It is generally accepted that the television news media operated within the Sphere of Consensus until 1968--a dramatic year by any standard. Consensus derived from Cold War ideology, which Hallin describes as the bi-partisan identification of foreign policy with national security.19 Communism was understood to be the primary threat to national security. The effect of this consensus ideology was a formidable agglutination of nationalism, chauvinism, imperialism, and exceptionalism. Not only that, but with foreign policy matters safely ensconced within the Sphere of Consensus, foreign policy was not subject to responsible public discourse. Hallin says as much when he argues that the Johnson Administration was able to contain foreign policy debate based on the strength of Cold War consensus.20The Tet offensive of January 1968 changed all of this. The terrible, unexpected carnage and chaos of Tet, which had been preceded by repeated and somewhat hollow assurances of progress, and a burgeoning antagonism between journalists and the Johnson Administration--not to mention an assortment of domestic crises--all contributed to more overt criticism of the handling of the war during the Tet period. Many people blamed the media's representation of the Tet offensive for the decline of public support, pointing to the fact that, though Tet was a military defeat for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, it was not represented as such.
Television coverage of Tet was graphically violent, and it did coincide with a shift in public opinion. These two facts are well noted, often in the context of a causal relationship. It is disingenuous, however, to merely assume a causal relationship. Public support for the war had been decreasing gradually throughout 1967, in spite of generally favorable television coverage. The disintegration of morale that followed Tet was a complex process, not the immediate result of a single event. That being said, television coverage of destruction and civilian and military casualties did increase significantly during Tet. Indeed, Hallin writes that "Tet was the first sustained period during which it could be said that the war appeared on television as a really brutal affair."21
Though television news coverage of Tet was dramatic, the fallout from said coverage was noticeably less dramatic. A majority of Americans wanted out of the war after Tet, but de-escalation was not a foregone conclusion (incursions into Cambodia in 1970 and bombing in Laos in 1971 followed, and it was a full five years until the cease-fire of January 1973). Furthermore, while it is true that the Tet offensive marked a change in the tone of media coverage, the change was not radical. Undeniably, Vietnam became more and more controversial as it progressed, and hints of discontent increasingly filtered through mainstream media after early 1968. But, as Hallin notes in his study of war reportage, television did not become anti-war (although some of the chauvinism and references to exceptionalism were gone). After Tet, "It was still unusual for journalists to take an openly critical stance."22 Despite increased skepticism among journalists and increased coverage of dissent, the mainstream media still provided a vehicle for the establishment position without offering much purposeful interpretation or geopolitical context.