Of the many myths that mushroomed from the carnage of the Vietnam War perhaps none is more specious than the fable about how a bold, aggressive mainstream media turned America against the war. As the pundit class sinks into a new quagmire debating former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s Vietnam mission, it’s a good time to dissect the myth.
Let’s begin with the My Lai massacre of March 1968, where hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were executed by American soldiers. My Lai would later be cited as proof of a mainstream press bent on sensationalizing U.S. atrocities in Vietnam.
The reality was just the opposite. Beginning months after My Lai, evidence of the massacre was presented to top national news media by Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour and others, but not one outlet would touch the story. It wasn’t until November 1969, more than a year and a half after the My Lai slaughter, that the story was finally published by the small, alternative Dispatch News Service and dogged investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.
In the middle of the 20-month period of media silence on My Lai, an inexperienced lieutenant named Kerrey and his team of Navy Seals were sent into a “free-fire zone” at Thanh Phong under rules of engagement that had just been loosened. One wonders if the lives of Vietnamese civilians there or elsewhere could have been spared if mainstream U.S. journalists had been aggressive about My Lai, instead of burying the story for so long.
Myths and empty cliches flourish if unexamined. Professor Daniel Hallin of the University of California at San Diego conducted perhaps the most thorough study of U.S. media coverage of Vietnam in light of the standard rhetoric that Vietnam had been the “living room war” — an “uncensored war” showing its “true horror.”
What Hallin found was a war, especially on TV, that was largely sanitized, as a result of media coziness with government and military sources and network TV policies against airing footage that might offend soldiers’ families. Pictures of U.S. casualties were rare, Vietnamese civilian victims almost nonexistent.
It wasn’t the mainstream media that turned the public against the war. Quite the contrary: it was the public — especially the ever-growing anti-war movement fortified by Vietnam veterans who spoke out against the war — that prodded mainstream media toward more skeptical coverage.
In February 1968, the Boston Globe surveyed the editorial positions of 39 leading U.S. dailies with a combined circulation of 22 million and found that not one advocated withdrawal from Vietnam. But that was the position of millions of Americans who’d educated themselves about the war — not through the nightly news or Time magazine — but via alternative media or attending protests or talking to returning vets. Campus teach-ins on Vietnam began in 1965.
The Kerrey controversy begs us to reexamine a key fixture of mainstream media complicity in Vietnam War deception: the body count. We may never know the whole truth of how or why the civilians were killed at Thanh Phong, but there is no dispute that Kerrey received a Bronze Star for the assault based on the official lie that his Seals had bravely killed 21 Viet Cong soldiers — a standard method of padding the official body count of enemy dead.
Any alert journalist should have known the official count was grossly inflated, in large part by adding in dead civilians — yet Walter Cronkite and the other network anchors dutifully read it straight faced week after week.
Cronkite is often remembered for his uncharacteristic on-air commentary in 1968 calling the war a “stalemate” and urging negotiations. But by 1968, a half-million U.S. troops were already in Vietnam. Professor Hallin’s study found that, with few exceptions, network coverage prior to 1968 was “strongly supportive” of the war.
As for the country’s turning against the war, Hallin concluded: “Television was more a follower than a leader of public opinion.” And the mainstream media debate that intensified in 1968 tended to focus narrowly on the war’s winnability — not on the war’s morality or its effect on the Vietnamese population, two million of whom were ultimately killed.
The media’s relatively minor focus on the war’s impact on the Vietnamese — in whose interest the war was allegedly fought — persists today. Editors at Newsweek say that when they decided two years ago not to publish the story of Kerrey and the Thanh Phong massacre, it was largely because Sen. Kerrey had chosen not to run for President. It may be a sign of racism, or at least ethnocentrism, that journalists would judge this not so much a story about multiple Vietnamese casualties as about the presidential aspirations of a single American.
Though not a veteran, I played a minor role in the Winter Soldier hearings convened in Detroit in January 1971 by Vietnam vets to try to communicate directly to the American people the horrors they’d experienced. In three days of testimony open to the press and public, dozens of veterans described — often tearfully — atrocities against Vietnamese they’d witnessed or participated in, events similar to and more grisly than the killings at Thanh Phong.
The national hearings were dramatic and visual, but few major U.S. media bothered to cover them. Many of the veterans expressed hostility toward the media, blaming gung-ho pro-war coverage for deceiving them into going to Vietnam in the first place.
During particularly gripping testimony, one of the few mainstream camera crews present turned off its lights and packed up; the crew’s exit sparked boos and jeers from the vets. That was the moment I became a media critic.