VietNam Reporting

Television > Vietnam Reporting > Who is actually reporting?

Monday, August 20. 2007

What kind of reporting are we actually getting from Iraq? And how does it compare with what we were seeing from the Vietnam war? Here are some notes about the reporting of the Vietnam war; read for yourself and see– it seems to me that we are getting a very shallow view of the actual situation in Iraq, just as we saw a warped view of the war in Vietnam. Look also at the other comment.

Outline Map of VietNamBraestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1978.

“…The quarterly Bulletins of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in 1965-1968 reflected executives’ concerns over proper reporting of elections and domestic issues such as civil rights and ghetto disturbances, but published no comment on Vietnam coverage.… The quarterly Columbia Journalism Review published no major examination of Vietnam coverage prior to Tet.… Trade periodicals such as Broadcasting and the Overseas Press Club’s annuals focused largely on ‘freedom of information’ issues and the ‘credibility gap’. (Braestrup, Page 8)”

Oberdorfer, Dan. Tet! New York: Doubleday & Co., 1971.
“…It is clear that the attack forces and particularly the indigenous Vietcong, who did most of the fighting and dying suffered a grievous military setback. Tens of thousands of the most dedicated and experienced fighters emerged from the jungles and forests of the countryside only to meet a deadly rain of fire and steel within the cities. The Vietcong lost the best of a generation of resistance fighters, and after Tet increasing numbers of North Vietnamese had to be sent south to fill the ranks. The war became increasingly a conventional battle and less an insurgency. Because the people of the cities did not rise up against the foreigners and puppets at Tet indeed, they gave little support to the attack force the communist claim to a moral and political authority in South Vietnam suffered a serious blow.
“Under the stress of the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnamese government faltered but did not fold, and after the battle it became more of a working institution than it had ever been before.…” (Oberdorfer, pp. 329-30).

Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake. New York: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1972.
“…the curious aspect of the American public [and press] reaction to the Tet offensive was that it reflected neither the judgment of the American officials nor the true change in the military situation in South Vietnam.” (Fitzgerald, quoted by Braestrup, p. ix)

“The observations of Oberdorfer, Fitzgerald and other writers differ markedly from most of the media’s 1968 ‘message’. That message, most simply put, was: DISASTER IN VIETNAM! The generalized effect of the news media’s contemporary output in February-March 1968 was a distortion of reality through sins of omission and commission on a scale that helped shape Tet’s political repercussions in Washington and the Administration’s response.
“Why the distortion? I find ‘ideological’ explanations of media flaws gravely insufficient, particularly as applied to the Tet coverage. In my view, the distortions at Tet resulted from the impact of a rare combination of circumstances on the various habits, incentives, economic constraints, and managerial and manpower limitations peculiar to each of the major U. S. news organizations. Tet sharply illuminated these limitations, which, to varying degrees, affect news coverage to this day.” (Braestrup, p. ix)

“All told, as of January 19, 1968, two weeks before Tet, there were 464 men and women accredited under the local rules to both the South Vietnamese government and to the Office of Information of the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Americans made up a minority of the total, with 179. There were 114 Vietnamese and 171 other ‘non-U. S. citizens.’
“This large number of accredited ‘media representatives,’ often cited by outsiders as evidence of an information‘glut,’ gave a misleading impression. The 179 Americans included a dozen free-lancers, as well as representatives of the National Catholic Welfare News, the Baptist Mission Press, the Dartmouth (College) Daily News, the Twin Cities Courier, and Christianity Today. Another half-dozen were wives of newsmen. Moreover, the total list of 464 included journalists in Vietnam on brief visits, part-time ‘stringers’ (journalists who worked on a fee or contract basis for several organizations), secretaries, managers and interpreters. Television sound men and cameramen, as well as still photographers, were also necessarily accredited, although their ‘fact-finding’ or ‘reporting’ functions may have been minimal. Furthermore, departure from Vietnam did not mean loss of accreditation prior to the MACV card’s expiration date, thus swelling the official list of correspondents.
“Thus, the ‘fact-finding’ manpower available in Saigon during the Tet offensive was far less impressive that the official figures indicated. In terms of resident representatives of ‘major media’ those news publications, news agencies, and TV networks with national U. S. audiences there were perhaps 60 newsmen in all. The breakdown was as follows:
Wire services: AP (servicing 1,262 U. S. newspapers, 3,221 radio or TV subscribers) had eight reporters and deskmen in Vietnam; UPI (1,200 newspapers, 3,200 broadcast clients), eight; Reuters (45 U. S. client newspapers), four; and Agencee France Presse (AFP) (one U. S. subscriber the New York Times), three.
Radio-Television Networks: NBC (est. 15,000,000 listeners to evening news) had six reporters; CBS (est. 15,100,000 listeners) six; and ABC (est. 4,600,000), four.
“… But even this reduced roster was misleading as an indicator of the ‘breadth’ of war ‘information’ reaching the individual U. S. reader-viewer. The focus, in fact, was quite narrow. Why? First, of course, these 60 fact-seekers did not work ‘collectively’ in any systematic sense. They were not employees of a central fact-finding agency. They informally exchanged gossip, impressions, rumors. But like their colleagues in Washington and other news centers, they did not ‘divide up the story,’ disperse to cover all its aspects, and then later pool information. Each bureau, in the U. S. tradition, operated in competition with its counterparts AP versus UPI, CBS versus NBC, Time versus Newsweek, and, to a far lesser degree, the N.Y. Times versus the Post.
“Secondly, for competitive reasons, much of each bureau’s scarce manpower in Vietnam was typically devoted to ‘matching’ coverage, for the most part, of the same subject matter.… This was particularly true of the wire services and networks.…
“Thirdly, in Vietnam, despite all the editorial writers’ talk at home of the war’s complexities and ‘political’ dimensions, the media focus was on the American presence. No American reporter spoke Vietnamese[emphasis added] in early 1968; prior language training was regarded as a costly frill by media managers, if it was considered at all (The New York Times routinely assigned Moscow-bound correspondents to appropriate language courses, but not its Vietnam men).…
“Another blank spot in the experience of most newly arrived American newsmen in Vietnam was the military at least the U. S. military apparatus and ‘language’ of the 1960s. Few, for example, understood the differences between, say, a mortar and a howitzer, brigades and divisions, logistics and tactics, or between overall U. S. personnel strength in Vietnam (approaching 500,000 in January 1968) and the relatively small number of men actually firing weapons at the enemy (perhaps 100,000…)” (Braestrup, pp. 9-12)

“In 1966-68, the television networks were perhaps the least ‘serious’ in this respect. Their bureau chiefs were assigned to Vietnam for one year; the reporters came and went on tours varying from one to six months. A few, including Murray Fromson (Bangkok) and Bernard Kalb (Hong Kong) of CBS, had been in Southeast Asia for several years. Of the 18-odd network correspondents in Saigon when Tet hit, only half had been accredited four months earlier. As a CBS network reporter put it, ‘There was no premium on experience or expertise in our business. The networks see no harm in running a standup piece on the war’s progress by a guy who has just come in the country two days earlier.…’
“In brief, for all these reasons, the net unduplicated informational output of the Saigon press corps in 1968…was a good deal smaller than the sizable flow of film and words would indicate.” (Braestrup, pp. 12-13)

“Compared to the far larger attacks on Tan Son Nhut air base, as well as other actions in the Saigon area, the embassy fight was minor. But because of its ‘symbolism’ and, above all, its accessibility to newsmen, it dominated the initial Tet coverage. Moreover, because of confusion and haste, the first reports made it seem that the foe had succeeded, not failed, in seizing his objective: the embassy chancery. Even as the fog cleared, corrections were slow in coming. Newsmen, this reporter included, were willing, even eager, to believe the worst. It was a classic case of journalistic reaction to surprise.” (Braestrup, pp. 75-76)

“In short, both AP and UPI finally passed on, without attribution, the information given them by the MPs; yet, to repeat, no reporter in the gray dawn on Thong Nhat Street could see the embassy battle behind those high walls prior to breaking in the front gate with the MPs after the fight was all but over. The wire reports did not indicate this uncertainty. UPI, apparently striving for what its foreign editor calls ‘words [that] popped out at the reader,’ leaped beyond even the available misinformation.”[emphasis added] (Braestrup, pp. 91)

“‘Instead of giving up the attack and trying to flee, the guerrillas set up defensive positions on the grounds. Some of the attackers were said to have held the lower floors of the building itself for several hours.’” (New York Times, quoted in Braestrup, pp. 100-101)
Said by whom? Some of an early contingent of MPs who came running up to the embassy about the same time as the newsmen, and couldn’t tell anything more about what was going on behind the walls than could the newsmen. Inaccurate information gains the weight of truth by being reported.

“The embassy story, as we have seen, dominated the wire-service leads, got the big headlines, and, later, was featured on network TV shows all in accordance with standard U.S. press traditions. The ‘terrist-proof’ embassy was ‘symbolic’ (of what, take your choice), the battle was dramatic (Colonel Jacobson was good copy), and, most important, the newsmen were around to watch the action (or part of it). All the elements of an irresistible story were there green choppers landing paratroopers on the rooftop helipad, the shouts of MPs, the dead VC sprawled around the flower tubs on the immaculate embassy front lawn. And all of it only blocks from the Caravelle Hotel. What more could readers and viewers want?” (Braestrup, pp. 109)

ABC’s cogent analysis by Frank Reynolds; note the definite language, without qualifications:
“‘The embassy in Saigon has maintained communications with Washington, and there is no real fear at the White House that a first-rate disaster may be in the works in the Vietnamese capital. There is, however, a grim realization that the United States is in for a very rough time trhough all of Vietnam in the next few days and weeks.
“‘The last report the President had directly from General Westmoreland was delivered early this morning. The General expressed his usual confidence that American forces are ready and will be able to take care of the situation. Nevertheless, there is no point in denying52 the genuine concern here, not that American forces may suffer a major military defeat, but that the price that almost certainly will be paid may be very, very high.53’”
52 Who was ‘denying’?”
53 Frank Reynolds was employing the ‘double-conditional,’ a favorite tool in television commentary. ABC-TV, ‘ABC News,’ Jan. 30, 1968”
(ABC News, January 30, 1968, quoted in Braestrup, pp. 117)

“[The media’s explicit treatment of…the enemy’s performance…]…[o]ne searches in vain through most of the media descriptions of the foe, even well into March 1968, for indications that the enemy’s planning, tactics, execution, zeal, and weaponry were less than flawless. His ability to achieve ‘another Dienbienphu,’ his ‘lethal’ mortars and rockets at Khe Sanh and elsewhere, his ‘suicide squads’ defending Hue, his ‘willingness to die,’ his alleged ‘political’ shrewdness in attacking the cities, his omnipresence, his inexhaustible manpower resources (since ‘losses meant nothing’ to him) were breathlessly depicted, particularly on TV, and drawn as a contrast to America’s unworthy allies, the South Vietnamese. In short, even as they described the flaws and problems of the allies, the newsmen in Siagon and Washington by and large failed to examine the North Vietnamese and Vietcong with the same critical eye.” (Braestrup, pp. 144)

This entry was posted in Television, VietNam Reporting. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.