The Media and Vietnam

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“For the first time in modern history the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen” -Robert Elegant
Robert Elegant’s quote explains the significant role the media played in the Vietnam War. This essay will argue that the media’s effect was one dominant aspect of why the United States lost the war in Vietnam. Looking in detail at the heavily televised ‘Tet Offensive’, this essay will suggest that this series of battles was the beginning of the decisive part the media played in influencing public opinion. It is worth nothing that there are several factors involved in why the United States lost the Vietnam War, but this essay will focus on just one. Overall, it will show how the United States government was unable to overcome public pressure generated by the media.

To understand the role the media played in America’s loss in the Vietnam War, you must first realize the significance of the power the media has. The media was America’s eyes and ears in Vietnam. What America and the world watched, read and heard was the medias’ interpretation. This had a string of implications that can best be understood through the ‘media effects model’. Also known as the ‘hypodermic model’, this concept explains the idea that the media ‘”injects” meaning and ideas into the mass audience. They have an unprecedented level of influence that has the ability to shape the audiences opinions and feelings towards something. In this case, the medias coverage of the Vietnam War shaped the American publics feelings towards it. One key development in the beginning of the Vietnam War contributed to the media’s level of influence on the audience. In September 1963, the two major evening news programs switched to 30 minute broadcasts. As the Vietnam War was the biggest ongoing media event at that time, it received increasing coverage. Resultantly, “Vietnam was America’s first true televised war”. Over the course of the war the American public were susceptible to gruesome footage from inside the war. This had a profound affect on American’s feelings towards the war. President Richard Nixon said, “ [T]he American news media had come to dominate domestic opinion about its purpose and conduct”. This effect that the media had is one aspect of why America lost their first war in Vietnam. The most significant example of the medias influence from Vietnam occurred during the ‘Tet Offensive’.

Preceding 1968 the media portrayed the Vietnam War with the same encouragement and optimism that the United States Government officials showed. But over a two-month period from Jan 31st 1968 this all changed and historically shifted public opinion. On January 31st the People’s Army of Vietnam launched a series of attacks on the South Vietnamese, United States military and their allies, which became known as the ‘Tet Offensive’. This two month long battle was significant because as Daniel Hallin explained, “…Tet is also remembered as the event that shattered American morale at home, and it is Tet that is most often pointed to as the event that demonstrates the immense power of the media”. This specific series of battles was remarkable because the surprise attacks launched on numerous towns and villages in South Vietnam meant that journalists could step on to the street and be in the middle of combat. For a consistent period of time the reality of the war was front and center on American televisions. But the visuals that television brought into the living room launched the collective realization that thousands of soldiers had died and thousands more will. For years the media had portrayed the war with optimism and a positive tone, but this all changed beginning with the ‘Tet Offensive’. Daniel Hallin in ‘Uncensored War’ explained the difference the ‘Tet Offensive’ made on the American viewer when he wrote, “Film of military casualties jumped from 2.4 to 6.8 times a week. Tet was the first sustained...
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