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VIETNAM & MEDIA

VIETNAM and the MEDIA

By Leonard Magruder

          There were some worthy, honest, and intelligent reporters in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Dickey Chapelle, Robert Shaplen, Liz Trotta, Peter Braestrup, Hugh Mulligan, Keyes Beech, Neil Davis, Denis Warner, were among those who objectively, and without resort to sensationalism, conveyed elements of truth, parts of the puzzle, to the American public. Their efforts notwithstanding, the fog of nonsense spewed out by others obscured and effectively censored honest, logical, comprehensive reporting, denying the American public information needed to develop accurately informed opinions. News media malfeasance was complemented by brilliant manipulative Hanoi propaganda, and a corresponding U.S. government inability or unwillingness to make a case for its own efforts. The American public could not hope to understand what was taking place, and does not today.

No one, least of all South Vietnamese, American, or other allied forces, was oblivious of or happy with the endemic corruption and incompetence, yet, because of flawed and narrowly focused "reporting," the story of South Vietnam's progress and improvement remains untold. American reporters never wrote or televised stories about CDR, Phan Quang Dan, Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, the 81st Biet Kich, the Hau Nghia RF, Col. Mach Van Truong, Gen. Le Minh Dao, Tran Ngoc Chau, Col. Ha Mai Viet, writer Nguyen Manh Con, or RVN Marine Sergeant Van Luom, who stood alone on the Dong Ha Bridge and knocked out the lead tank in an NVA armor column with a shoulder-fired antitank missile, an act, in the words of an American witness, of inspiring "defiance and bravery."

Knowing little of this, the American public was understandably disenchanted.

The news media seldom, if ever, accompanied American or Australian troops on MEDCAPS or DENTCAPs (Dental Civic Action Projects, extremely welcome to rural people with painful tooth conditions). In the first six months of 1969, more than 200,000 villagers received medical care and 15,000 received dental care from the 3rd U.S.Marine division alone. Instead, the American public was subjected to repeated coverage of the My Lai atrocity, which, like the photo of Gen. Loan, was considered symbolic and representative of the entire war.

Wolfgang Leonhard, a Soviet commuist agent before defecting to the West, was tasked with analyzing Western news media stories. He and his colleagues were puzzled over superficial news coverage predominating in the newspapers they read. "Generally,we could only shake our heads over them, and often we were exceedingly disappointed. There was usually not even mention of the really significant events that were causing endless discussions amongst ourselves and on which we were passionately eager to read a serious Western commentary. "They don't seem to know what is going on' was the main theme of our conversations when we talked to each other on the subject."

One of the more tragic ironies of Vietnam and the news media failure is that there were many fascinating and positive stories to be told. The American people would have appreciated seeing hour-long specials on, for example, U.S. Marine Corps CAP units, a squad of 14 Marines living in one hamlet for their entire tour, working with and defending "their " hamlet alongside local PF. USMC CAPs had a higher voluntary extension rate than among their line unit counterparts. Why? It would have made for a good story. It would have been equally enlightening to see programs showing U.S. troops helping an orphanage, or volunteering to teach English. The American public deserved to know about a VNAF Skyraider pilot who had been shot down five times, and continued flying, despite his several fused vertebrae. They deserved to know that American forces could take on the NVA, in their own backyard, and prevail. Something might have been learned from Americans who volunteered for three, four, five, six, or even seven tours as advisors, choosing to serve in Vietnam again and again, not as bloodthirsty and uncaring killers, but as very normal, decent human beings who could eloquently and convincingly explain their motivations, which was ultimately to see Vietnamese people have a life of peace and decent government. Geopolitics and the Cold War, all relatively abstract concepts, were not a primary concern, taking a back seat to basic human concerns for that which is fair.

Americans would have benefited by hearing of Captain Nguyen Quy An, Lt.Vu Tung, and Warrant Officer Nguyen Quang Hien of the famed 219 Kingbees. Were it not for the action of these men, John Litter, Bob Stratliff and Wiley L . Craney, by their own testimony, would have been killed or captured after their helicopter had been shot down in Laos. They were rescued by Captain An and his crew while under fire and surrounded by NVA. Captain An would later lose both his hands by keeping control of a burning helicopter, saving the lives of others on board who would have died had the flame-engulfed chopper fallen from the sky.

Americans were mesmerized by the NVA's (North Vietnamese Army) 25-day hold on Hue City in 1968, and presumably would be similarly impressed by the 92nd Ranger Battalion 400-day stand at the remote base of Tong Le Chan. Completely cut off, resupplied only by air, the 92nd held, with ambulatory wounded refusing evacuation. Had an NVA unit held out for over 400 days, surrounded and cut off, it would have made headline news. The 92nd Rangers did it and nothing was said.

Had a handful of VC (Viet Cong) high school boys held off an allied attack, it would also would have made headlines. A handful of high school boys did resist VC/NVA forces at the "Troung Thieu Sinh Quan," a junior high school military academy for sons of RVNAF (South Vietnamese) military fatalities. They resisted to the end in 19755, with twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys sending younger kids home, staying in their barricaded school and fighting on. Many of them were killed and when the Communists came in, they fought them. The Communists could not get into that academy. NVA forces eventually surrounded the school, threatened to level it with rockets, kill everyone inside, and negotiated a surrender. This last stand would presumably have had all the drama and "human interest" for a "big story," and had VC adolescents been involved opposing RVNAF, the story would undoubtedly have been trumpeted to the American public. To this day, next to nothing has been said or printed, and the cadets at Troung Thieu Sinh Quan are not even a footnote to history.

Coverage of these stories could have gone on and should have gone side-by-side with negative reporting on corruption, civilian casualties, drug use, and other presumed universal evils of American involvement in Southeast Asia. It is neither suggested nor desired that blemishes or morally repugnant aspects be ignored or covered up. It is asserted, however, that it would have been far more honest to have contrasted examples of deplorable behavior with other aspects, not in the least rare, of which many Vietnam veterans are familiar with and participated in. Fairness and objectivity also demand that equal coverage be applied to the VC/NVA shortcomings and ruthless excesses shown in proportion to their existence and occurrence. Had all this been done, the American public would have been able to understand something, and certainly much more than the psuedo-understanding derived from the "shoot-em-up-bang-bang" reporting they were continually exposed to. For any number of reasons, "positive" news did little for a reporter's career or ego, a career based on finding or inventing "stories" accentuating the negative while heightening public discontent.

Ignorance of military and Southeast Asia matters, of communist revolutionary warfare, fueled by potential for lucrative career advancement, unwilling or unable to report on South Vietnamese or Laotian troops except in cases of failure, apparently enthused by the visual impact of war and the destruction it causes, sometimes disdainful of South Vietnamese if not American troops while ignoring Australian, Korean, Thai, and New Zeland forces, the news media proved incapable of depicting Vietnam, and Hanoi's War, in its entirety . The American public saw the same "bang-bang" every year, and were misled into assuming nothing had changed, nothing was accomplished. Allied temporary defeats were portrayed as permanent setbacks, while victories and accomplishments went unreported, or were, with smug theatrics, cast aside as government propaganda.

News media misrepresentation not only misled and uninformed the American public, but also prohibited its ability to think and make logical inferences on its own.

In the final analysis, Vietnam, Southeast Asia, Hanoi's war, and American involvement could not be, and cannot be, understood, in good part because of media failings, moral, intellectual, and otherwise. Without recognizing this, and knowing that what was reported was not the all-comprehensive truth of the matter, the subject itself cannot be understood. Overall, and efforts of responsible reporters notwithstanding, the nature and extent of news media failure in Vietnam exceeds that of allied military forces who were attempting to and succeeding, despite documented lies and bumbling, to stop Hanoi's War. Many people died and millions more have greatly suffered simply because the whole story was never told. And because what was portrayed in media reporting was demonstrably not, to use the famous Cronkite phrase, "the way it is." This bitter judgment is itself based on beliefs articulated by Robert Elegant, himself a journalist :

"Illusionary events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page, and above all, on the television screen."

Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said that South Vietnam and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the "native" guerillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi, and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance."

Elegant, a highly acclaimed British reporter on Vietnam, later added these terrible words:

"Never before Vietnam had the collective policy of the media sought by graphic and unremitting distortion, the victory of the enemies of the correspondents own side."

Could this possibly be the truth about the performance of the U.S. media in Vietnam? In ending this series, from my extended observation and study of the media while on the home front during the war, this is certainly the way it looked to me. And many others. Said Senator Margaret Chase Smith, "The press has become more sympathetic to the enemy than to our own national interest." (Congressional Record, June 16, 1971)

(This article may be reproduced in any form.)

Mr. Magruder is not a Vietnam veteran. As a college professor (psychology), he was outspoken over many years in support of the troops in Vietnam and the cause, and became deeply involved with them when they returned. Until he moved to Kansas he was an Associate Member of the Suffolk, N.Y. Chapter of VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America).With the support of a number of these Vietnam vets who joined his Board of Advisors, including the VVA chapter President, he founded Vietnam Veterans for Academic Reform, a national organization with a student auxiliary at the Univ. of Kansas. He is sending out this series to regional and state Vietnam vet leaders, plus other vet leaders, vets in Congress, and the national media, to let people know what was accomplished, but was suppressed by the media.

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