From its earliest days, the government has feared the power of an unchecked press. As World War II photographer Jimmy Hare said, "Photographs seem to be the only thing the War department is really afraid of (Neuman, 82)" -- and the visceral and ubiquitous nature of television, once it was a significant component in war journalism, was no different.
The unique nature of an image's power to make an emotional impact made for a new frontier on governmental attempts to restrict the press. With the advent of television technology, the government faced new challenges in how it controlled, or failed to control the press during WWII and the Vietnam War. Each American conflict, of course, has had its own circumstances, but from the introduction of photography and television into the arena of war, the government has had the difficult task of trying to manipulate the dissemination of images.
The photograph was the first hurdle for censors. In fact, during the first World War, the government completely banned publication of images of American dead. The government did not allow a single picture of an American casualty to be published over the entire duration of the war. And when the United States entered the second world war, they continued this strict policy for close to two years.
The Office of War Information was responsible for keeping a tight rein on reports from the front in WWII. The OWI actively censored words, images, and film -- but they also depended on a degree of self-censorship. Pictures taken on the battlefront had to be submitted and reviewed by government censors who had the authority to suppress them. "Censorship of most other domestic information, however, relied on voluntary compliance by the press and public with its guidelines (Roeder, 8)." Generally, newspaper and magazine editors tended to eschew graphically brutal pictures. Images of the dead and horribly wounded were relegated to a special file within the OWI -- the "Chamber of Horrors" collected those visuals the government deemed too inflammatory or harsh for the public view.
But just as the government can fear the press, it has also viewed propaganda as a powerful medium in its favor. During the war, the OWI was also responsible for creating propaganda to rally the homefront around the fighting. "A media-savvy administration made full use of these tools for mobilizing public involvement (Roeder, 5)." The office released images like Rosie the Riveter, the All-American housewife who could take on the responsibilities of the absent male work force, to keep momentum for the support of the war at home. Americans lived with a steady balance of propaganda telling them to be frugal, support the boys, and work harder. The OWI tried to include the whole population in the war effort.
In 1943, the government made a major strategic change in its censorship policy. Public opinion polls found that the public was weary of the war, so officials decided they needed a new impetus to rally the homefront. They decided to allow the press to publish images of dead Americans. For the first time in decades, Americans saw images of their dead countrymen on foreign shores. But even these images were sterilized for public consumption. The OWI kept strict control over what types of images were acceptable, approving rather anonymous pictures of gracefully fallen men, like the first ever published photograph of American casualties in 1943 Life magazine (up left.) "As a result, war was slightly more visible, but still protected from full view. America's war dead were faceless, as censors feared the impact of a frontal photograph, and the wounded were always being attended by medical personnel (Neuman, 84)." The OWI would not allow graphic pictures to be published, such as the one to the right which shows a dead WWII soldier with a contorted leg.
But the new technology of television was slippery and elusive for the American government. The era of control which it enjoyed during the second world war was most emphatically a thing of the past during the Vietnam age. Censors in World War II used images to help them control public perception but the experience of the Vietnam War was quite different. "It certainly wasn't the zenith of technological development, but the American war in southeast Asia resonates because of the continuing assumption that television news had more effect than ever before, or since, simply because the Pentagon did not understand the potential power of the medium. Never again would reporters wander war zones at will (Macgregor, 132)." As a result, television and photojournalists were allowed access to some of the most disturbing imagery in America's collective memory.
The government could not stop the flow of nightly images depicting traumatic battles and the American gruesome casualties. "World War II was far from the uncensored war called Vietnam, where photographers were free to roam and publish at will (Neuman, 84)." The control exerted by the American government was also not enough to prevent television reporters from recording the war's disturbing effects on the Vietnamese. Television journalist Morley Safer's account of American troops who set fire to a Vietnamese village with zippo lighters is an example of an image that never would have found its way out of the OWI's "Chamber of Horrors."
In Vietnam, reporters could get information from the government's Joint United States Public Affairs Office -- a very loose OWI equivalent -- which was also responsible for distributing wartime propaganda. But "while in Vietnam official ignorance and evasion were present, there was no formal censorship (Braestrup, 20)." And the lens of a television camera was a tricky thing to restrict. Especially in Vietnam, it had the habit of recording and showing the war at its worst.