Television - Central america and the legacies of vietnam

"No more Vietnams" was a popular slogan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there were strong disagreements about the meaning of that simple phrase. Some people wanted to avoid another long, costly, and—most important—unsuccessful war. Like Ronald Reagan's first secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, they believed that the United States should use its military forces only to achieve clear objectives that commanded public support and that would lead to victory. Others wanted to refrain from intervention in Third World revolutions or civil wars where no outside power could hope to impose a lasting settlement. Some counseled against a major effort, even to stop the spread of communism, in a peripheral area. Still others were wary of situations in which limited measures—military aid, the dispatch of advisers, covert action—might create pressures for progressively deeper involvement culminating in the commitment of combat troops.

Television viewers often learned about these perspectives as their advocates addressed a major, recurring question: Would Central America become "another Vietnam"? On the evening newscasts, the range of views on this issue—and, more generally, on U.S. policy toward Nicaragua or El Salvador—was much greater than in the early 1960s when television covered the expanding U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Changes in broadcast journalism did not account for this difference. Reporters still relied heavily on official sources of information. Quantitative studies of television newscasts show that officials of the Carter or Reagan administrations and members of Congress most frequently appeared in stories about Central America. What was different was that the sphere of legitimate controversy was broader, in large measure because of the legacy of Vietnam.

Television reporting did occasionally have a notable effect on public attitudes or U.S. policy concerning Central America. One shocking example involved ABC correspondent Bill Stewart, who was reporting about the civil war in Nicaragua. Carrying a white flag and media credentials, Stewart approached a National Guard roadblock in Managua on 20 June 1979. A guard officer ordered him to lie on the ground and then shot him and his interpreter. Stewart's crew filmed the killings from its van; the tape ran not just on ABC but on CBS and NBC as well. The footage was uniquely horrifying; the only comparable incidents that TV had shown were Jack Ruby's shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald and General Loan's execution of the NLF prisoner during the Tet Offensive. Speaking the next day to the Organization of American States, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance deplored "the mounting human tragedy" in Nicaragua. "This terror was brought home vividly to the American people yesterday with the cold-blooded murder … of an American newsman." Vance then issued the Carter administration's first public call for the resignation of Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza and his replacement with a "government of national reconciliation."

Eight years later in very different circumstances, television focused on another individual who affected public views about U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. Colonel Oliver North, fired from his position with the National Security Council, testified for several days in July 1987 during televised congressional hearings into the Iran-contra scandal. Dressed in marine uniform, North was poised and passionate. He admitted that he had misled Congress, but was unrepentant. He presented himself as a patriot who had served his country and his president by maintaining the contras, "body and soul." Polls revealed a significant shift in public attitudes toward continued U.S. military aid to the contras, with opponents outnumbering supporters by a margin of more than two to one before North's testimony but opinion almost equally divided after his appearance. Television, however, helped focus attention more on North's personality than on public issues. Polls showed that many Americans agreed with Ronald Reagan, who called North "a national hero." "Olliemania," as some journalists called the phenomenon of his sudden celebrity, helped launch North on a new career as radio talk show host after appeals overturned three felony convictions.

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