TV Wars
After TV got to the battlefield, it became the battlefield.
Dan Rather Vietnam
photo credit: CBS
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November 02, 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik

View Evolution of TVThe Vietnam War was the first true television war, incorporating not only advanced technical resources by the network news departments, but also a new attitude in reporting.

In March 1965, the first U.S. combat Marines landed in South Vietnam and the Air Force began bombing raids on the North. By then, television news departments had expanded considerably. The nightly news had doubled in length. Television had dealt with demanding domestic stories, including Civil Rights conflicts and the assassination of a president. So when network correspondents landed in South Vietnam, they not only packed portable film equipment, they also brought an expanded sense of mission. They were reporters who would tell the story as it unfolded.

At first, much of the news coverage reflected optimism and focused on battle statistics, American GIs adjusting to life overseas, and aerial bombing footage. But as the war dragged on, reports from the front were a grim accompaniment to domestic debates and demonstrations over war policy. Television cameras took the story to its bitter end, showing the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973 and, two years later, the fall of Saigon and the frenzied helicopter evacuation of the U.S. embassy.

TV proved to be a huge catalyst in forming the public opinion of the war. The U.S. government had effectively relinquished control of the way the war was to be perceived at home, ceding the imagery to television. That represented a remarkable change from the past.

During World War II, network radio defined coverage, with news bureaus working carefully with government censor offices in choosing what material would be shared on the air. There was a sense that everyone was part of the same team.

Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America, not on the battlefields of Vietnam.
— Marshall McLuhan

In 1950, when the United States entered the war in Korea, television news was still not ready to follow the story to the battlefront.  Most of the television coverage relied on brief battle summaries, often using film footage supplied by the U.S. government. 

It was not until late 1952, at Christmastime, that viewers experienced a different view of the war from television. By then, CBS had added See It Now to its schedule, a weekly news documentary program hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

Murrow took his See It Now crew to Korea and focused simply on how the average people at the front were dealing with a stalemated war.  These images ranged from weary soldiers headed out on patrol to a native girl in a South Korean military uniform singing “Silent Night.”  When an armistice was signed in 1953, Murrow’s documentary stood as one of the few television snapshots of life at the war front.

Vietnam proved to be a dramatically different story, with television free to report the war as it saw it. But TV correspondents would not receive such unfettered access in subsequent wars. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 occurred in a 24-hour news world connected by satellite technology, but television’s emphasis on the aerial bombing left little time for troop engagement and stories from ground level. In the end, it came off more as a video screen adventure, almost akin to a video war game. 

A dozen years later, U.S.-led forces returned to Middle East, and the government made detailed provisions for a new television war, with round-the-clock, multimedia coverage of the campaign in Iraq. Digital technology and cell phone connections made it possible to send live reports directly from the field, and some 500 members of the press were credentialed as “embedded” correspondents, training with and accompanying assigned combat units as part of the team. But as the combat in Iraq continued beyond a first rush of success, television news once again had to grapple with the problem of how to best cover a campaign that had turned into an extended, contentious and controversial war.

Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of 10 books, including Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press). He is also a media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program Eight Forty-Eight, and a consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Text copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik. All rights reserved.

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