War on Television: From Vietnam to Modern Media, the Troublesome Nature of Credible Reporting in the Demand Era of Gens Y&Z


by Renae Pirrottina

Executive summary

  • This article uses the Vietnam War as a historical reference point for reflecting on the way news media is controlled and operates comparatively today.
  • In the challenging and evolving role of media in an era of (post-)modernity, and largely due to the technologically-advanced generations Y and Z, there is difficulty for journalists to maintain credibility while accommodating the high demand for immediate news coverage.
  • The alarming and growing rate of a generational laziness towards current and foreign affairs is an issue for concern over establishing a future awareness about the safety and survival of the nation. This article, then, argues for a review of certain legislation that would incorporate a specific focus on foreign affairs coverage.
  • The complex challenge is to create an equilibrium between the government, the military, the media and the population in a transitional stage of reporting within an era of globalization.

The Vietnam War has been embedded in the memories of those who experienced it—on the frontline, in the jungle, via aircraft operation or through the millions of television sets in the corners of lounge rooms across the globe. As the first televised war, the coverage revolutionized the role of the tv in the home, establishing a new framework for media to stimulate morale while simultaneously inspiring a new curiosity. The Vietnam War is identified as the beginning of a complex relationship between the government, the military, the media and the general population. This web of responsibility is becoming increasingly skewed. Regardless of its original and credible intentions, the media is losing both integrity and traditional popularity due to this modern era of globalization resulting in a generation that is relatively disinterested in both current and foreign affairs. The alarming consequence of high demand or (as colloquially known gutter journalism) and capitalist-driven enterprises is a generation who are both historically deprived and ignorant of today’s war context. Moreover, many belonging to generations Y and Z are especially disinterested and do not care to be informed. The dilemma we are faced with is this: the Australian government and the media corporations who own the major television networks need to find an equilibrium that incorporates both censorship and a freedom of varying war images in order to spark a new wave of consciousness about conflict and the tragic effects of war. In order to grasp the reality and urgency of this generational laziness toward international conflict and, most importantly, toward our nation’s involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the ‘War on Terror’, we must establish a benchmark retrospectively. The telecast and impact of the Vietnam War was an instance in which the audience was engaged, motivated and interested in the future of our nation and the sacrifice of our men. Australia, from a realist perspective, is dependent on survival within an international arena that is constantly fragile and on the cusp of warfare, and yet our recent television coverage would suggest otherwise.

Some 5,773,190 casualties, including 2,122,744 dead—among them 58,169 Americans killed and 304,000 wounded, and 521 Australians killed and 3000 wounded—and let’s not forget the 3,500,000 acres of Vietnam that still have the effects of 19 million gallons of defoliant that was sprayed by US aircraft. The statistics speak for themselves, the magnitude of this military, political and social war is today for many beyond comprehension. The dissent over the war as the years passed, the overall outcome in which the US tasted military defeat for the first time in its history, and the falsity of the ‘domino theory’ all have been consolidated with the beauty of hindsight. Against the immediacy of war is the harrowing nature of conflict and the overarching possibility that the outcome will be a failure at the cost of immense loss. Therefore, importantly, television works to provide access to all areas of the globe for the majority of the population. Regardless of whether the news is good or bad, it’s news. For those back home who are unable to be on the frontline, wartime news and reporting is the crux of the war experience in its most tangible form.

For Australia, involvement in the Vietnam War is to date our longest running war (although Afghanistan now follows closely behind), after a decade-long engagement from troops being first deployed in 1962 in South Vietnam and removed late 1971, early 1972. The Australian government controversially reintroduced conscription in 1964 to accommodate the possibility of supporting British engagement in Konfrontasi. Although this did not eventuate, it proved good timing for our alliance with the US and the increasing scale of its war effort in Indochina. This first example of Australia changing domestic policy to follow in the lead of the US and echo their enthusiasm for an ideological battle is similarly the approach also taken more recently with the West’s domination over Iraq and Afghanistan. Media coverage taken of the Vietnam War in its initial phases reflects the militaristic position and praise of the intervention. The reporting was positive overall, greatly supported, and morale was generally high in the beginning despite the conscription issue. This original support was in part due to the Australian reporting being taken from and reminiscent of the American experience. This incorrect translation of coverage, however, was not accurate for Australians and so it begins to highlight the difficulty in wartime and global journalism misrepresenting a nation’s involvement, when unable to access primary information and compromised on even being able to report it.

Between 1965-1972, twenty Australian correspondents were sent to Vietnam. Over this crucial period Australia’s sporadic and inadequate involvement resulted not only in cumbersome news reporting and imagery but also, moreover, an uncontested view of the war: Australia taking cues from an American viewpoint of western domination over the rival ideology of communism manifesting in Vietnam. This meant Australian reporting of Vietnam began with a generalized tone, an ease that gave audiences little insight due to the lack of a critical lens, or what has been described by Rodney Tiffin as reporting that was ‘acquiescent and unquestioning’. Paul Williams of The Australian, in his review of Fay Anderson’s and Richard Trembath’s Witnesses to War entitled ‘Havoc caught in the logs of war’, suggests that the authors work to remind us of the original investment journalists and early reporting had. To ‘firstly record events for prosperity and then to galvanize support on the home front’, however, due to what he states as being ‘Australian war reporting, partisan nationalism and ideological bias’ journalists have always had great difficulty in remaining objective. The notion of jingoism being paramount to morale meant that the overall war perspective was biased, an original value for journalists under WW1 censorship laws, therefore also initially carried on via WWII and Korea and on to the beginning of coverage of Vietnam. The actuality of events and the accountability of the media as a public watchdog, however, eventually emerged. This idea of television being the mechanism whereby warfare could be viewed in a limited and clean way has now become an outdated approach. The changing and evolving nature of contemporary news, paradoxically, no longer can filter or become lethargic in its reporting, due to the advancement of technology, the internet and modern audiences demanding immediacy. Consequently, this advancement also has simultaneously destroyed or compromised many other integral news values. Therefore, many have asked: has war journalism, and the current state of televised coverage, simply slipped back into infancy—the beginning of Vietnam—overwhelmed and taking its imagery from the US? The Vietnam news reporting and coverage, although originally struggling to establish a strong base, soon became what has been described as an ‘uncensored war’, and this change in coverage demonstrates the scope and the ability for any situation, any low or tired audience to be recovered and interested through the power of effective imagery and inspired reporting.

The ‘horror of war’ is said to have been the inspiring factor for the revolt and anti-war influence for Vietnam beginning more fiercely around 1968. The iconic, Pullitzer Prize winning image of a South Vietnamese police commissioner firing at the head of a captured VC member, instantly killing him in a dowtown Saigon street, generated widespread anger and hatred across America and the West toward the Johnson administration, toward its unscrupulous and unaccountable actions in the war or as so it had appeared. Although often attributed to the whole graphic coverage of the war, this violent imagery is in fact a mythic news memory that media associations like to endorse as part of their own representation. But, in fact, such imagery belongs to only a handful that emerged and exist from the war. Interestingly, it is the poignancy of this image that we remember today and associate with the disgust of the war, indicating to today’s society and media that in order to re-shape and stimulate a new knowledge and education of the serious effects of conflict. Imagery needs to evoke a passion—whether horrifically or sympathetically—and essentially there needs to be a new angle for war on television. The once graphic imagery and daily pictures that could be shown as more or less the ‘real-time’ bloody consequences of war, through what was a new visualized format, not only established haunting images and memories of Vietnam but also highly influenced political debate. In turn, this encouraged a social awareness of the circumstances in which our nation committed almost 60,000 troops to Vietnam throughout the duration of the war. The length and initial slowness of accurate and skeptical journalism of the Vietnam War is understandable given that television itself was a relatively new medium and, moreover, no war had never been broadcast in such a manner. Today, the similarity is that while the news media have the technological resources to be able to more frequently and effectively capture images of war, to keep a nation informed, instead there is a growing neglect over what is becoming known as yet another news report on our involvement in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The difference in reporting and the changed nature of journalism was evident in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. A heavily saturated and extended news coverage of the events that followed, the invasion of Iraq and deployment of Australian troops to combat terrorism, resulted initially with great intensity and concern. This constant coverage, although fundamentally reporting credible hard news, made it simultaneously impossible for the viewer to have any relief from such alarming imagery. Andrew Hoskins argues that there needs to be a correct balance for viewers, in order to determine the right amount of space and distance necessary for a critical and engaged view of war, a view that can be both initial and maintained, a settled awareness and also enabling the creation of memory. Shocking realities on the warfront in theory are the impacts that sustain memory and consequently a resistance or encouragement of conflict, either way a debate about the risk of the human cost of war. One might argue that the tolerance and strange obsession with crime shows today, which depict an increased amount of death on fictional programs anyway, work to inform today’s generations with enough graphic imagery. Here, the juxtaposition is rather that the very real images of the dead in a scene of war or of a dying soldier in the midst of Iraq is on behalf of the nation, seemingly holding and attributing a greater emotional attachment and focused relationship between the viewer and the image. Why, then, don’t we ever actually see it? Why are there troops remaining in warfare without sufficient coverage or continued justification between the deployment and the returning of coffins draped with the Australian flag? How can a nation be conscious, aware and active in its decisions without being fully educated and adequately shown correct images of war?

Today’s audiences are alienated and disconnected from the reality of warfare. The medium of television, in acting as an instrument of accountability for checking the actions of the government particularly in light of our long commitment in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has shifted demonstrably. A movement to an entertainment-focused timeslot, which equates five minutes of a recycled update and sanitized image, supposedly satisfies and legitimizes enough for its audience, while leaving the remaining twenty five minutes of news for celebrity reports and supermarket controversies. It seems that the maximum exposure attributed to the beginning of the Iraq conflict now has resulted in less coverage and an environment that is anaesthetized to what should be an area of great interest. According to Anderson and Trembath, the conflicts that have occurred post-2001 have relied on brief correspondence, resulting in an overuse of syndicated images. Furthermore, they contend that without a return to credible journalism that can devote time, tackle the obstacles of political and military spin, and successfully report on the costs of war, the result is ‘vacuous, recycled, inaccurate and hopelessly partial’. In order for the media to overcome recent tensions with the government and military, the silence needs to be broken, especially, for example, regarding information of wounded soldiers. For Anderson, the Australian government is ambiguous over the issue, with figures sparsely reported and suicides or self-inflicted injuries not even accessible. For these critics the injustice is not only from a historical perspective but also a contemporary concern over a public that is unaware of Australian military engagement and ultimately the costs of war.

A suggested transformation of the current format would mean justifying principal images that act to stand as lessons of history, demonstrating the horror and atrocities of warfare for the benefit of future generations understanding the importance of mitigation in light of previous mistakes and involvement. Although technology has advanced beyond the medium of television, it still remains the cornerstone of accessing news in the evenings and a communal arena in which discussion can be formulated easily. As Hoskins has noted, ‘the media possess a great capacity to both shape and stimulate memory while also engineering its collapse’. This responsibility is complex and the role of television to maintain the public consciousness of actions of war is still highly important. As news media becomes intersected with popular culture and the reality TV format, there needs to be a regulatory change to the legislation that limits a detailed and retrospective analysis of war, which as we are witnessing can no longer hold the mass of audiences and rather accommodate the demands for news of the moment. The 1995 Classification Act that determines categories of media and their levels of intensity and explicitness in both imagery and print journalism needs to be reviewed in the context of war imagery. This Act previously has been under review as mentioned in The Australian article, ‘Let us stop pussyfooting around our censorship laws’. It is a federal Act that relies on gauging public opinion, the legislative Act that is referred to as defining ‘Australia’s morality’. This article, although focused on the issue of sexual material under the Act, demonstrates the red tape in which the review and recommendations of the Act are caught up under the Gillard government and cannot be changed significantly or implemented until 2014. Similarly, the Ownership Act of 1992 should be taken into review, as there may be an avenue in which the major networks who make up the majority of percentage could be subjected to allocating a certain allowance of projected time to specifically foreign conflict involving Australians during a time of war engagement. Nevertheless, by the time this Act is reviewed the technology that is under scrutiny will be outdated and any compromise between censorship laws and the possibility of awakening a desensitized community may be lost.

The relationship between the media, the military and the government certainly is becoming increasingly difficult to control, but this should be no excuse for jeopardized news media. This article is not naïve in acknowledging that the demands of current foreign correspondence are increasingly high and, despite technology, the nature of war conflict is not always conveniently attacks and aerial bombings. The same dilemmas that faced Frank Hurley, Australia’s war photographer in WWI, in many ways still are relevant to the task today. Even so, it is not that there is just a lack of imagery, the problem is the images that are in existence are not being used in variance and instead are slowly disappearing from our televisions.

Finally, in review of the historical premise surrounding televised war and its relationship with the media, consider Walter Cronkite, an instrumental figure who paved the way for many aspiring foreign correspondents and journalists. As the most famous American reporter, Cronkite recalls his time in Vietnam and his ideas surrounding censorship, stating: ‘There should have been more censorship in Vietnam, I believe in censorship in wartime’. Cronkite’s reasoning is valid and again it demonstrates the difficult nature of reporting for the public without turning a society into anarchy. For Cronkite, censorship works to ensure reporters are not jeopardizing the troops or prolonging the conflict. Although, in stating his view on censorship, Cronkite adds: ‘war should be covered intimately, correspondents should be there and whether they are performing badly or well we need to know’. He concludes: ‘There needs to be a report, a report for history’. As an example, Cronkite recalls the events of the first Gulf War in 1991 and states that today there is no independent film of the war because they were not permitted to be on the frontline with the troops. This consequence of limited access has deprived history of invaluable information. ‘That history is lost to us now’, comments Cronkite, and ‘it’s a crime against democracy’. Cronkite’s involvement in Vietnam has been declared by many as part of a key broadcasting revolution. In his coverage of 1968 he declared the war unwinnable, and allegedly Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite’s broadcast and knew then he would have to change the war strategy. David Halberstam, in an article on The Museum of Broadcast Communications, declares that it was ‘the first time in American history… a war had been declared over by an anchorman’.

A recent article in the Geelong Advertiser by Peter Veness entitled ‘It’s not worth fighting’ engaged the argument that, after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the war still rages. Although Australia is committed to ‘finishing’ the job, similarly to Cronkite’s description of Vietnam a senior analyst Mr. Roggeven states succinctly: ‘The war is unwinnable’. If this is true then history is repeating itself, we remain an American-centric state unable to create a functionality of operations between the institutions involved in producing televised media and war. As the generational gaps continue to widen, so too does the effect of broadcast journalism on the modern viewer. A new approach to televised war means incorporating relatable imagery, allowing necessary censorship, yet still capturing the authenticity and credibility of war news and footage. As a Gen Y author, this stereotypically shouldn’t be demanding too much. In an era of modernity we still return to history for the answers, and as said by the visionary Greek playwright Aeschylus, ‘In war, truth is the first casualty’.

Selected further reading:

Anderson, F & Trembath, R, Witnesses to War, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2011.

Australian National Library:

Australian War Memorial:

Fitzgerald, Ross, ‘Let’s stop Pussyfooting around censorship laws’, The Australian 12 February 2011.

Hearts and Minds, Video Recording, Rainbow Pictures Corp, 2002

Hoskins, A Televising War: From Vietnam to Iraq, Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2004.

Museum of Broadcast Communications:
http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=warontelevi http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=vietnamate http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=vietnamonte

Palmer, J & Tumber, H, Media at War: The Iraq Crisis SAGE Publications, London, 2004.

Reporting America at War: An Oral History, compiled by Michelle Ferrari, with commentary by James Tobin, published by Hyperion, 2003. http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/cronkite/censorship.html

The Fog of War, Video recording, SBS 1, Australia, 2009

Veness, P, ‘It’s not worth fighting’, Geelong Advertiser, Geelong, 8 October 2011

Williams, Paul, ‘Havoc caught in the logs of war’, The Australian, 23 April 2011. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/havoc-caught-in-the-logs-of-war/story-e6frg8nf-1226041638828

Young, P Defence and the Media in Time of Limited War, Frank Cass & Co.LTD, London, 1992

© APH Network and contributors 2011. All rights reserved.

Citation: Renae Pirrottina, War on Television: From Vietnam to Modern Media, the Troublesome Nature of Credible Reporting in the Demand Era of Gens Y&Z.
Australian Policy and History. October 2011.

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