News reports can sometimes be the most depressing things we see and hear on a daily basis. So much information is pumped out and consumed by the general public. The advent of social media and constant sharing of facts and misinformation has made communication among the people a harsh landscape. Stories and images shape our perception of the world and its people so we must be careful of what we internalize. Fifty years ago, news stories that occupied major time blocks prominently featured the Vietnam War. Given the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, many have argued that media and news outlets played a prominent role in the United States’ negative outcome. The high amount of reporting on stalemates, low troop morale, and coverage of the anti-war movement fostered conditions where the American public killed any support and led to the collapse of South Vietnam. This attitude amongst historians, journalists, and veterans has altered over the years, but there will likely never be a definitive answer. One historian, Daniel Hallin, made it the point of his dissertation-turned-book ‘The Uncensored War’ to analyze the finer details of news media coverage on the Vietnam War. This includes not only social and political investigation, but down to the minute analysis of news metrics.
The point of this review is not to confirm or deny the role of the U.S. media in the Vietnam War, but to look at how journalists and news anchors walk a fine line between reporting events and the interpretation as such. Hallin’s book demarcates into two sections; newsprint and television. In each section he emphasizes the conduct by U.S. Presidents, State and Defense Department sources, and military field commanders on controlling the narrative on unfolding events. The progression of the Cold War created two sources of information for reporters; the official press releases from the White House, and leaked sources that commonly ran contrary to the approved narrative. Bitter behind the scenes debates amongst multiple White House administrations had a tremendous impact on how news reports were presented. According to Hallin, from as early as 1963, the reporting began to have a polarizing effect on U.S. domestic readers. A polarization that would eventually lead to the U.S. leaving South Vietnam in 1975. The press corps in Saigon was another realm entirely. South Vietnam’s Diem regime was routinely the subject of news coverage and often framed in the context of the Cold War. A lone country supported by the U.S. against the Communist onslaught. Despite such images, stories about the regime’s reluctance to fair, democratic representation began to overshadow its role in geopolitics. Hallin doesn’t dissuade from this notion and in fact, places it as a crucial factor in shaping how the country’s perception of South Vietnam gradually changed over the years. Looking at the war from a socio-political lens is crucial when discussing the impact of the news media because as coverage changes, so does public support and sentiment towards the government. Perhaps this is why many have referred to the press as the unofficial fourth branch of government.
Hallin’s examination of media metrics puts factual data behind many of his arguments in ‘The Uncensored War‘. The models show changes on reporting methods and news content typically around election years or dramatic in-country events in South Vietnam. The classic example is the Tet Offensive in January 1968 when thousands of NLF and PAVN troops attacked U.S. and RVN installations throughout South Vietnam. As news of the Tet Offensive was released, more and more media outlets and journalists began questioning official sources and obtaining information themselves. The depiction of South Vietnamese government were also increasingly depicted in a negative light, which Hallin can attribute to which news organization leaned towards politically. Hallin goes to great lengths obtaining such data and while it would be foolish to recount every detail in a short review, the summary is that a clear trend emerges when the United States began openly questioning its resolve in Southeast Asia. This goes without saying that the Pentagon Papers had their own impact on journalism during the Vietnam War. Hallin doesn’t spend an enormous amount of time covering the Pentagon Papers, but its relative absence is telling in its own right because Hallin shows that optimistic reporting on the war was already declining by then.
‘The Uncensored War’ has its own particular charms if one enjoys reading statistics combined with succinct historical narrative. Are other Vietnam War history books engaging on an emotional level? Yes, there are, but as the war was measured by statistics, we can’t help but analyze it in such a capacity. Whether that’s counting the number of news reports with positive spins on South Vietnam or dodging the issue of escalation, Hallin’s research shows how powerful journalism can be on how we learn about our world. Without it, democracies cannot exist and certainly wars cannot be fought without purpose.