me anarticle that summed up his opinion:

 Once the dodging anti-war numbers started climbing through the stratosphere, it was not in the media’s best interest to say something good about Vietnam to an audience          that was guilt ridden with shame and with a deep psychological need to rationalize away thevery source of their burden of guilt (Sears, 2001).

     Therefore, both Mr. Horster and Mr. Leonard feel thatthe profit motive led its reporters and producers to air anti-war coverage thatreinforced the draft dodgers’ sentiments of the war. While Mr. Leonard saysthat the media “without a doubt” cost the U.S the war, Mr. Horster feels thatthe media should not get all the `credit’ for losing the war. Overall, hebelieves that lack of resolve lost the war.

Vietnam Veteran’s Image

     The homecomingstories of Vietnam veterans reveal how bitterly divided the country was. Three out ofthe four veterans I interviewed were belittled by people who referred to themas “baby-killers” or “crazy Vietnam vets.” It was their experience that even family and friends didnot want to talk about the war with them; those who did bring the war up oftendid so in an extremely negative fashion as a result of their own guilt oranger. The only veteran who was not accosted was Mr. Horster, who stayed in theMarine Corps and did not interact with the civilian sector often.

     According toall four veterans, the Vietnam veteran was stereotyped during and after the war. When I askedthem what some of these stereotypes are, I received answers such as“baby-killer” (all four), “crazed nut” (my father), and “drug-taking,worthless, spineless, garbage” (Veteran C). My father gets particularlydisturbed when reporters make it a point to mention that a suspect involved ina shooting or other criminal act is a Vietnam veteran. I then asked them if they are disturbed by any movies,television shows, or books that they feel portray the veteran in thisstereotype: two veterans identified Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Nowas being complete farce.

      Whenasked whether they feel that the Vietnam veteran’s image has improved throughout the years, two out of fourbelieve that it has. Mr. Leonard says that the image is excellent today, butonly because the veterans themselves took care of each other (i.e. building theWall). Veteran C understands the image to be mixed, but more positive than itused to be. Mr. Horster says that he does not buy the “let’s let bygones bebygones” routine that exists today. My father feels very strongly that theimage has not changed. He mentioned a newspaper article, written less than fiveyears ago during the week of Veteran’s Day, that upsethim because it “made heroes out of the protestors and belittled the veterans.”

Vietnam veterans blame television for their image? Do they resent thetelevision and the media because of it? Veteran C differs from the other threeveterans in that he is the only one who does not blametelevision for creating the Vietnam veteran’s image, nor does he resent television for its coverage ofthe war. My father and Mr. Leonard feel very strongly that television newsplayed a large role in stereotyping the Vietnam veteran. While U.S soldiers were portrayed as villains, the NVAand VC were often portrayed as victims. My father can never forget the image hesaw on television of Jane Fonda sitting on an NVA anti-aircraft gunner that wasused to shoot at American planes, and he can never forgive her for referring toU.S soldiers as murderers. He resents the media because it “sensationalizedrather than reported” the true war. Mr. Leonard resents the media because,“they told lies and untruths or nothing positive at all.” While Mr. Horsterdoes not blame the television media 100 percent, he suggests that it “needs tobe aware of the responsibility that it brings, rather than how it will affecttheir ratings.” He also resents television for stereotyping Vietnam veterans. Thus, three out of the four veterans I interviewed blameand resent the media for its coverage of their images and the war itself.


      Astelevision news became more and more popular throughout the turbulent years ofthe Vietnam War era, Americans increasingly relied on visuals to inform them ofthe situation in Vietnam. Television coverage brought images of the war home to theAmerican public, yet these images were rarely a true reflection of the waritself. War is a complex, bloody, and brutal event that cannot accurately becondensed into thirty minutes of evening news. It is clear that after the TetOffensive, the news media deemed the war to be a complete failure. Afterinterviewing four veterans, whose experiences make them better qualified tointerpret the coverage than any media scholar or journalist, I found that allfour believe the coverage was quite negative. Specifically, body counts and thelack of attention to NVA and VC committed atrocities vilified the war and theU.S soldier. Before I started interviewing, I hypothesized that a majority ofthe veterans would at least partially blame television coverage for the rise inthe anti-war movement. Moreover, I hypothesized that the same number wouldblame the coverage for the Vietnam veteran’s image. Three out of the four veterans I interviewed feelthat television coverage contributed to the American lack of resolve, whichultimately cost the U.S the war. Though they vary in their interpretations ofthe reason behind the negativity, three out of four agree that the negativitycontributed to the crazy, baby-killer stereotype of the Vietnam veteran.

     In conclusion,I would like to thank my father, Mr. Ron Leonard, Mr. Alex Horster, and VeteranC for all of their time and generosity in helping me complete this paper. Theywere willing to revisit disturbing memories of the war in order to help a collegestudent whom most of them did not even know.

Reprint with permissionof Ron Leonard – 25th Aviation Battalion –

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