Writing in the New Yorker in 1967, Michael J. Arlen described television's method of covering the Vietnam War as "a process that more often than not consists in your having breakfast at the Hotel Caravelle [in Saigon] at seven-thirty, driving out to a helicopter base, going by chopper to where some military operation is occurring . . . wandering around in the woods taking pictures until three-thirty, maybe getting shot at a bit and maybe not, then taking the chopper back, doing all your paperwork and film-shipment arrangements, and meeting friends in the Continental bar at seven o'clock."
That the resulting product reflected the limitations of the news-gathering routine as much as it did the actual situation was only one of the things Arlen found wrong with early network coverage of the war. He also observed that, with few exceptions, television news presented only the official view, failing to question patently contrived government reports, and emphasized single events at the expense of context.
Another, conflicting assessment of television's role, which has been elevated to a truism, is that the medium essentially subverted the war effort. Vietnam was the first "television war," this argument goes, and the carnage visited nightly upon American living rooms turned millions against the war and brought about the national failure of will that led to defeat. Others conclude, in equally simpleminded fashion, that the daily exposure to such carnage reduced the fighting to entertainment, rendering the war palatable and enabling politicians to prolong it.
In fact, television seldom showed bloodshed in its Vietnam reports. Typically viewers might see the aftermath of a battle that had taken place the night before, or American troops sweeping an area suspected of harboring Vietcong. When fighting was shown, it was generally less gruesome than the World War II movies that Americans had long been accustomed to.
Just how television influenced the war and shaped perceptions of it has been intensely debated but hardly settled. Barry Sherman, who teaches radio and television at the University of Georgia, has curated an exhibition of television footage (mined from the Peabody collection--the same organization that gives Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting) that, if it does nothing else, establishes what exactly TV audiences saw on the subject of Vietnam between 1962 and 1986.
"There are three distinguishable periods in television's coverage of the Vietnam War," Sherman says. "The first, from the earliest days up to late 1966, was one of almost universal support for military involvement. Late '66 through 1968 and the Tet offensive is what I call the 'schizophrenic period.' During those years you had programs like The Big Red One on WAPI in Birmingham, Alabama, which was avidly promilitary, being aired at the same time as The Anderson Platoon on CBS, which showed the 'grunt's-eye view,' an unfavorable picture of the war. Then, after 1968, criticism of the war and the way the government was handling it became commonplace."
Sherman's interest isn't purely academic. At about the time television was overcoming its schizophrenia, he turned draft age and entered Queens College in New York City, majoring in communications. Sherman's passion was broadcasting, but the war and the draft cast a shadow of uncertainty over his plans, as it did for all young men.
Sherman was never drafted, and after college he went on to get a PhD in broadcasting from Penn State, and from there to teach at Georgia. In recent years, Sherman has been alarmed by Hollywood's re-creation of the Vietnam experience. A thing so easily manipulated as the collective memory, Sherman fears, is dangerous in the hands of revisionists (among whom he counts the auteurs of Rambo and Platoon alike). What do these people care about the real story of the war? He believes that, for them, Vietnam is simply another venue for melodrama, ideology, and comedy.
Sherman's disquiet led him naturally to the archives of the Peabody organization, of which he is the associate director. At its Georgia archives, which hold every inch of footage ever submitted in competition for a Peabody Award, Sherman searched among the dusty deposits of old kinescope films and two-inch videotapes for some unalloyed truth about the Vietnam War. The result is "Vietnam on Television/Television on Vietnam: The Peabody Collection," now appearing at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications.
The complete program consists of 25 hours of news coverage and documentary about the Vietnam War (on any given day, only a few hours of footage are shown). It is no cause for surprise or disappointment that the collection yields few easy conclusions. What it does tell us, says Sherman, is much that is valuable about how television news evolved.
"What you see in these programs is television trying to scramble, with whatever technology it had at the time, to cover the war as best it could," he says. "In the early days they were shooting film, not videotape, often with World War II cameras. The film was usually flown from Vietnam to the west coast and edited there. Sometimes it was edited in flight, but there was very little satellite transmission then, and sometimes a report wouldn't get on the air until days after it was shot.
"Compare that to the NBC show from 1973, in which Edwin Newman is getting world reaction to the start of the negotiated peace: here he's broadcasting live and is linked to people all over the world by satellite. A lot had changed in just a few years, and you can see that evolve gradually in the programs in this exhibition."
The other story that emerges from the collection is the unsung role of local stations in covering the war. "Local stations did a lot of interesting work on the Vietnam War that few people remember or know about," says Sherman. "While the networks concentrated on the policymakers, the military strategies, the 'big picture,' local stations covered the local angle, usually a close-up of the local boy in the war. It was as if these stations were saying, 'Look at this! Only the miracle of television can bring you an interview with your own boy while he's serving in Vietnam.' Very few of these local programs were archived, so most of them are lost, and the view of the war that has come down to us is that of the networks. But the Peabody collection has a lot of this local coverage, and it's well represented in this exhibition."
Whether the programs here are less corrupt than today's Hollywood handiwork is another matter. But at least the Peabody programs are fixed, unyielding to pundits' and presidents' efforts to rewrite the history of the war. With luck they'll help us understand how television shapes the political spectacle, serves the ambitions of empires, and helps or hinders the making of war.
"Vietnam on Television/Television on Vietnam" will run through March 13 at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 800 S. Wells St. The museum is open noon to 5 Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, and 10 to 5 Saturday; suggested donations are $3 adults, $2 students, and $1 children and seniors. For a schedule of footage, and of the lectures and panel discussions planned, call 987-1500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.