Images of death and violence.

Subjectivity, Mediation, & Violence (Cont.)

elevision journalism's adherence to ideological symbolism during Vietnam was abetted by its reliance on government and military sources. Early in the war, television news was a mere conduit for official statements from the government and the military. This was partly pragmatic; television journalists did not have the same access to other sources that print journalists had. But television was also catering to its audience. The majority of Americans were supportive of the war before Tet, and many people got their news from television. Furthermore, embedded reporters often came to identify with the troops, and the journalism reflected this.

During Vietnam there was no official military censorship, but this often had the unintended consequence of heightening caution among journalists. Hallin argues that the perceived power of television triggered excessive discretion on the part of television journalists.12 This self-censorship was usually justified by appeals to decency or by support of the war effort. Indeed, many reporters initially supported the war and genuinely believed it was right; Hallin affirms that reporters "went to Vietnam deeply committed to the 'national security' consensus that dominated American politics since the onset of the Cold War, and acted as 'responsible' advocates of that consensus."13 Reporters' tendencies to editorialize in support of the war (the "talking head" phenomenon) during their reports also reinforced dominant political ideology; as Hallin notes, they often presented themselves not as journalists but as patriots.14 The aggregate result was uncritical acquiescence on the part of the mainstream media.

The ideology and symbolism implicit in war imagery also has the power to alienate viewers from that imagery. War becomes an ideological struggle, not a battle between life and death. In the case of Vietnam, images of the Vietnamese dead were an interesting permutation of this phenomenon. News networks had policies about televising American dead and wounded (especially their faces). It was taboo if it was done before family notification. But even if families were notified, it was generally avoided in the interest of "good taste."

Sontag writes, "The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying."15 Dead and wounded Vietnamese were shown relatively indiscriminately. The ideological underpinnings of this practice are difficult to deny. First World voyeurism is a by-product of the way Americans confront Third World calamities. The implicit suggestion is that "this is the sort of thing which happens in that place."16 Even South Vietnamese civilians, for whom we were fighting, were recognized as "other" and often explicitly described as "animals." The fact that a Vietnamese death--civilian or military--was appropriate for spectacle suggests that as "other" that individual was "regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees."17

A reciprocal relationship exists wherein images of enemy death are both a result of ideology and subsequently informed by that ideology. The net result is reinforcement of already-held beliefs. Television not only becomes party to the presentation of death as spectacle, but seems to subconsciously imply that this death is understandable if not acceptable. Because it so highly mediated, both by its very nature and by virtue of the presence of the reporter and the anchor, and because television functions largely as entertainment, the death becomes less "real." We are alienated, unable to identify with the victim, and this prevents us from confronting an image of an enemy death as an image of a human death--one that transcends its historical and ideological significance.

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Subjectivity, Mediation, & Violence

The Resiliency of the Establishment

The Sway of Consensus

Ideology as Narrative

Technology & Morality



Works Consulted