Monday, August 20. 2007
Draw your parallels to the current war!
The history of the Vietnam war is documented in many texts. A most moving book is by former President Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams. Not many books deal in depth with the role of television in covering the war, and generally they cover the problems and techniques of reporters and producers and photographers. None have addressed the question of what can be shown by television, what cannot be shown by television, and the relative importance of the two.
Television in the United States is, and was then, a medium for delivering an audience for advertisements. Every member of every news organization covering the war was conscious of the necessity of capturing and holding an audience.
The reason American soldiers were sent to South Vietnam was to resist aggression and takeover of a relatively free Third World country by a dictator, using Communism as a pretext for tyranny In North Vietnam. The reason for resisting the takeover was the expectation that it would result in a government of ruthless dictatorship, killing innocent people and suppressing any hope for further development of freedom in the area. This was certainly a high and proper ideal, from our viewpoint, worthy of the best efforts of our country.
It is important to keep in mind that these were expectations, and at the time the war was being fought, the large-scale slaughter had not yet come to pass. However, the expectations were based on historical evidence that the Communist North Vietnamese had behaved in this manner in the past. Such evidence included testimony of civilians and refugees from North Vietnam, and communists who had changed their minds about the benefits of communism, when learning that it meant the deaths of 50,000 North Vietnamese to keep the communists in power (Nixon, 1985, P. 36, 208).
Television, we are constantly reminded, is a visual medium. While audio may go with it, always the power of television is to show something. How do you show concrete evidence, particularly when the communists first, bury it, then second, don’t permit investigative television reporters to attempt to dig it up? Well, occasionally a television reporter might find a “responsible government official” to talk on camera of such atrocities. But television producers will tell you that “talking heads” are generally deadly dull, and are a certain way to lose audiences fast. Because ideals and predictions are higher levels of abstraction, they don’t make good television.
If ideals and predictions are higher levels of verbal abstraction, and higher levels are based on more concrete lower levels of abstraction, why not bring television to bear on the more concrete aspects of the ideals? One factor has already been alluded to, that predictions of future behaviour must be based on past behaviour, and the American television reporters were not able to show concrete examples of that past behaviour. A second factor has to do with what television reporters find to be news.
Television news is based on the exceptional. The commonplace, by definition, is not news. An important aspect of the American strategy was pacification, an attempt by the South Vietnamese government to provide security for the South Vietnamese villages. Villagers had to know that they would not be harassed by communist agents in the night. Where such pacification was successful, village leaders would live uneventful lives; there would be no murders and rapes in the night. For television news, a successful pacification program was a non-event; Every television reporter knew that showing pictures of villagers peacefully planting rice would not win him a Pulitzer Prize.
War is about trading human life and effort, in an attempt to gain a higher goal. Those who say there is no higher goal, can look to Nathan Hale (“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”). Americans went to South Vietnam for many reasons, but each American who went knew it was possible he or she would die for an ideal. Television could show the death; it excelled in showing the death. Television could not show the ideal. The trade is between a concrete human life, and an abstract ideal of goals and probabilities. Television could show only the concrete.
Was television coverage of the war biased? The question means, did television newsmen deliberately present images designed to inhibit the war effort as fought by the Americans and South Vietnamese? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Not out of motives of disloyalty or personal profit (generally), but because, day after day and hour after hour the reporters were saturated in the concrete images of death and destruction; no images of reasons and ideals, no images of a bleak future for South Vietnam under communism ever showed up in their viewfinders. The television reporters were looking for concrete images that would shock and capture attention, and dead American soldiers would easily do the trick. Further, they had a degree of freedom of movement within the American forces that made it easier to film American servicemen in action. Language and the threat to their own safety meant reporters could not easily film the communist soldier as he tied a Vietnamese woman to a tree, disembowelled her and left her to die a painful, ignominious death (Nixon, 1985, P. 54). Concrete evidence of the idealistic goals America was fighting for was difficult to obtain and film; concrete evidence of the human American cost being paid was easy to obtain and film.
The ability of a closed, totalitarian society to restrict concrete evidence, and make available limited, abstract information, does put an open society at a disadvantage if one is not aware of the differences in evidence, and does not correctly assess all abstractions.