Re: Did the media lose the war in Vietnam?

Ken Kalish (
Tue, 5 Nov 1996 10:22:53 -0500

At 07:27 PM 11/3/96 -0500, you wrote:
> I'm a sophomore at the College of William and Mary and I'm doing
>a research paper called "Did the media lose the war for us in Vietnam?"
>I'm trying to get many different perspectives about the media's influence
>because I obviously didn't live through it to have personal feelings of
>my own. I would appreciate any personal thoughts, especially those of
>vets. To the vets: Did the negative media coverage at home personally
>influence you and your role in Vietnam and how do you think the media, if at
>all, affected the strategy and eventual outcome of the Vietnam War. Any
>thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.....Lindsay


I'm a Viet Nam vet, having served in the Delta from '67 to '69. I have
spent a number of years as a working journalist (12 of them, primarily as a
broadcast journalist). I have an MA in Journalism. I also served briefly
with AFVN-Saigon after being injured near Vinh Long. I believe I can speak
with some authority to your question.

There were very few restrictions placed on those who chose to cover the war
in Viet Nam. Any reporter who could get to Saigon was able to move around
the country without much difficulty. Many of the camera operators (still or
motion picture) were Viet Namese, while those in front of the camera were
usually Americans or Europeans. American reporters often would set up in
the International or the Caravel Hotels in Saigon, hire a camera operator to
go out and shoot a story, then voice over whatever goodies came back to
them. Conversely, the military conducted a daily media briefing at 1700
hours local time to dole out the official version of what had happened of
note that day. These slightly colored versions of the news became known as
the "5 o'clock follies."

Many of the stories which came out of Viet Nam were intentionally slanted.
War is not something one should view over pot roast, but that's what we did
as a society. I know well that many media types would add just a dash or
two of extra mayhem for seasoning. It might have been a reaction to the
very understandable desire on the part of the military to keep the more gory
stuff off the air and out of print.

The most blatant example of twisting a story in my experience dealt with a
person who is still active in media (notice that I did not refer to the
person as a journalist).

This individual came across a small depleted (military jargon for "all shot
to hell") company of American infantry which was sitting around the top of a
hill overlooking a very smokey valley. Some of those awful people were
actually puffing on pot. Their sergeant and their lieutenant were loudly
arguing on the field radio with some all-knowing figure back in HQ. The
essence of the discussion was that the soldiers sincerely and regretfully
declined to be the next unit to wander down the hill and into that valley.

It seems that an ARVN battalion had made that trip about two hours earlier
and left just over 200 of their companions lying around down there, very
dead. Another ARVN unit tried right after that and discovered that simple
human flesh doesn't fare well when confronted with entrenched artillery,
mortar and heavy machine gun fire. The second group of ARVN also left some
200 friends behind.

Our American heroes, some 60-odd strong, had somewhat rationally determined
that it wouldn't be in their best interest to go down there and see if the
same would happen again. They were explaining that point in some rather
colorful terms when our would-be famous person stumbled on the scene.

A few quick takes of the argument, some B roll of the soldiers smoking pot,
one or two sound bites in response to the question "Do you want to go down
there right now?" and a nice stand up explaining how these drugged up
cowards were refusing to go into combat like they were paid to do,
demonstrating clearly how horrid morale was among these scummy SOBs.

National news. Big story. No mention of the dead ARVNs, of course. That
might tend to lend rationale to the soldiers' behavior and attitude. No
mention of the twenty some odd casualties the company had taken in the last
24 hours. Certainly no offer of equal access.

The story reminded me of something that should have appeared in some yellow
rag, rather than on our national television news programs.

An isolated incident? Not really. I witnessed two other similar examples
of "news reporting" from Viet Nam. These were my first exposures to
advocacy journalism, and I was not impressed. Still am not, in fact.
That's why I left the business some years ago.

Those of us who were there could frequently catch a national network
newscast, since AFVN always aired them. Most of us got newspapers from home
on a fairly regular basis. We saw the stories, and any of us who had been
around for more than 2 weeks had fairly well developed BS sensors in place.
I was just an enlisted squid. No brains, no money, no say-so, just like all
the other guys. Most of the folk with whom I served felt many in the media
were out to crucify us. We took it personally.

We "won" that greatly covered Tet Offensive. They broke the truce and
attacked, we fought back and whipped their butts. Not many folks wave that
bit of information around. Had we been permitted to follow up, the whole
history would have been different - but then, the media thought we'd lost
and they were very effective in conveying that opinion to the public.

Sorry to soap-box. This is one humble warrior/journalist's very unpopular,
very strongly held opinion. I'd be happy to discuss my experiences further
with anyone who has been a working journalist in a combat zone, or an
ordinary grunt.

Good luck on your paper. You might want to give a call to your state's
Veterans Service Office to see if you can get in touch with local VVA
chapters. They could provide you with some interesting first hand interviews.

Kenneth K. Kalish
RIVPATSERC 523, Vinh Long, RVN 1967-68
AFVN Saigon, 1968-69