Published in The Khaleej Times.
With the war in Afghanistan taking place in a news vacuum — when did you last read in the mainstream media a report on what is happening there — journalism academics have turned their attention to previous wars to see what lessons, if any, have been learnt.
In the current edition of the journal Media, War and Conflict, Michael Griffin, visiting professor of Media Studies at Macalester College, St Paul, Minnesota, blows away some of the media myths that have grown around the war in Vietnam.
He writes: “For the last thirty years the media myth of Vietnam has proved a constant touchstone against which the media coverage of every new conflict has been compared. According to this popular version of history, Vietnam was an “uncensored war”. Reporters, photographers and cameramen were allowed unprecedented freedom of movement and the ability to dispatch their material to outlets all over the world, which reproduced them on a daily basis.
Griffin then exposes this as simply untrue and partly responsible for the story that this coverage was responsible for the accusation that it undermined the US war effort and was eventually responsible for America’s defeat in Vietnam.
“It is part of the myth that a liberal American media, as well as British and European reporters, were highly critical of the war and routinely presented stories and images that emphasised American casualties, civilian suffering and lack of US military progress towards victory that eroded public support for the war at home and effectively undermined the US war effort, eventually leading to America’s defeat. Often one or more of the iconic images of that war is given special responsibility for the undermining of American morale.”
Griffin says that a more condensed version of this myth is that Vietnam was the first “living room war” watched on television in the living rooms of American homes and that the onslaught of horrific images turned the American people against their own military. “The media lost the war,” is a slogan still repeated by many and taught as a cautionary tale in military and public relations training programmes.
Griffin says that facts show otherwise. Firstly, the portrayal in the media of the American soldier remained sympathetic right to the end of the war. Next, an analysis of US television coverage of the war in Vietnam showed network news programmes neither depicted the horror of war nor did their reports play a leading role in the collapse of American support for the war at home. But what about the My Lai massacre? According to a recent study of American reactions to news of the massacre, the revelations had little effect on overall American public opinion concerning the war, as did other evidence of Vietnamese civilian suffering, visual or otherwise. Many Americans simply refused to believe the news of the massacre.
Photographic evidence of the truth of the war, evidence that could have shifted the American consensus concerning US involvement, was never allowed to accumulate because there was little desire on the part of the public or the media to confront such realities, says Griffin. Yet, since Vietnam successive Western governments have devised strategies to avoid a repeat of the kind of media success they felt was detrimental in Vietnam. They have adopted a plan for managing the media in wartime that has been amazingly successful in the Falklands war, in the invasion of Panama, the invasion of Grenada and in both Gulf wars and Afghanistan.
Basically this is to deny the media access to the war unless it accepts the military’s conditions, and to ensure that journalists and photographers identify with “the cause” by “embedding” them with a military unit. Even the most independent-minded war correspondents have found it difficult not to identify psychologically with the soldiers on whom they rely for their safety, lodging, food, supplies and information.
This success in controlling the media represents the ultimate victory of the military over a free press.