Myth of the Media's Role
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jeff Cohen is the founder
of FAIR, a national media watch group based in New York -- and
a panelist on "News Watch" on the Fox News Channel.