Vietnam did not become a big story on American television until 1965, but it was a controversial one from the time that U.S. military personnel began to play a significant role in combat in the early 1960s. Officials of both the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments were extremely concerned about coverage of the war. Their criticism at first centered on reporting in newspapers and magazines and on wire services, as these news media began sending full-time correspondents to Vietnam several years before NBC's Garrick Utley became the first television journalist based in Saigon, beginning in mid-1964. Yet even though their assignments were brief and their numbers few, TV journalists still found that South Vietnamese authorities scrutinized their reporting and sometimes objected to it, as Utley's colleague, Jim Robinson, learned during one of his occasional trips to Saigon while stationed in NBC's Hong Kong bureau. Offended by one of Robinson's stories, President Ngo Dinh Diem expelled the correspondent from the country in November 1962, despite protests from both the U.S. embassy and journalists in Saigon.
The Kennedy administration used less heavy-handed methods to manage the news from Vietnam. Administration officials tried to play down U.S. involvement in what it described as a Vietnamese war, even as the president sharply increased U.S. military personnel from several hundred to more than sixteen thousand. Yet Kennedy and his advisers rejected the military censorship of news reporting that had prevailed in previous twentieth-century wars, lest such restrictions call attention to a story whose significance they wished to diminish. Instead, U.S. officials in Saigon mixed patriotic appeals "to get on the team" with upbeat statements about South Vietnamese military success and misleading information about what were ostensibly U.S. military advisers who in reality participated in combat operations.
The administration's efforts at news management collapsed during the Buddhist crisis of 1963, as horrifying images of the fiery suicides of monks protesting government restrictions on religious expression appeared in American television news reports and on the front pages of newspapers. What the U.S. embassy called the "press problem" worsened, as reporters not only mistrusted official sources because of their manipulation of information, but contributed to a public debate about whether the Diem government's liabilities were so great that it might not be able to prevail in the war against the National Liberation Front. In important televised interviews in September with Cronkite of CBS and Huntley and Brinkley of NBC on the day that each of those newscasts expanded to thirty minutes, Kennedy reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam while publicly delivering the message that diplomatic emissaries privately conveyed: that the Diem government should make changes to reclaim popular support so it could more effectively prosecute the war. Kennedy also quietly tried to dampen public criticism of Diem, even as his advisers debated how to step up the pressure on the South Vietnamese leader and whether to encourage a coup, by suggesting that the New York Times remove correspondent David Halberstam, whose critical reports had questioned the administration's backing of Diem. The publisher of the Times refused to buckle to presidential pressure; Halberstam remained in Saigon to cover the coup that ousted Diem on 1 November.
The administration of Lyndon B. Johnson in many ways followed its predecessor's pattern of news management as it expanded U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965. Johnson and his principal advisers believed that domestic support was critical to the U.S. war effort, but worried "that our public posture is fragile." Like its predecessor, the Johnson administration ruled out censorship of the news in favor of a system of voluntary cooperation in withholding certain kinds of military information. "Because we are fools" was the explanation that the president gave one group of journalists for this choice. Yet administration policymakers repeatedly considered censorship and rejected it for fear of damage to official credibility. They also hoped that an ambitious program of public relations would ensure favorable coverage of the U.S. war effort.
Yet the "information problem" continued, even after U.S. policy became "maximum candor and disclosure consistent with the requirements of security." Many reporters distrusted the daily official briefings in Saigon, which they derisively called "The Five O'clock Follies." While some journalists considered these briefings a mixture of spin, exaggeration, and half-truths, others concluded that the information officers told "outright lies." Evidence for this darker interpretation came from Arthur Sylvester, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who turned an innocuous social occasion in Saigon in July 1965 into a nasty confrontation when he sneered at reporters, "Look, if you think that any American official is going to tell you the truth, you're stupid."
Some White House officials worried about "fragmentary" reports lacking "perspective" on TV newscasts as the networks rapidly increased their news operations in South Vietnam in 1965. Their fears about what TV cameras might reveal became acute when the CBS Evening News showed correspondent Morley Safer's sensational film report about U.S. marines using cigarette lighters to burn civilian huts in a search-and-destroy operation in the village of Cam Ne in August. Pentagon officials charged Safer with staging the incident and tried unsuccessfully to get him removed from his assignment because his Canadian nationality supposedly made it impossible for him to report fairly on what they now called an "American" war.
Safer's story was exceptional. Few reports on TV newscasts in 1965 and 1966 directly questioned U.S. objectives or methods of warfare. Most concentrated on combat that involved what anchors commonly called "our" troops or pilots. Many of these "bang-bang" stories lauded the sophisticated military technology that gave U.S. forces advantages in firepower and mobility or the scale of the U.S. war effort, as troops and supplies poured into South Vietnam. Television news often entertained as it informed by providing many appealing human interest stories about American war heroes or ordinary GIs. Reporters and anchors usually accorded commanders in the field and high policymakers in Washington deferential treatment. Critics of the war—especially those in the more radical organizations—often got skeptical or patronizing coverage, if they got any at all.
Yet TV news also showed the difficulties, dilemmas, and horrors of Vietnam, if only occasionally, from the time that the Johnson administration committed large numbers of U.S. combat troops to the war in 1965. Some reporters quickly recognized fundamental strategic problems, as when ABC's Lou Cioffi asserted in October 1965 that "the United States has brought in a fantastic amount of military power here in Vietnam. But so far we've not been able to figure just exactly how to use it effectively in order to destroy the Vietcong." There were stories about the persistent troubles with pacification programs and the many ways that the war was distorting—and destroying—the lives of Vietnamese civilians. The difficulties and dangers of filming heavy fighting, along with the "queasy quotient" of network production staffs that edited reports for broadcast at the dinner hour, ensured that TV news programs would not show daily, graphic scenes of human suffering. But the newscasts did provide glimpses of severely wounded soldiers, as in Charles Kuralt's report for CBS about an artillery sergeant who clenched a cigar and grimaced as medics dressed the wounds in a leg that surgeons later amputated. A few stories also concerned atrocities, as when CBS's Don Webster described how U.S. troops severed ears from enemy corpses. And some stories could be unsettling, even if they contained no graphic images, as when the CBS Evening News showed a soldier's widow, baby in arms, reading one of her husband's last letters from Vietnam. Such stories were infrequent, yet their power came from what NBC News executive Reuven Frank said television journalism did best, which was the transmission of experience.
Johnson was concerned about the impact of dramatic images and the simplification inherent in half-hour newscasts. He also knew that television audiences were increasing; more than half the American people said they got most of their news from TV. The president's thinking was an example of what sociologist W. Phillips Davison has called "the third-person effect," a belief that mass communications have their greatest influence "not on 'me' or 'you,' but on 'them'" and a tendency to exaggerate the impact "on the attitudes and behavior of others." Johnson, who frequently watched the newscasts on banks of monitors tuned simultaneously to all three major networks, worried about the effects of even a single critical story and sometimes expressed his dismay directly to network news executives, anchors, or reporters. He also repeatedly found what he considered evidence of one-sidedness, unfairness, and bias.
As the war became more controversial and public support for his Vietnam policies declined, Johnson made more extreme charges. He told the president of NBC News in February 1967 that "all the networks, with the possible exception of ABC, were slanted against him," that they were "infiltrated," and that he was "ready to move on them if they move on us." The following month, he alleged that CBS and NBC were "controlled by the Vietcong," and later that year he insisted, "I can prove that Ho [Chi Minh] is a son-of-a-bitch, if you let me put it on the screen—but they [the networks] want me to be the son-of-a-bitch."
When many reporters began to describe the war as a stalemate in mid-1967, the Johnson administration launched a new public relations campaign aimed at persuading the American people that the United States was indeed making progress in achieving its goals in Vietnam. Believing that the "main front" of the war was "here in the United States," Johnson urged his advisers "to sell our product," since he insisted that "the Administration's greatest weakness was its inability to get over the complete story" on Vietnam. The Progress Campaign produced increased public support for Johnson's Vietnam policies. The improvement in the polls reflected the hopeful statements of high officials, including General William C. Westmoreland's famous declaration in a speech at the National Press Club in November 1967 that "we have reached the point when the end begins to come into view."
Such assertions of progress contributed to public disbelief and confusion and to further decline in the president's credibility when the Tet Offensive began in January 1968. TV showed startling scenes of South Vietnam under "hard, desperate, Communist attack," in the words of NBC's Brinkley, as fighting occurred in Saigon as well as in more than one hundred other locations. Some of the film was the most spectacular of the war, including footage on NBC and ABC of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the South Vietnamese police, executing a captured NLF officer after a street battle. Several disturbing reports showed TV journalists suffering wounds on camera.
Some observers have been highly critical of the news coverage of Tet. "The dominant themes of the words and film from Vietnam," wrote Peter Braestrup, "added up to a portrait of defeat for the allies. Historians, on the contrary, have concluded that the Tet offensive resulted in a severe military-political setback for Hanoi in the South." Yet historians continue to debate the results of the Tet fighting; there is no scholarly consensus, despite Braestrup's assertion. Moreover, TV journalists who assessed the battles did not find allied defeat. The most famous evaluation came from Walter Cronkite, who declared in a special, prime-time program on 27 February that "the Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we." "We are mired in stalemate," he concluded, and the time had come for negotiations to end U.S. involvement in the war.
"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country," Johnson said gloomily. Cronkite's call for disengagement did influence the president, but only in combination with many other indications of deep divisions within the public, the Congress, the Democratic Party, and even his own administration over the war. Fearing that he could not govern effectively for another term, Johnson made his dramatic announcement to millions of stunned television viewers on the evening of 31 March 1968 that he sought negotiations to end the war and would not run again for president.
President Richard M. Nixon believed that he faced even greater opposition than Johnson from the news media in general and television journalists in particular, especially over his handling of the Vietnam War. Nixon usually read daily news summaries rather than watching the newscasts themselves. His marginal comments frequently indicated his displeasure and instructed assistants to "hit" or "kick" a particular correspondent or network for a story that he considered inaccurate or unfair. Presidential aides also maintained lists of journalists—mainly network anchors, White House correspondents, and syndicated columnists or commentators—ranked according to their friendliness toward the administration and that could be used for inflicting retaliation or providing "a special stroke."
Nixon followed a two-pronged strategy to deal with the alleged hostility of television news and to build public support for his Vietnam policies. One part involved direct, often hard-hitting, attacks on the networks. Beginning with his famous speech in Des Moines on 13 November 1969, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew tried to channel popular frustration with the war toward the networks by charging that the executives who ran them were "a tiny and closed fraternity" who "do not represent the views of America." The second part of the strategy was to use television as a medium of direct communication with the American people in order to bypass as much as possible critical reporters, editors, and commentators. As he withdrew U.S. forces from South Vietnam, Nixon urged his aides to use public relations initiatives—increasingly centered on television—to create an image of him "as a strong leader of boldness, courage, decisiveness, and independence" who would settle for nothing less than "peace with honor."
Television coverage of the war diminished as U.S. troops came home and U.S. casualties declined. Those stories that did air gave more attention to the social, political, and economic dimensions of a war that was again becoming mainly a Vietnamese conflict, one that to many Americans lacked the significance of earlier years, one that had simply gone on too long. In a report on the CBS Evening News about fighting in Quang Tri province in April 1972, the camera showed the crumpled bodies of children, refugees who died when their truck hit a land mine. There would be more fighting, correspondent Bob Simon declared, and more that generals, journalists, and politicians would say about those battles. "But it's difficult to imagine what those words can be," Simon concluded. "There's nothing left to say about this war. There's just nothing left to say."
Some critics blamed the extensive, uncensored television coverage for U.S. failure in Vietnam. Robert Elegant, who reported about Vietnam for the Los Angeles Times, insisted that partisanship prevailed over objectivity as journalists "instinctively" opposed the U.S. government and "reflexively" supported "Saigon's enemies." The television screen rather than the battlefield, according to Elegant, determined the outcome of the war by creating a "Vietnam syndrome" that "paralyzed American will" during Saigon's final crisis and that may have led to further troubles in Angola, Afghanistan, and Iran. Elegant offered little evidence to support these inflammatory charges, and Daniel C. Hallin, who carefully studied news media coverage of Vietnam, found many compelling reasons to conclude that television did not somehow lose the war. Hallin argued in The "Uncensored War": The Media and Vietnam (1986) that public opinion had turned against Johnson's handling of the war by early 1967, during a time that TV news coverage was most favorable to administration policies. Moreover, public support for the Korean War diminished even more quickly, yet "television was in its infancy, censorship was tight, and the World War II ethic of the journalist serving the war effort remained strong."
Hallin had the stronger argument, but Elegant's point of view had a greater effect on U.S. policy. Military officials resented the portrayal, as time went on, of the Vietnam War as part of what Hallin called the "sphere of legitimate controversy." Their belief that TV coverage undermined popular support for the war led to new restrictions on reporting when U.S. troops invaded Grenada in October 1983. Military commanders refused to transport reporters to the combat zone and barred them from the island for several days. Most journalists simply did not believe the official explanation that their exclusion was mainly to ensure their safety. ABC correspondent Steve Shepard was one of several reporters who chartered a boat, only to be turned away by the U.S. Navy as he approached Grenada. The Pentagon provided TV news programs with the only available video of the military operations in Grenada, but it did not include any scenes of combat. Walter Cronkite, who had retired in March 1981 as CBS anchor, deplored the abridgment of the public's right to know. Yet these protests did little to detract from the main story, which closely followed the Reagan administration's position—that U.S. forces had conducted a successful military operation against a potential Cuban-Soviet satellite. The restrictions on the reporting of the Grenada operation were an indication that in government-media relations, there would be no more Vietnams.