The Vietnam War fought in South Vietnam, Cambodia Laos and the border to the North is believed to have been sparked by aggression from the communist Viet Cong in the North under the influence of Moscow. It was alleged that in the bid to spread its ideologies in the pro-American Southern territory, the North launched an attack on the USS Maddox which triggered the involvement of America to protect its interests and the people of Vietnam. This was in early 1955 but it was not until ten years later in 1965 that the war made news in America following President Lyndon Johnson’s dispatch of massive troops of US soldiers into Vietnam. The Media took que and accompanied the troops to the battleground (Hall 3).
The involvement of the American government in the war was convoluted as this was particularly a difficult period of time in history following the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War; many countries were focusing on outdoing each other in scientific advances not engaging in unprovoked conflicts. The war in Vietnam was a political war whose cost-benefit and justification was not clear as those of World War II to many Americans. However, after the release of the Pentagon papers, 7 years after the war, it was revealed that in fact the alleged attack of USS Maddox, an American spy ship by the North Vietnam was after all staged to allow the powers that be permission from the congress and senate to sanction the war (Hall 2)
The American public which previously had no idea of the gravity of war, suddenly found themselves bombarded by uncut combat clips in their television sets in what Michael Arlene referred to as “living room war”( qtd. in Hallin 116). It was believed that by letting Americans in on the unrestricted content of some of the incidents in the war, the media was playing its impartial role of informing the public and shaping its opinion against the war.
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The 1968 publishing of a photo of a captured Viet Cong soldier from the North being executed by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnam National Police chief sparked an outrage and protests across America. Later the 1972 broadcast of the mistaken bombing of fleeing South Vietnamese civilians by their own fighter planes during the spring attack by Northerners, raised questions of the continued involvement of Americans in such a costly damaging affair ( Hallin 118). However, as things got worse and more casualties were realized each day. The American public demanded action footages of their “boys” in action in Vietnam and journalists risked their lives to get them, some never returned. Soon the media started becoming sympathetic to the plight of the soldiers who were now seen as suffering than serving. They shaped the public opinion to question the morality and legality of the war, amidst the huge loss of American lives, resources and credibility as the beacon of democracy in the world. This was the turning point for media (Hallin 119)
Positive Effect of the War on the Media
For the first time in American Media war began to be viewed in totality as a fundamental part of democracy where citizens and those participating in the war had the right to voice their opinions about its justification. During the two world wars, media which was mainly radio glorified the war and the heroic acts of thousands of American soldiers throughout and after the war but this changed in the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War many Americans turned to television as the primary source of news as viewers could now be part of the action in their living rooms. Soldiers were at the beginning of the war presented as brave heroes because their morale was high, then as the war dragged on they were seen as victims suffering without a valid cause and finally when they came home, violent psychotics, alien to their own kindred and imprisoned by the trauma of the battlefield atrocities (Laughlin 137). The media grew doubtful about the claims of progress made by the American troops, when the human cost became unbearable and some of the soldiers in the frontline considered the war “senseless” (Hallin 100). This came at a time opposition to the war at home was swelling and deep divisions on the involvement of America in the war, was the topic in most media. The media followed suit and joined in the debate where public opinion was by and large against the war.
Television took center stage when in February 1968 when after the Tet offensive, Walter Cronkite a television anchorman expressed his sentiments that the war in Vietnam was “unwinnable” which prompted President Johnson to declare as alleged by some of his aides that he had to change course. A month later he declined to seek re-election. Suddenly the media realized a very important thing that it had managed to change public opinion but was not immune to being influenced by it as well. In fact by 1967 media polls already showed public opinion was highly against the war thinking it was a “mistake” that America should never had gotten into (Hallin 114). As a result, ownership of television sets increased as the Vietnam War dragged on. Newspaper circulation doubled and Hollywood would carry the Vietnam War fiction in many of its films for more than two decades
Though World War II was a darling of the television fiction and film, Vietnam War fiction never appealed to American media until 1980 when Magnum PI premiered opening ways for Vietnam characters being featured as central characters in television series. As more and more characters were adopted to play central roles in films and television, the Vietnam War previously seen as a political blunder which left a sour taste in the American public mouth began to be accepted apart from the social institutions that had failed them and became respected figures. More media houses started yearning for shows with such characters trying to exploit every angle of the struggle of the people involved in the war and devising ways to glorify them and vilify those who were responsible for the political mistakes but without actually getting into the politics.
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The traditional representation of the war as a male-dominated affair quickly gave way as television and film productions realized that people needed to know the other aspects of their heroic characters. They therefore infused melodrama and relationships of the central characters as part of the war which was an important move toward the media’s future representation of war fiction and even news. The vivid broadcasting of the progress of the war and the active role played by the media in the debate against the war thrust the media at the center of political discourse to this day. Analysts agree that the Vietnam War was unique in its kind because it was declared over by the media. The withdrawal of the American troops in Vietnam and the consequent rushed signing of the Paris peace agreement by President Lyndon Johnson, many seem to agree was a political move by the Johnson administration to save face after the Media swayed public opinion and literally declared the America could not win the won in Vietnam.
Following this development, media continued to play a vital role in political discourse in United States over many issues. Media has been used for presidential campaigns to help win elections ( president Osama’s bid had the biggest media hype in the history of US elections), lobby for constitutional amendments( such as the fifth amendment) and even un-sit a presiding president ( President Truman of the Watergate scandal). In addition, errant corrupt government officials from Governors, to state law officers in the criminal justice department, rogue Wall Street businessmen and corrupt CEOs of fortune companies have not been left out. The Media has exposed many scandals which would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Negative effects of the war on Media
Most veterans and their families feel the negative portrayal of American soldiers on TV and films as violent psychologically unstable fellows who were struggling with lurid flashbacks and gory hallucinations dented the heroic image of war veterans (McLaughlin 2). As raw uncut footages of the war began to be aired many Americans became addicted to the action and demanded for more. This prompted journalists to risk their lives while they accompanied troops as embedded personnel to bring back “action footages”. About nine journalists were killed and many others got wounded as a result. However from that day to date this practice was adopted by media all over the world and puts the lives of many journalists reporting in conflict areas or war zones at risk every day in order to bring incredible news that will be more dramatic and entertaining in order to make profit. Furthermore as is explained by Hallin:
Because no military censorship was established, journalists could follow the military into combat and report their observations without formal censorship. Thus, as journalists saw more grisly combat, they presented the public with more graphic images. Also, for the first time, interviewed soldiers expressed their frustration with the progress of the war. (115)
Though the Tet offensive was seen as a loss by the US army, it was actually a successful offensive which was the North suffering more casualties but because the media followed public opinion which was against the war, it reported a defeat of the American troops and their inability to win the war. Hence the media was unable to remain objective and report the facts as they were.
The change of style in reporting in the Vietnam War, the photos and images form the war brought a new dimension in war as media could now influence the outcome of war. The outcomes of other wars that followed this such as the American offensive in Afghanistan and Iraq have been influenced and determined to some degree by the media. The reporting of the Vietnam War opened the doors to such media as the Internet wherein 2010 Julian Assange, through his famous portal Wikileaks shocked the world when he released thousands of secrets cables containing high profile information on political and conflicts events around the world that vilified the US government and its allies jeopardizing world peace and security. Many governments are now questioning the role of such free uncontrollable media as Internet which is difficult to regulate and censor.
One incident that will stand out in the history of the US Media will be Monica Lewinsky affair with President Bill Clinton. The Media crucified President Clinton without mercy. The American public was shocked as intimate details of the private life of the most important person in the nation were laid bare as Miss Lewinsky played to the music of the media and gave Americans what the Vietnam war gave them years before; detailed description of scenes and actions between her and President Clinton, which were not really necessary. Clinton denied and again the American public was divided over who to believe. Finally Clinton under a lot of pressure confessed and admitted to wrongdoing. Surprisingly, Americans forgave him and he was never impeached and went on to impeach his second term in a high.
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While the purpose of the war in Vietnam has never really been explained, the uncovering of falsified reports and the manipulation of events by the CIA in Vietnam to justify America’s involvement shed light on responsibility of the government and its ultimate boss-the citizens. The Media inadvertently bequeathed itself the responsibility of the watchdog over the government, protecting the citizens from being duped. This role earned the Media its role as the fourth estate: an independent, free and separate vital pillar of democratic governance in practice and theory.
American citizens have in the subsequent years turned on the media for the truth even though common knowledge is that Media is a profit-making enterprise, the interests of the public are but a secondary incidental undertaking. The use of exploitative advertisements, explicit content on TV film and Internet has been a major concern for parents and social activists. This has portrayed the media as an enemy of privacy and a corrupter of the youth. Finally by taking a stand in the Vietnam War, a trend was established that media corporations have since followed of taking a stand on issues of public interest such as war thereby entangling itself in political gainsaying. It would be very difficult for democracies henceforth to take part in war without exposing their mistakes.