News Stories of Vietnam

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Thank you to the following reviewers of the curriculum: Andrew Demko, Rainier Junior/Senior High School; George Herring, University of Kentucky; Mark Lawrence, University of Texas at Austin; Ed Moise, Clemson University; Susan Tomlinson, Franklin Central High School.

ABOUT NEWS STORIES OF VIETNAM

What types of information do you think news outlets have a responsibility to report to the public? Why?

In large part, particularly in the early years of the Vietnam War, news reports focused on major military developments as the war progressed, such as the March 1965 New York Times article featured on slide 1 that details the deployment of Marines to Da Nang. In late 1966 and early 1967, Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times was the first reporter from a major news publication who travelled to North Vietnam to capture in-depth reports. The result was a series on the damage of US bombing to civilian areas in North Vietnam. Read aloud the excerpt of Salisbury’s article included on slide 2. Would you interpret the language of the headline and lede as being critical of the war or any particular group? Why or why not?  Is the tone of the story fair and appropriate to the topics under discussion? 

January - February 1968 marked the Tet Offensive, a series of attacks by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam. With this major blow, which involved heavy US casualties, came a shift in attention of major news outlets toward a perspective alternate to the standard information shared by the Department of Defense. For example, the 1968 article from the Chicago Tribune included on slide 3 features the headlines “South Vietnamese Caught Napping,” implies that perhaps America’s ally was not as prepared as official views might state. The article, however, is quick to deflect blame from American troops—“Despite warnings from the United States military command that large scale attacks were imminent.” Read the article excerpt: Would you interpret the article as (overall) being critical of the war or any particular group(s)? Why or why not?  Is the tone fair and appropriate to the subject?

Former Marine Eddie Adams served as a photographer for the Associated Press in Vietnam and took the now iconic photo on slide 4 of South Vietnamese police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing NLF/Viet Cong suspect Nguyen Van Lem in Saigon in 1968 in the wake of the Tet Offensive. The image appeared in The New York Times, and through it American citizens were able to see the brutality of war, perhaps forming a new view of South Vietnam.

As the public’s discontent with the war grew, so did opportunities to report on public criticism of the war, largely expressed through demonstrations. The November 1969 Los Angeles Times article included on slide 5 showcases the growth in news reports on the war that focused on topics outside of military developments as relayed by officials—like public opposition in response to President Nixon’s address to the nation on the war (text of speech: http://www.nixonlibrary.gov/forkids/speechesforkids/silentmajority/silentmajority_transcript.pdf). Similarly, on slide 6 is a Chicago Tribune report of a well-publicized demonstration organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971, in which veterans returned their service medals at the steps of the Capitol.

One news story which similarly gave a new perspective to the progress of the war was the reporting of the 1968 My Lai massacre, which was the mass killing of South Vietnamese civilians by US Army soldiers. The image on slide 7, taken by US Army photographer Ronald Haeberle, shows some of the civilian casualties of the My Lai massacre. This iconic image, which was first published in 1969 in The Plain Dealer, a newspaper based in Cleveland, Ohio, has come to be among those most associated with the war. The photos published in The Plain Dealer were eventually used as key evidence by the US Army to investigate the incident.

In 1969, President Nixon authorized strikes against Cambodia, directed at locations that were believed to be strongholds of North Vietnam. These strikes were not authorized by Congress, leading critics to charge that the strikes were illegal under U.S. law. News of the secret strikes were first reported by correspondent William Beecher, whose breaking story is featured on slide 8. Read the text of the article included on the slide. Would you characterize the information given and language used as providing a fair perspective? Why or why not?

Later on in the course of the war, the landmark story that would come to represent a new era of reporting was the release of the Pentagon Papers, a study commissioned by the Pentagon to examine the origins of US involvement in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers were not intended to be shared with the public, in part because many of its conclusions suggested that the war’s escalation and continuation were questioned by many leaders, sometimes in spite of public language to the contrary. Do you think the Pentagon Papers, which came to the attention of the New York Times through an illegal leak by a disgruntled official (see slide 9), should or should not have been released for public knowledge through the news media? Why or why not? Why do you think the Supreme Court ruled that the New York Times and, later, the Washington Post were allowed to publish this material?

The news stories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in many ways followed in the footsteps of Vietnam, with coverage of both major military milestones as well as reporting on incidents of misconduct by the military. Because of a perception that media reporting had become too negative and undercut support for the war in Vietnam, greater control over reporting was exercised by the military in later conflicts. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, reporters were embedded within the military, living with soldiers and sometimes going on missions. The public now had an expectation of frontline coverage, and the military’s system of embedded reporting provided to journalists that frontline coverage. Many journalists, however, saw the reports of embedded journalists as providing only a microscopic and tightly managed view of reality. For example, during the first two weeks of the invasion of Iraq, three out of four sources quoted in news reports were military officials, and military successes were emphasized.

Among the major stories of the war in Iraq were the invasion of Baghdad in 2003 (slide 10) and the capture of Saddam Hussein (slide 11). In slide 11, you see an iconic image of Operation Red Dawn, in which former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured by US forces. This image became particularly iconic because the man seen in it was an Iraqi civilian translator working with US forces.  This image was taken with the translator’s own phone and he has been able to speak to this moment in the conflict and share with media outlets without the prior intervention of the military in telling this story. The translator has suggested that the release of the photo raised the ire of top-level military officials.

Perhaps the most noteworthy news stories to emerge out of the Iraq war were reports on cases of torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison run by US-led forces in Iraq. Watch the 2004 news report on Abu Ghraib prison torture and investigation included on slide 12. What is your reaction to this incident? Would you characterize the information given and language used as providing a balanced perspective? Why or why not?  Is the tone of the reporting fair to the subject at hand?

The US government exercises far more control over reporting on military operations in the twenty-first century than it did half a century ago in Vietnam. This has impacted the way that wars are reported, and reminds us all of our civic responsibility to remain informed about what is happening on both a national and international level.