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Vietnam: A Censored War

By John A. Cloud

"YOU CAN'T do me any good, and you sure as hell can do me harm." When an unidentified U.S. military commander in the Persian Gulf said this to New York Times reporter Malcolm W. Browne recently, he summed up the American military's anti-press attitude during the Gulf War. The incident was not an isolated one.

While conflict between the press and the military is not new, the wrangling reached its worst level in years during the Gulf War, prompted by strict rules on reporting instituted by the Department of Defense. But in fighting this battle with military critics, the press forgot about the last one. In order to fight censorship in this war, it has perpetuated myths about the media in America's first "living-room war," the Vietnam War, when the reporters themselves were the chief source of censorship.

TODAY'S MEDIAPHOBIA is not limited to hostile statements by military officials. Many Americans find the press intrusive and annoying. The objections have their roots in the 1960s. The story goes something like this:

Members of the media did not lose the war in Vietnam, and the military should stop blaming them.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. troops were doing just fine until Reporters showed up. Then they started beaming all sorts of gory pictures back home where lots of people who had been watching game shows decided to begin protesting. The Peaceniks became so persistent that politicians were content to leave American soldiers in Vietnam without the means to finish their job. Ho Chi Minh could not have been more pleased about these media people, many of whom were Democrats anyway. A myth had been created.

Eager to prevent a recurrence of their nightmare scenario, U.S. military commanders in the Middle East instituted restrictions on reporting from the Gulf even before the fighting began, including reviews of every report by military censors. This time, reporters fought back.

In February, veteran journalist R.W. Apple Jr. of The New York Times began a series on the treatment of the press in Saudi Arabia. Apple wrote that "a new credibility gap" had opened in the military's press briefings because of the "rigid press pool system" imposed on the media. The U.S. command refused to allow these 10-person pools to even approach the front lines to verify military reports. And mandatory "security reviews" by other reporters made journalists furious.

In addition, Malcolm Browne's recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine complained about "those [in the military community] who regard us as enemies." And Browne implied that the press pool system, which "goads people into taking unnecessary--or necessary--risks," was responsible for the ordeal of the CBS crew which was captured and tortured by Iraqi soldiers.

Those trying to report the war accurately have every right to complain about these strictures. Americans should be exposed to the full reality of the war they supported so strongly. But unfortunately, in protesting today's censorship, Apple, Browne and others have drawn misleading comparisons with Vietnam.

ADMITTEDLY, there was not the military censorship in Vietnam that has characterized the Gulf War. Such strict rules from the Pentagon are foreign to Vietnam-era reporters. (Although these rules were common in World Wars I and II.)

But the press's current objections, however justified, have only added to the myth of Vietnam as a war in which unchecked reporting from the front caused unprecedented public dissent, leading to ultimate defeat. By comparing Gulf War media rules to those in Vietnam, reporters have lent credibility to the accusations that they have fought since the late 1960s.

The fact is that while there was no military censorship in Vietnam, there was still censorship. Beginning in 1984, University of California professor Daniel C. Hallin reviewed hundreds of hours of TV news reports on Vietnam from all 3 networks at the Vanderbilt University Television Archive. Hallin's results, compiled in his book The "Uncensored War," were startling.

He found that only about 22 percent of all television reports from Vietnam before 1968 showed "actual combat, and often this was minimal--a few incoming mortar rounds or a crackle of sniper fire." In addition, of 167 film reports he reviewed, "only 16 had more than one video shot of the dead or wounded." The American people simply did not see gore night after night.

Media critics also maintain that television coverage portrayed American soldiers as monstrous killers with no qualms about killing Vietnamese civilians. But according to Hallin, TV reports attributed fewer than one-third of all civilian casualties from 1965 to 1973 to U.S. forces. The incredible tonnage of bombs dropped on Southeast Asia during the war--more than three times that of World War II--almost makes this a statistical impossibility. And of all the television time devoted to the war between 1965 and 1973, only 11.8 minutes focused on civilian casualties in North Vietnam.

Finally, many media bashers say that TV coverage during the Vietnam War era gave undue attention to antiwar protests, singlehandedly creating even more public opposition and prompting congressional hostility to the war effort. But of the editorial commentaries on domestic opposition run by the networks before 1968, none approved of the protestors' activities. In fact, of all statements presented on film about the demonstrations--including those not made by reporters--none were favorable. After the Tet Offensive in 1968, the number of protests skyrocketed, and televised statements on domestic opposition reflected increasing public acceptance of antiwar protest. But never did the media support the antiwar movement with fervor.

During the Vietnam War, the media observed a strict, self-imposed censorship which downplayed the savage nature of that war. Members of the media absolutely refused to question administration policy--at least until very late in the war, when most Americans supported withdrawal anyway. The reasons ranged from fear of offending the parents of soldiers to conservatism among the network brass. But after Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, a more cynical press emerged--one that was unwilling to cotton to the government's requests for non-critical reporting.

The power of the television news industry to influence American public opinion is vastly overstated, regardless of the biases which inevitably creep into any reporting. Hallin quoted one survey which placed the percentage of Americans who watch any TV news--national or local--at one-third for any given day. Only half watch at least one news broadcast in any given month. Certainly the TV news audience increases during a war, but huge audiences rarely formed during the eight years of media attention given to the Vietnam War. For many, the war was just another story.

And the idea that the Vietnam War era would have seen fewer protests without television coverage is ludicrous. Harry S. Truman left office with incredibly high negative ratings in the wake of hundreds of protests against the Korean War. The urban riots of the Civil War were certainly not the result of media coverage.

But the press cannot ignore its own mistakes in reporting the war.

In 1966, Michael J. Arlen '52 wrote in his book The Living-Room War (which coined the common phrase) that television coverage of Vietnam "all sounded very safe and institutional, and rather like a rerun." Arlen chronicled a history of rigged enemy casualty figures, over-statements about the effectiveness of "search-and-destroy missions" and air raids, and lies by senior administration officials about the need for more troops. All the while, this information went unquestioned by TV news. The military's war had become the media's war.

WARS ARE NOT won and lost on the television screen. Members of the media have been trying to prove this to the American military for years, and they should continue to insist that their coverage of Vietnam did not prevent the U.S. from winning that war. Combatting unnecessary censorship in the Gulf and in future conflicts should not involve turning to Vietnam as the perfect example of an uncensored war. This only makes the press's accusations as absurd as the military's.

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