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View Morley Safer's August 1965 report from Cam Ne.



The Sway of Consensus (Cont.)

I
n the early stages of the war, when reporting was largely based on an assumption of consensus derived from Cold War ideology, the stories from Vietnam often revolved around the experiences of American soldiers. The inevitable focus on the daily lives of troops prevented any significant or informed discussion of policy or strategy. The war coverage devolved into a series of human interest features: coverage of our troops in the field, American boys in action. Hallin argues that this type of "news," which dominated television journalism during the first years of the war, was accommodating the public's proclivity for entertainment: "Television, moreover, is a dramatic medium and needs sympathetic characters; it will usually personalize the news whenever possible. This was seen as a journalistic, not a political, choice."42

Coverage of Americans in Vietnam may not have been a political choice, but there were certainly political results. By focusing on individual Americans, television propagated an ahistorical, acontextual version of the conflict. It made any dissent appear to be indifference towards the troops, shoring up the consensus view. It emphasized the "us versus them," "good versus evil" nature of the television reportage. It catered to feelings of American exceptionalism, as stories highlighted courage, daring, and technical savvy. By focusing on troop movements and instances of "contact," it gave the illusion of progress without needing to explain the strategy or broader goals involved. In short, it legitimated involvement.

Hallin reinforces this notion with his summary of "unspoken propositions" about the function or value of war, propositions which are implicit in Cold War rhetoric: war is a national endeavor; war is an American tradition; war is manly; war is rational; and winning is what counts. These propositions, which collectively contribute to the apotheosis of war, were implicit in early television reportage of Vietnam, and they combined to form a relatively chauvinistic attitude towards war (a legacy of both World War II and World War II films). A subconscious or unconscious communication about the value of war, combined with Cold War rhetoric and frontier metaphors, guaranteed television's early coverage of Vietnam to be highly supportive.

A well-known exception to the initial consensus journalism occurred in August 1965, challenging to some degree the pervading sense of righteousness. Morley Safer filed a report from the village of Cam Ne, which aired on the CBS evening news. The footage showed American marines setting fire to the entire village, gratuitously lighting roofs of Vietnamese huts with Zippo lighters. The footage is complemented by a voice-over from Safer, in which he explains the importance of property in Vietnamese life, especially property situated on ancestral land. Safer alleged that evacuation warnings were shouted only in English, and consequently some villagers barely made it out alive (one baby was killed). The scene was chaotic. In the U.S., many people were shocked to discover that American troops were capable of such a thing. Others felt that CBS had performed a disservice. Erik Barnouw notes, "This scene ignited in some viewers anger against the war; in others, anger against television."43

The official reason for the burning of the village was that it was a safe haven for Viet Cong. This may or may not have been accurate. There were the constant ambiguities in Vietnam resulting from the language barrier, the difficulties distinguishing villagers from guerrillas or North Vietnamese from South Vietnamese, the terrain, and the like. CBS agonized in high-level meetings over whether to broadcast the footage. This incident reveals how central the Cold War ideology was in 1965. The report from Cam Ne was almost censored--not by the government, but by CBS! Furthermore, the reaction of many people was anger at television for challenging their carefully constructed sense of duty and moral authority (as if the act of broadcasting the burning of Cam Ne was un-American). This explains in part why reports of this nature were so rare before the Tet offensive.

Every American who watched the footage from Cam Ne brought his or her own world view to bear on the images. The report caused quite a stir, even in the White House. The peculiar reaction of many people to televised American aggression--indignation towards television, not towards the aggression--reveals quite a bit about the beliefs that many Americans had internalized in the 1950s and early 1960s, beliefs that resulted in part from the fact that "in the years immediately following the Second World War, the armed rivalry between East and West served to stabilise the internal political systems of the West (sic)."44 Hence the vitality of Cold War consensus.




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Introduction

Subjectivity, Mediation, & Violence

The Resiliency of the Establishment

The Sway of Consensus

Ideology as Narrative

Technology & Morality

Conclusion

Endnotes

Works Consulted