In his study of the inner workings of the TV industry, Robert MacNeil discussed the failure of the networks to develop commentary in their newscasts. In his view, commercial television was fearful of boring audiences with a "talking head" for two continuous minutes, and it was anxious not to alienate viewers who might disagree with opinions expressed. Above all, MacNeil contended, "Television does not want people to be angry." While "occasional squints of opinion do penetrate the blandness," he reiterated that "what television abhors is controversy."
But the networks did present opinion. In all genres of TV programming there was always an implicit or explicit point of view. And years of exposure to such representation explains in great part the uncritical public acceptance of the Vietnam War. Without controversy, millions of Americans fought in a war that few of them ever fully understood. For a people priding itself on self-reliance and independence from government control, millions gave themselves to the state without question. For a nation free to think and say what it wanted, few thought or said differently from their political leaders. Those who did react differently often faced harassment or ostracism.
Persuaded? conditioned? manipulated? indoctrinated? brainwashed? Whatever the reality, primarily through video Americans learned of themselves and their role in the world. If the information communicated for decades via TV was inaccurate or biased or insufficient, it was ultimately the shortcoming of those who operated the medium.
What MacNeil should have stressed was not the absence of commentary, but the failure of television to promote a range of opinion that challenged conformity and offered alternative interpretations, that broadcast ideas that questioned stereotypes and established a variety of perspectives from which to understand the United States and the world. As operators of the people's airways, the networks were pledged to provide audiences nothing less. As a free people seeking information with which to make wise decisions, the citizenry had the right to expect as much.
Importantly, however, in the mid-1960s there emerged in commercial television a critical mentality that would lead the medium and the nation to a more independent attitude in assessing the direction of life in the United States. While not a fully developed spectrum of opinion, it was a mentality capable of seeing through hollow rhetoric and of presenting more honest appraisal. This development was the product of two distinct sources: the critique of government and society that emerged with the civil rights movement and the coverage of antiwar critics whose popular support and/or national prestige commanded objective consideration.
For many Americans the civil rights movement was a TV program. Although its roots were deep in American history, its modern embodiment took shape in the mid-1950s and matured on television in the first years of the following decade. Its most renowned personality was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a handsome, well-educated, eloquent, and idealistic young man. Significantly, King was also telegenic. As early as 1955, when he led a boycott of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, this Baptist preacher was on national TV articulating his values. By the early 1960s video made King and the civil rights movement practically synonymous.
In covering the vicissitudes of black protest, American television inevitably reported glaring ironies: poverty in the richest nation on earth, discrimination and segregation in a land of free people, nonviolent black protest to obtain rights taken for granted by white citizens. Out of this situation came fearless TV journalism. To report on school integration, sit-ins, and freedom rides, network correspondents risked bodily injury. Neither TV journalists nor viewers could overlook the inequities they encountered as agents of local and state governments obstructed enforcement of the law; as police turned dogs and fire hoses on chanting marchers; as electrified cattle prods were used to control protesters; as screaming bigots threatened blacks wanting to enter schools and universities; and as fire bombings of protesters' churches and homes, and the murder of black children and civil rights leaders, raised irresistible questions about the realities of American civilization.
Television did not create the civil rights movement. But video coverage of the complexities of the movement turned regional protest into national crusade. In documentaries, newscasts, and increasingly in entertainment programs, TV compelled Americans to understand the goals of the movement and to reach informed decisions on the future direction of national life. In this way, television catalyzed a national debate, the end result of which was a fundamental reevaluation of policies and moral attitudes.
The civil rights movement was also a learning experience for television. It set a precedent in social criticism. Video suggested there was something terribly wrong with society, and forthright exposure created mounting pressure to remedy the problem. While the precedent was not yet recognizable in coverage of policies in Southeast Asia, the medium was not without important critical potential as the war escalated in the mid-1960s.
TV treatment of organized protest against the Vietnam War contributed to the medium's maturing sensibilities. At first antiwar protesters received scant coverage. Small bands of progressive students on college campuses seldom attracted TV cameras. Even the May 2 Movement (M2M), a product of the police suppression of antiwar demonstrations in New York City in 1964, received no national attention, in part because the M2M was organized by the Maoist-inspired Progressive Labor Party. And the small Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), with 29 chapters and 1,000 members in June 1964, received no TV coverage when it criticized the war in Southeast Asia. As Todd Gitlin noted in his perceptive analysis, The Whole World Is Watching, in mid-1964 "SDS did not perform photogenically; it did not mobilize large numbers of people; it did not undertake flamboyant actions. It was not, in a word, newsworthy."
By the end of the year, however, matters had changed, and student protests became acceptably newsworthy. Thousands of university students had spent the summer of 1964 working in the South to register blacks to vote. This "Mississippi Summer" had elements irresisible to television: middle-class white youths assisting exploited blacks, dangerous threats from local white intransigents, and the scenario of a idealistic "children's crusade" that turned to tragedy with the murder in Mississippi of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan.
That fall, moreover, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley commanded national TV coverage. Here, with angry demonstrations and that creative educational alternative, the university "teach-in," network television perforce treated the antiwar attitudes of student activists.
Throughout 1965, the year of massive escalation in Vietnam, TV continued to focus on student protests. It was definitely not sympathetic coverage. In the first months of patriotic swell, TV correspondents tended to trivialize or otherwise disparage the significance of such demonstrations. They also added "balance" to their coverage by identifying Communists among the students, by emphasizing symbols (North Vietnamese flags) and actions (violence) at such protests, and by giving government officials time to denounce such unpatriotic activities. The critical, institutional attitude of TV toward antiwar protesters was epitomized by NBC newsman Dean Brelis on Projection '66, televised December 26, 1965.
The one thing that all American troops in the field say repeatedly is, "What about these demonstrators? Why are they doing this?" They're hurt by it. And they feel that it is a profound form of betrayal of them, because they feel in truth that, "Fine! O.K. Let these people demonstrate. But when they take on the role of calling up their families here in the United States, and telling their families that the people in Vietnam are in error for fighting, then these people are hitting below the belt."
And the other thing that the Americans in Vietnam feel about this protest is this: they say, "Why don't these people mention that the Viet Cong in North Vietnam, when it came to killing the two American prisoners of war, they killed them without any trial."
I for one feel—as a personal, human being involved—that the demonstrations are unfortunate, but perhaps they indicate what kind of a country we are because there is demonstration. It would be better not to have demonstration. But I think that the people themselves who demonstrate, demonstrate irrationally.
Importantly, both Brelis and John Rich on the same program agreed that the North Vietnamese and the Chinese were exploiting American domestic protest in hopes, according to Rich, "that they may be able to win a victory in the United States that has been denied them on the battlefield in Vietnam." In this manner, demonstrators were explained as aiding and abetting the enemy.
Nonetheless, TV coverage was publicity, and no matter how negatively demonstrators were displayed, video exposure expanded popular awareness of domestic opposition to the war. Now, as television confronted the antiwar movement, new, less stereotypical views emerged. This was noticeable, for example, in the assessment by veteran journalist Edward P. Morgan on Year In, Year Out, the annual news summary on ABC aired December 26, 1965.
Lou Cioffi: The GIs in Vietnam...have been made furious and depressed by the peace marches, the peace protests, end the war in Vietnam. If they should spread, if they should become more common, more violent, the GIs who are fighting and dying in Vietnam are going to start wondering what in the world they're fighting and dying for.
Edward P. Morgan: The demonstrations, I suspect, will spread. It is too glib to believe that they are generated entirely by kooks and/or Communists. Both elements are in them. Both elements in some instances have aspects of leadership. But the bulk of this protest is what I would call a thoughtful one. It includes not only the new radicals on the campus, it includes middle-aged, middle-income people with children who have one thing in common, a hatred of war.
Ned Calmer: Well, these people ought to be a lot more constructive than they have been. They ought to direct their protests not only to the American government, but to the governments in Hanoi and Peking and in Moscow, even if it doesn't do any good. I think that'd be heartening to the people in Vietnam that Cioffi was talking about and also the people all over the world.
John Scali: Ned, it's important that we keep in perspective just how much a minority movement the peace marchers represent. It's important to remember that all polls and surveys show that more than 70 percent of the American people support the President on Vietnam. And this 70 percent includes many intellectuals and many people who are capable of independent thought.
Edward P. Morgan: This is true. But sadly I predict, John, that that support will erode as the casualty lists increase.
Reconsideration of U.S. foreign policy also emerged among network newsmen assigned to foreign, especially European, capitals. Abroad, where heads of state and public opinion frequently attacked Johnson's escalatory actions, a few American reporters evidenced early disenchantment with the Vietnam War. Such attitudes ranged from a general cynicism to outright condemnation.
Joseph C. Harsch for many years had been the NBC diplomatic correspondent stationed in London. After a year of escalation, he was less than supportive as he delineated official attitudes on the war. Speaking on Projection '66, Harsch seemed cynical when he contended that the "government in Washington does not truly know how it did get sucked into a minor war in Vietnam which gets bigger day by day, or how to get out of it." He argued that officials feared a pullout would enhance Communist Chinese prestige. He spoke of the domino theory and the national-honor argument. He also mentioned "a small but vigorous minority of policymakers, mostly at the Pentagon and CIA, which believes that we are going to have a war with Communist China someday. So, why not use the Vietnam War as the occasion for getting on with it." The policy of escalating while bolstering weak governments in Saigon, according to Harsch, could create domestic impatience within the United States. This in turn, he argued, "could force the government into continuing escalation, until we were at war, certainly with Communist China, and in the end perhaps even with Russia."
More openly hostile to the American policy in Southeast Asia was John Rolfson, the ABC newsman stationed in Paris. Exposed to the rhetoric of Charles de Gaulle and French opposition to the war, Rolfson on Year In, Year Out, in December 1965, called for the removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Citing the views of "a big majority" in France, Rolfson noted that "The overwhelming fact to them is that we are intervening in an internal revolution, running a puppet government that has no popular support." But he interjected his own opinions when he continued:
And that means being bogged down permanently in a hopeless war that's constantly in danger of escalating. And the alternative is the magnanimous gesture: to pull out. It's the one offer that can bring the enemy to talks, and also can get the rest of the world to help us there, to take some responsibility. And I don't think we have to worry anymore about loss of face, or loss of confidence. The whole world knows we have the power to destroy anything we want. We've proved that we can wipe that country off the map if we want to, but I don't think that means we've got to do it to have a consistent policy.
Neither Harsch's cynicism nor Rolfson's call for complete withdrawal was an opinion shared in 1965 by other correspondents in the year-end news summaries. Rolfson, for example, was ridiculed by Bill Lawrence. "Magnanimous gesture!" he retorted sarcastically. "It sounds to me more like an invitation to sign our own death warrant." John Scali argued that a withdrawal now "would be perhaps the biggest disaster of the century for the Free World." Lou Cioffi contended, "We cannot withdraw." His formula for the future was simple: "Maintain our troops there as long as possible; avoid negotiations, if you will, that could pull troops out; and during this period hold the country militarily long enough to create some kind of a government around which the Vietnamese people could rally."
Still another situation in which TV journalists tested past slogans and found them inadequate involved American military intervention in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965. A crisis in Dominican politics developed when conservative leaders and military officials resisted rebel efforts to reinstall Juan Bosch as president of the country. Two years earlier a military coup had deposed Bosch, the duly elected head of state. Now, in April 1965, Bosch supporters—mostly from the left and including Dominican Communists—sought his restoration.
At the height of his power and enjoying overwhelming popular support, LBJ dispatched 21,000 Marines to the West Indies nation, ostensibly to protect American lives and property but also to prevent "another Cuba." The president was on television twice in the midst of the crisis to explain his decisions. On April 30, he said U.S. troops were being used to evacuate American citizens and other foreign nationals. He added, "There are signs that people trained outside the Dominican Republic are seeking to gain control."
In a fuller explanation of his decision, on May 2, Johnson again spoke to the nation. The speech was filled with Cold War phrases about "the forces of tyranny," "Communist conspirators," "another Cuba in this hemisphere," and "those who fight only for liberty and justice and progress." This time the president used more visceral imagery, falsely quoting a dispatch from the American ambassador in Santo Domingo as saying, "Mr. President, if you do not send forces immediately, men and women—Americans and those of other lands—will die in the streets."
Used to reporting frankly on dictatorships and the crushing of democracy, the network newsmen in Latin America almost unanimously clashed with the interpretations from the White House. When the government declared it operated with "impartiality" to save American lives, Don Farmer on ABC reported, "It's been obvious for some time that nationalist Dominican troops are using American forces to help defeat the rebels." Tom Streithorst on The Huntley-Brinkley Report to ld of American soldiers firing on Bosch supporters "who hadn't fired first." Other correspondents, such as Richard Valeriani, Bert Quint, and Lew Wood, broadcast reports that similarly belied official explanations in Washington.
The Dominican experience left a lasting mark on network TV news. Variety called it a "refreshing show of independence...by the network news departments vis-à-vis the Washington officialese" and "an uncommon depth of journalistic judgment" by a medium "often accused, and often justifiably, of winging with the Administration 'party line'…." The experience also created division within the network news operations; for example, the clash between the idealist Bert Quint and the more experienced Eric Sevareid on a CBS special report, “Santo Domingo: Why Are We There?," telecast May 31. Quint argued that the intervention increased hatred of the United States in Latin America, that the Johnson administration had not yet proven Communists controlled the Bosch rebellion, and that Washington repeatedly lied to newsmen. Sevareid responded that if Johnson was willing to fight Communists in Vietnam, he surely could be expected to do so in the West Indies and that tough decisions like this were part of the agony of being a great power.
Months later, on Year In, Year Out, similar divisiveness was noticeable among ABC journalists. Here the discussants were the correspondent for Latin America, Merwyn Sigale, and John Scali, the diplomatic correspondent. Sigale was blunt:
Our intervention was wrong and should never have happened. It created a lot of anti-American feeling in a country that had been basically friendly to the United States. . . . it shook the inter-American system to its very foundations. I think that intervention was based on faulty intelligence that confused a popular uprising with a Communist coup. And I think it was also based on inept diplomacy in which our embassy bungled an opportunity to mediate in the very early days of the crisis.
Scali, however, clung to the rationalization sketched by LBJ in his speech of May 2. And eight months later, Scali still spoke of a "pro-Castro style government" had LBJ not acted when he did. He argued that "pro-democratic" leaders had abandoned the rebellion and left the field to "Communist toughs and hoods in the streets." He lauded the president for having reacted quickly and decisively.
The Dominican intervention was significant not just as a learning experience for network newsmen. As Alexander Kendrick, formerly of CBS, has indicated, for Senator J. William Fulbright "It began his disillusionment with the Johnson administration and the war policy."
Except for the independent-minded Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Greening of Alaska, no other senators or congressmen voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution. A year later there were doubters, but outspoken opposition on Capitol Hill had not increased appreciably. The defection of Fulbright in late 1965 was a major blow to the president's military policy. A fellow Democrat and Southerner, Fulbright of Arkansas was also chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had shepherded the Tonkin Gulf resolution through the Senate. He was also a close friend of LBJ. His opposition lent great prestige and credibility to those protesting the war. It also created another situation in which network newsmen took steps toward a more balanced, critical perspective in reporting government activities.
Through live television coverage of his committee's hearings into a relatively minor foreign aid bill, Fulbright in January and February 1966 precipitated the national Vietnam War debate that government never wanted and broadcast journalists avoided. Before the committee came leading administration hawks such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk and General Maxwell D. Taylor, ambassador to South Vietnam since 1964. But Fulbright also invited prominent doves and critics like retired General James Gavin and George F. Kennan. While the committee had its own blend of pro-war and antiwar advocates, the hearings were clearly dominated by senators critical of the war and experts testifying against escalation.
General Gavin, a hero of World War II, in which he had headed the 82nd Airborne Division, blasted the inefficiency of Johnson's escalatory policy. He called for a more defensive approach to the war through the establishment and defense of strategic enclaves along the Vietnamese coast. Gavin was especially caustic when he told the senators that administration leaders were wrong in their calculations about manpower and money needed to win in Vietnam. "If I were a businessman looking at a potential market and found such miscalculations," he remarked, "I would have to do something about it. I couldn't long survive."
In sometimes heated dialogue with administration witnesses, Senator Morse was, as Roger Mudd of CBS described him, "indefatigable; imperviously, startlingly blunt; abrasive." In a particularly confrontational exchange with General Taylor, Morse cut though the rhetoric to make his point:
Morse: Now, we're engaged in an historic debate in this country—our honest differences of opinion. I happen to hold with the point of view that it isn't going to be too long before the American people, as a people, will repudiate our war in Southeast Asia.
Taylor: That, of course, is good news to Hanoi, senator.
Morse: Oh, I know that that's the smear artist that you militarists give to those of us that have honest differences of opinion with you. But I don't intend to get down in the gutter with you and engage in that kind of debate, General. All I'm asking is, if the people decide that this war should be stopped in Southeast Asia, are you going to take the position: that's weakness on the home front in a democracy?
Taylor: I would feel that our people were badly misguided, and did not understand the consequences of such a disaster.
Morse: Well, we agree on one thing, that they can be badly misguided. And you and the President, in my judgment, have been misguiding them for a long time in this war.
As an intellectual and diplomat, George F. Kennan was a formidable critic of Johnson's war policies. Princeton University professor, former ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, Kennan had written in 1947 the seminal essay on containment that enunciated the idea of containing Russia within present boundaries to prevent the spread of Communism. Thus, it was a strong indictment of American ignorance and arrogance in Southeast Asia when Kennan exchanged ideas with Senator Fulbright on the impossibility of winning in Vietnam.
Fulbright: I take it by this you mean that this is simply not a practicable objective, as I understand it, in this country. We can't achieve it, even with the best of will.
Kennan: This is correct. And I have a fear that our thinking about this whole problem is still affected by some sort of illusions about invincibility on our part. That there is no problem, a feeling that there is no problem in the world which we—if we wanted to devote enough of our resources to it—could not solve. I disbelieve in this most profoundly. I do not think that we can order the political realities of areas in a great many other parts of the world.
Television coverage of the hearings was not an unqualified success. All networks missed Dean Rusk's heated testimony on the first day, January 28. They offered a few minutes of summary on the evening news. When the hearings resumed on February 4, however, CBS and NBC carried the proceedings live while ABC settled for three "bulletin" summaries. NBC and ABC carried the remaining four days live. But CBS created a professional uproar when it canceled George F. Kennan's testimony on February 10. Instead, it returned to scheduled reruns of I Love Lucy (the fifth showing), The Real McCoys (the eighth airing), and The Andy Griffith Show. The executive decision not to telecast the hearings saved CBS $175,000 in advertising revenue. But it cost the network considerable prestige and one of its greatest journalists, as Fred W. Friendly resigned in protest of the shortsightedness of his corporate superiors.
Further, President Johnson tried with some success to overshadow the Fulbright hearings. On February 5 he flew to Honolulu for a surprise three-day conference with the leaders of the Saigon government—among them President Nguyen Van Thieu and Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky. There was much talk about the solidarity of the United States and South Vietnam in the struggle against aggression and social destruction in South Vietnam. There was also extensive television exposure for LBJ. When he returned to the mainland, moreover, network cameras were in Los Angeles, where he stopped long enough to praise the meeting. And his arrival in Washington on February 9 was covered live by network video.
However imperfect or compromised the coverage, the networks did broadcast much of the Foreign Relations Committee hearings live. Evening news programs and special summaries presented edited highlights of the testimonies. In the midst of a war, with the chief executive still enjoying massive national support for his military policies, it was a mark of the maturation of television journalism—due particularly to the broadcast journalists who fought management to obtain coverage—that the medium broadcast lengthy, profound criticism of the Vietnam War. Senator Fulbright seemed pleased with the results. According to him, "The televising of our committee hearings gave them a great deal more impact and a lot more educational value. I think it was a real public service."
The hearings also raised further doubts about video journalists and their function in a society at war. Television was crucial to the American people. As William R. McAndrew, president of NBC News wrote in mid-1966, network TV was now "the primary source of all information on all facets of the struggle in Vietnam—military, political, economic." Indeed, years before, it had become, statistically, the principal news medium in American life. But it was beginning to ponder its interpretative silence in the face of rising public and government protest.
There was, of course, the example of integrity established by Fred W. Friendly. His departure severed CBS and TV journalism from the last direct link with the legacy of Edward R. Murrow. But among those who stayed in the profession, questions arose. Following a summation of the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam Perspective: The Senate Hearings and the War, televised February 18, Eric Sevareid pondered this "debate between men who question power." The contest between ideas, he suggested, "has come late in the day. It should have come at least a year ago, because the argument is not merely on how to win the war or how to negotiate peace, it questions the very reasons for our presence in Vietnam."
In a thoughtful article in Variety in January 1966, former CBS foreign correspondent David Schoenbrun discussed the failure of American television, as well as other media, to present a comprehensive interpretation of the war. "The great radio-television networks have given considerable time and effort in reporting the war," noted Schoenbrun, "but mainly in its pictorial aspects and with much circumspection and discretion about discussing the gut issues." Above all, he continued, the problem was that the reporters were being asked to cover a war that was not officially declared, a war in which "there are no rules other than the conscience of each reporter and editor and the fortitude with which he can resist pressures to accept wartime rules without a war officially existing."
This presented a dilemma: on the one hand, the inclination to close ranks because American soldiers were fighting and dying; on the other, the temptation to report as fully as possible, even if it caused turmoil or prolonged the war. Still, in this period of incubating professional debate within TV news, Schoenbrun reminded his colleagues, "Close ranks, yes, but to close ranks does not mean to close our minds."
Nowhere was the tension between closed ranks and closed minds more pronounced than among those television journalists assigned to South Vietnam. Here, where news personnel met and befriended American troops and command personnel, there were pressures to report what the government wanted reported and as favorably as the government wished. Still, there were professional and personal inclinations that directed journalists toward reporting the entire Vietnam story, even if it offended viewers, government officials, and network executives.
In Vietnam reporters confronted many problems. There were, of course, predictable hardships due to the brutality of war. Being captured, wounded or killed was always a possibility. As Charles Arnot of ABC suggested, covering the war was ninety percent logistics and ten percent journalism. This meant not only concern about the story, but worry about meeting flight schedules. It also entailed problems getting to, and especially from, the battle front. Further, there were inconveniences of climate and boredom.
Network correspondents endured pressure in Vietnam and from home when their reports ran counter to the upbeat picture projected by U.S. government officials. But with the escalation of the war in 1965, it became increasingly difficult to resist controversial news. And there were more and more American journalists covering the war as the networks bolstered their staffs in Vietnam. By mid-1965 NBC had 22 news professionals covering the war. This represented the largest concentration of network personnel in one foreign country since World War II. CBS and ABC had smaller but still enhanced numbers of newsmen and newswomen.
The buildup of network journalists made it more difficult for the military and the White House to manage the reportage. But they tried. Press briefings by the military in Saigon were derisively called the "Five o’ Clock Follies" by reporters. These were no-comment sessions in which pentagon press officers passed out government statistics and presented explanations favorable to the American war effort. Walter Cronkite, who first visited Vietnam in mid-1965, later described "the skepticism of the reporters at the press conferences in Saigon." According to the CBS anchorman, "They were accepting nothing at the five o’ clock follies. More than seeking information, they were indulging in what I considered self-centered bearbaiting, pleasing their own egos, showing how much they knew."
Beyond Saigon there was also news management by the Pentagon. In February 1971, in a powerful CBS expose of the self-promotional practices of the American military establishment, The Selling of the Pentagon, narrator Roger Mudd described the U.S. Army’s Hometown News Center in Kansas City. From this office, Mudd remarked, “a blizzard of press releases is turned out in all seasons.” Annually, 12,000 radio and TV tapes were mailed from the Center to 2,700 radio stations and 546 TV outlets. More than 6,500 daily and weekly newspapers received over 2 million printed releases. While the thrust of such materials was news about promotions, awards, and achievements of community residents, Mudd noted, “The News Center also functions as a publicity agency for American forces abroad. The only news from the Center is good news."
In The Selling of the Pentagon, moreover, a former military cameraman described the manner in which he staged events, beautified situations, and edited film to get propagandistic images for American television. In this vein, CBS reported that it had been fooled in the past. A military information officer revealed that he preselected interviewees for looks, coached them on "a one-voice concept" of following the official military line, and otherwise prepared them for a visiting CBS news crew reporting on the air war in North Vietnam. After the finished CBS product aired on American television, the military press officer concluded, "Frankly, it was just great!... It was as good as if we had done it ourselves." In concluding, he conceded the preeminence of the military's management of information in Southeast Asia:
I feel that the military information arm is so vast, has been able to become so pervasive by the variety and the amounts and the way and the sheer numbers, it's able to present its viewpoint to the American people. I think that this attitude that it was able to develop allowed Vietnam to happen. Had we not been able to convince the American people prior to Vietnam that a military solution was a correct solution, without a doubt and not to be questioned, that we couldn't have had a Vietnam.
Whenever a TV journalist produced a report that the Pentagon or White House did not like, he was roundly criticized. To make field commanders aware of what the correspondents were saying on U.S. television, the Pentagon compiled kinescopes of network war reportage and sent them weekly to Vietnam for study. Thus, when CBS reporters Peter Fromson in Vietnam and Martin Agronsky in Washington aired reports that were accurate, but embarrassing to the official military effort in February 1966, government representatives berated the networks and publicly denounced the stories as "highly inaccurate." Robert MacNeil has written of how "on many occasions" White House officials complained to NBC News about its reporting. Whether a complaint was rejected, disclosed MacNeil, "depends very much on the individual who is approached in the network and how senior is the official making the approach from the White House."
The most renowned instance of TV coverage upsetting to the Pentagon was a report filed by Morley Safer on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on August 5, 1965. Safer showed U.S. Marines using simple cigarette lighters to torch thatched huts in the South Vietnamese village of Cam Ne. The image of old Vietnamese running away while their American protectors mechanically burned their homes and meager possessions made for controversial TV. According to Alexander Kendrick, these images on the video screen "undid six months of . . . briefings and official handouts." And Safer's accompanying audio description intensified the visual impact. In language reminiscent of Murrow in Korea, Safer remarked:
The day's operation ... netted those four prisoners. Four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English. Four old men who had no idea what an I.D. card was. Today's operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.
Government reaction to Safer was quick and heavy-handed. The President Johnson saw the report and ordered a background check on the CBS newsman. The investigation revealed that Safer was not a Communist, but that he was a Canadian. For years government officials used his nationality to impugn Safer's objectivity. For instance, Arthur Sylvester, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told CBS News executives that Safer was a "cheap Canadian." He wondered, "Maybe a Canadian has no interest in our efforts in Vietnam and no realization that the Vietnam conflict is not World War II or Korea, but a new type of political, economic, military action." As Fred W. Friendly at the time described it, "The vilification of Morley Safer by people high in government and in the Pentagon has been a case of assassination by words."
As TV journalists came increasingly into contact with the aggressive military policies of the U.S. government, they inevitably began to exercise a more independent judgment. No longer willing to see the world through the eyes of the White House and the Pentagon, a small number of journalists in the mid-1960s began to report more critically on what they experienced. Writing in mid-1965 about "the maturing of electronic news," Jack Pitman in Variety praised this "emergence lately of independent reportorial judgments that in the past were a rarity."
Skepticism, however, was not a contagion among broadcast journalists in Vietnam. Charges of "no-guts journalism" continued to be hurled at video correspondents, especially by print newsmen. For many newspaper and magazine writers, TV coverage of Vietnam was filled with courage in gathering pictures, but it lacked interpretative depth. By early 1966, John Gregory Dunne in The New Republic dismissed all documentaries on Vietnam as "a puff of nothing." Hal Humphrey of the Los Angeles Times complained about television's imbalance, where reporters were not allowed to editorialize or offer interpretative remarks, but "how frequently Washington has had unmolested opportunities to air its views." Most effectively, critic Brock Brower in Life complained that despite the heroics of reporters and cameramen, "Difficult war aims and delicate policies are simply not rendered any clearer. . . ." And, he noted, "For all their courage and `toughness' the TV correspondents have not been able to extract much sense from their string of stark vignettes."
Nonetheless, the national debate commenced in the Fulbright committee hearings did not die in TV news. Television did offer more diversity in its war coverage. Certainly, the government still exercised powerful influence over the medium. Johnson still requisitioned free network time, and he held frequent news conferences in which he stated his opinions. And other administration spokesmen—from White House advisers to General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam—appeared regularly on television to explain how matters were progressing. Secretaries Rusk and McNamara were especially accessible and effective when interviewed on shows like NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’ Face the Nation, and ABC’s Issues and Answers. They also appeared as “talking heads” on many documentaries and made countless short statements for evening newscasts.
Further, as the networks developed actuality series dealing specifically with the war, administration representatives were always invited to participate. Often they were given considerably more time than antiwar critics. In late 1965, for example, ABC devoted its prestigious—if not widely televised—ABC Scope exclusively to the war in Southeast Asia. This network commitment lasted until January 1968: 107 half-hour programs later. Several ABC newsmen anchored the individual programs, but especially when the hawkish Howard K. Smith handled the feature, ABC Scope demonstrated a discernibly sympathetic bent toward the Johnson administration. Typically, on the broadcast of July 16, 1966, Smith attacked American intellectuals opposed to the war. "They feel guilty," he surmised. "They can stand it only if they periodically curse themselves, strive to be weak, declare their rich nation to be mankind's enemy, demand that it yield, simply because the foe happens to be poor—whether he's aggressive or not doesn't seem to matter."
Vietnam Perspective was conceived by CBS as a forum in which to debate the issues of the Vietnam War. But from its beginnings in August 1965, the series was more a vehicle for well-prepared White House spokesmen to justify the conflict in Asia. By early 1967, critic Michael J. Arlen could criticize one Vietnam Perspective presentation, "Air War in the North," as "an allegedly serious examination" that was actually "childish and unaware and fundamentally chicken [as] a piece of journalism." As Arlen described the program, it failed to deliver the critical balance originally intended for the series: "CBS took one of the most controversial and important political-emotional issues of the moment, made a few brief stammers at 'objectivity,' presented government propaganda for fifty minutes, then gave us some hurried, underweighted glimpses at the 'opposition' for a final five minutes, and that was it.
In his critique of "no-guts journalism," Brock Brower wrote of the documentaries and news reports projecting war as hell—but as a challenge Americans were heartily meeting. "Their footage in toto runs together as an appalling record of surprise and death," wrote Brower, "Its only coherence being the Kilroyesque figure of the groggy GI slogging through the unfriendly terrain of any war, calmly convinced that he is getting a job done, the sooner the better."
There were many such images in network documentaries. Typical was Same Mud, Same Blood, an NBC news special on December 1, 1967, supposedly about black American soldiers in Vietnam, Instead of asking profound questions about the contradiction in African Americans struggling for freedom in Vietnam and the United States, or the high proportion of blacks on the front lines relative to their percentage in the American population, the program became an uplifting lesson where black and white together fought an East Asian enemy whose designs made brothers at last of Caucasian and Negro.
Another familiar theme for the networks was Communist China. As the United States intensified and expanded its bombing in North Vietnam, TV speculated about possible Chinese entry into the war. The theme was probed in CBS News Special: Inside Red China, broadcast November 22, 1966. CBS aired Morley Safer's Red China Diary on August 15, 1967. On January 15 and 30, 1967, NBC presented a two-part documentary, The China Crisis. On April 27, 1966, ABC News offered Red China: The Year of the Gun? Here, where American journalists were forbidden to travel by order of the U.S. State Department and the Peking government—Safer entered the country on a Canadian visa—the anti-Communist stereotype endured. Thus, John Scali could conclude Red China: The Year of the Gun? with speculation about "Mao Tse-tung's blueprint for expanding Chinese power." He spoke of the 20,000 Chinese troops now in North Vietnam manning anti-aircraft batteries and guarding the railroad route between Peking and Hanoi and concluded:
There is every prospect 1966 will become a year of confronting Chinese military power in North Vietnam as our bombers step up their attacks against targets there. We can and we will meet this threat. But inevitably we will kill Chinese, taking us another step closer to the larger war we wish to avoid. The question thus arises, if we intend to pursue the war in Vietnam as I think we should: is it time to consider some safety-valve gestures to give the Chinese a face-saving retreat, even as we gave Nikita Khrushchev a way out of the Cuban missile dilemma.
Hollywood stars, especially those with military credentials, entered the Vietnam War picture, locally and on network programs. In 1966, ABC aired Operation Sea War: Vietnam (March 10), narrated by Navy Commander Glenn Ford. WCAU-TV—the CBS-owned station in Philadelphia— broadcast Louder Than Guns (March 28), a personal view of the war by ex-Marine Hugh O'Brian, star of the Western series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. The following year on NBC, Raymond Burr Visits Vietnam (October 6) presented TV's Perry Mason interpreting the war favorably for the government. And Our Time in Hell (March 21) on ABC, hosted by ex-Marine Lee Marvin, was so flattering to Marine Corps actions in the Pacific during World War II that Morry Roth in Variety questioned the motives of the documentary. Roth decided "This was less a documentary and more an hour-long public relations plug for the Marines paid for by 3M [the sponsor]—and ultimately by the taxpayers through defense contracts."
While network and independent films supportive of the Vietnam War appeared regularly on television, the medium was inhospitable toward productions condemning the war. However, these films existed, the creations of foreign filmmakers that were shown around the globe. As Erik Barnouw has pointed out, in the 1960s "film about Vietnam erupted in a chain explosion around the world." From Communist nations, but also from Canada, France, Great Britain, Japan, Syria, Sweden, and elsewhere, these documentaries offered "a picture of the war very different from what Americans saw." It was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to televise such films in the United States.
One such production was Inside North Vietnam, an 85-minute report on the enemy compiled by British journalist Felix Greene. Originally commissioned by CBS but then rejected, the film was edited to 49 minutes and shown on the 131 stations of the National Education Television network on January 22, 1968 on the prestigious NET Journal series. The documentary challenged U.S. government claims about the Asian enemy. Contrary to reports from Washington, the North Vietnamese exhibited confidence and high morale. There were also scenes of civilian devastation and loss of life caused by U.S. antipersonnel bombing, although the Department of Defense officially reported only the bombing of military targets. In all, the film was the most complete look at the North Vietnamese ever seen on national TV. But placing it on television created a political furor.
An influential group of congressmen wrote to the NET chairman threatening a cessation of government funding. Some attacked Greene's loyalties, while others explained the film as pure Communist propaganda. Although most critics reacted before ever seeing the documentary, NET sought balance by following the telecast with a debate between dove journalist David Schoenbrun and hawk political scientist Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley.
But there were unmistakable signs that TV journalists were developing and demonstrating independent judgment. This was particularly the case at CBS. It was seen in the year-end discussion program Where We Stand in Vietnam (December 14, 1965) when correspondents questioned the administration's view of the war. It was noticeable in In the Pay of the CIA: An American Dilemma (March 13, 1967), which probed the actions of that secret government organization. And, again, this new professionalism was seen in The People of South Vietnam: How They Feel About the War (March 21, 1967), for which CBS commissioned a poll of South Vietnamese and concluded that 46 percent wanted the bombing stopped, 48 percent felt life was worse now than the year before, and a sizable number blamed the Americans for destroying their villages and saw no U.S. motives in Vietnam except "to colonize it or to save face."
Slowly, several of the most prestigious broadcast journalists began to reevaluate their support of the war, and to state in network specials their opinions that American policy in Southeast Asia was inadequate. On Vietnam Perspective: Eric Sevareid's Personal Report (June 21, 1966), the distinguished CBS correspondent painted a dismal picture of President Johnson's predicament in Vietnam. Sevareid argued that the United States had involved itself in a civil war in Vietnam, but that now involvement was spreading to Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. The administration, according to Sevareid, was speaking from faith, not facts, when it considered the war, for even if the United States actually won the war, it would be faced with the specter of impoverished South Vietnam. Further, Sevareid criticized American military operations, pointing out that there was little lasting gain from U.S. combat operation, and that given the small number of Americans who actually fought in Vietnam, U.S. troops were incurring high numbers of casualties.
Where Sevareid's report was rational and confessional, Morley Safer's Vietnam: A Personal Report (April 4, 1967) was an emotional tour through the savagery of the Vietnam War. Safer employed graphic images and the words of American soldiers to underscore the ironies of the conflict. Here was singer Nancy Sinatra performing her hit song, "These Boots Are Made for Walking," while hospitalized GIs, some with legs bandaged or amputated, looked on. Safer interviewed a young soldier, then announced that the wounded man died shortly after filming was completed.
Most striking in Safer’s report, however, was the human insensitivity created by the war.
One fatalistic soldier explained, "I'd be lying if I said I was glad to be here, but since I'm here I'm glad to be doing what I'm doing."
And the crew of an attack helicopter—now drinking beer in a service club—answered Safer's question "How do you feel when you make a kill like that?"
PILOT: I feel sort of detached from the whole thing. It's not personal....
CAPTAIN: I feel real good when we do it. It's kind of a feeling of accomplishment. It's the only way you're going to win, I guess, is to kill 'em.
THIRD PILOT: I just feel like it's another target. You know, like in the States you shoot at dummies, over here you shoot at Vietnamese. Viet Cong.
ANOTHER PILOT'S VOICE (interrupting): Cong. You shoot at Cong. You don't shoot at Vietnamese.
THIRD PILOT (laughing): All right. You shoot at Cong. Anyway, when you come out on the run and then you see them, and they come into your sights, it's just like a wooden dummy or something there, you just thumb off a couple pair of rockets. Like they weren't people at all.
The doubts of major network newsmen also appeared in media other than television. In 1967, Mike Wallace wrote in The Nation of matters he still could not discuss on CBS TV. His topic was the South Vietnamese Army, and he compared its dispirited, unpatriotic attitude with the dedication of the Viet Cong. In the same publication Ted Koppel of ABC treated the irony of racially-bigoted American soldiers hoping to win the hearts and minds of Asian peasants. The time is perhaps long overdue," wrote Koppel, "for us to give up the naive assumption that the bigot from Bayonne, the dropout from Dayton, the hood from Hattiesburg, and the plain uninterested Marine from Montgomery have, in the long trip to Southeast Asia, been magically transformed into effective good-will ambassadors."
When he learned from Adlai Stevenson that the North Vietnamese twice made overtures to the United States to negotiate peace, only to be turned down by the Johnson administration, Eric Sevareid kept the information away from CBS, preferring to explain it in a Look magazine article in 1965 And while Chet Huntley remained undaunted in his support of the president's policies, his NBC partner, David Brinkley in 1967 chose TV Guide as his outlet for announcing, "We should stop the bombing—there's not much evidence that it has ever been as effective as the Air Force thinks it is, in this or any war—and I think we should take the first settlement that is even remotely decent and get out, without insisting on any kind of ‘victory.’"
Speaking before the International Radio and Television Society (IRTS) in January 1967, anchormen Walter Cronkite of CBS and Peter Jennings of ABC, as well as correspondent Edwin Newman of NBC, criticized the bombing of North Vietnam. The same month the King Broadcasting Company began editorializing against escalation and arguing against the basic premises of the American commitment.
Of particular significance were the views of Cronkite. Long a supporter of government military policy, as late as January 1966, he had disagreed before the IRTS with Jennings, who spoke even then against the bombing. But by early 1967, Cronkite had become a strong vocal critic of the government's war policies—although he never voiced his opinions on TV. By February 1967, while speaking at Johns Hopkins University, Cronkite assailed the "news obscuration" by the government, characterized the right wing of American politics as "wounded bears of know-nothingism," and criticized the dishonesty in all sectors of American life that "has brought almost unparalleled cynicism to threaten faith in our democracy at home and in our integrity abroad."
The climax of this self-evaluation by TV newsmen was reached in early 1968. In the wake of the Tet offensive, in which enemy troops overran much of South Vietnam—even sending guerrillas inside the U.S. embassy grounds in Saigon—Cronkite finally spoke his new views on television. Although the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese lost their military bid in the Tet offensive, they greatly undermined the faith among Americans at home that after all those years of warfare victory in Vietnam was near. On the special Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite (February 27, 1968), the well-respected CBS newsman told a prime-time audience:
We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.... To say we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.... But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
On network radio, a medium always more open to informed commentary than was television, the critique of Johnson's policies in Vietnam was even more intense. Howard Tuckner of NBC, back from twenty months covering the war, blasted the American military effort. "Militarily and politically, it is not going well for the United States," Tuckner claimed in February, "no matter how hard Washington tries to rationalize the situation." He attacked the credibility of Pentagon figures coming from Vietnam as being "as believable as a Saigon bar girl." He also raised a new theme, suggesting that for the first time American military officers in South Vietnam felt the United States could lose the war militarily.
David Brinkley on NBC radio was similarly cynical and disenchanted with the Vietnam War. It had taken many bloody years for American broadcast journalism to reach this point of independence in judging the actions of government leaders, but Brinkley's commentary on February 15 epitomized the new professionalism emerging among network news personnel:
For either a hawk or dove it is hard to see any point in continuing the war at its present level since it's achieving nothing. It actually is doing harm. It is destroying South Vietnam in the process of saving it. And even if victory were achieved by the present military level, it is doubtful there would be much left worth saving.... more and more of South Vietnam is being destroyed. Its civilian population—men, women, children and even babies—are being killed by the thousands. A very large proportion of the American money sent in there winds up somehow in the pockets of local officials.... And after three years of a huge, costly American effort, including more bombing than Germany got in the whole of World War II, the enemy forces are stronger than they were when we started, and certainly more aggressive, as in the attacks on the cities in the last two weeks.... It is clear to all, or should be, that fighting the war at the present level is accomplishing nothing.
While news-related television experienced a professional reappraisal, entertainment TV demonstrated few critical breakthroughs. This was still an escapist medium of spies, comic and serious soldiers, cowboy champions, and syndicated reruns of anti-Communist heroics from the previous decade. Entertainment TV in the 1960s projected values supportive of the American military effort in Southeast Asia. Not until the 1970s—in popular series such as All in the Family, M.A.S.H., and Saturday Night Live—did widely accepted programs offer cynical attitudes about war. By that time, moreover, the U.S. role in Vietnam was moving toward or had actually reached a peace arrangement and American withdrawal.
Nevertheless, in two important comedy shows of the 1960s—That Was the Week That Was (TW3) and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—video realized its potential as an entertainment forum able to be politically critical. During its sixteen months on NBC (January to July 1964, and September 1964 to May 1965), TW3 was not a popular series. In its last weeks it was number 94 in the network ratings. Copied from a program successful in Great Britain, it was, nevertheless, a landmark series in American television because it relied heavily upon political satire.
In its gags, sketches, blackouts, and songs, That Was the Week That Was often tossed barbs at the war in South Vietnam. One skit involved "Bernie the bookie," a Las Vegas gambler taking bets on political developments in Southeast Asia. He gave 9 to 5 odds that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would overrun Saigon by closing day at Hialeah race track. Chinese ground intervention was 4 to 1; Chinese air support for North Vietnam was even odds; the chances of the present Saigon government lasting until the All-Star baseball game was 99 to 1 against. Bernie even took bets on World War III—war with Russia was 9 to 1; with China was 7 to 1; and use of atomic weapons was Us 12 to 1, Them 6 to 1.
Because the half-hour program lampooned a wide range of social and political realities, the humor directed at the Vietnam War appeared as part of a nonstop parade of jokes. Its sting was thereby dissipated, for it appeared with wisecracks about religion, civil rights, Congress, pornography, and other social concerns. There was in the satire of TW3, however, strong criticism of the Vietnam War. And that was new to entertainment television. It was nowhere better exemplified that when Buck Henry, on the program of January 26, 1965, gave a short, sarcastic history of government in South Vietnam:
Trouble here began in November '63 with the overthrow of the Diem regime. Madame Nhu left the country and the regime was ousted by the military in a coup. Madame Nhu has since gone on to become a Miss Universe loser.
Power was then in the hands of Major General Duong Van Minh. But in January '64, Major General Nguyen Khanh led a bloodless coup which made him premier, but still impossible to pronounce.
In March '64, after threats, Khanh stepped down and Nguyen Xuan Oanh was made acting premier.
In September a bloodless coup installed Tran Van Huong as premier, replacing Khanh, and giving rise to the saying, "Khanh today, Huong tomorrow."
In December, the Young Turks of the Army staged a demi-coup against civilian rule and Huong brought four military leaders into his cabinet.
Then this week another coup, the fifth, deposed Huong and put Khanh back as premier. Khanh's first public statement was that Vietnam has had its final coup. It would be a pity if the South Vietnamese stopped now. They're just getting good at it.
Far more successful and provocative than TW3, however, was the CBS musical-variety program The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Between February 1967 and June 1969, this mix of songs, guest stars, and irreverent topical humor often addressed the issues of the Vietnam War and social protest. Tom and Dick Smothers several times had Pete Seeger as their guest. On his first appearance, September 10, 1967—Seeger's first network TV performance in 17 years—he performed "Waist Deep in Big Muddy," a satirical song about a stubborn military officer compelling his men to wade into a muddy, impassable river. The "big fool" officer was clearly a reference to the President Johnson and his attitude about the Vietnam War. Although Columbia Records (a division of CBS) had recently recorded and released this Seeger tune, CBS Television edited it from the actual videotape of the program. This act of corporate censorship created such an adverse public reaction, however, that Seeger returned on February 25, 1968, and performed the song, this time without it being deleted from the actual broadcast.
Another controversial folksinger, Joan Baez, was also censored by CBS. An activist and wife of a convicted and incarcerated draft resister, Baez was hired to sing on the program of March 9, 1969. The videotape of the show was so heavily abridged by network executives that a fully edited copy was not ready in time for airing. The program with Baez was postponed for three weeks.
Among the cuts from the show was Baez's complete explanation of the significance of her forthcoming record album, David's Album. The record was dedicated to her husband, David Harris, who was about to enter federal prison for refusing induction into the Army. Network censors allowed her to say the album was "kind of a gift to David because he's going to be going to prison probably in June. And he'll be there for three years." CBS then cut from the videotape her remaining words: "The reason he is going to prison is that he resisted Selective Service and the draft and militarism in general. Anybody who lays it out in front like that generally gets busted, especially if you organize, which he did."
Tom and Dick Smothers, themselves, were not averse to political satire. On the program of April 23, 1967, their opening dialogue centered on a recent coup d’état in Greece that brought a repressive military regime to power and crushed Greek democracy. The brothers used that experience to make pointed statements about government in the United States.
Tom: This past week, if you were reading the papers and everything, I think you read about a revolution in Greece. The army threw out the premier and took over the government.... And we'd like to be the first TV show to recognize that new government in Greece. . . .
Dick: It is true, it's really true. Over the weekend—or not really the weekend—last week, the Greek army did overthrow the Greek government. That's true. . . .
Tom: Now, this is very important, 'cause the people should have the right to overthrow their government and change. Like even right here in this country. If there's something that we don't like, we have the right as members of this country to stand right up and throw the government right out. You know, march right over and throw 'em out.
Dick: Now, wait a minute, Tommy, you love this country.
Tom: I know I love this country. I'm not too sure about the government.
Dick: Now wait a minute. That is not how he feels. And Tommy does not advocate throwing over the government. You don't, do you? Tom: I don't advocate throwing over the government. I was just saying that—to keep 'em on their toes.
The critical attitude of the brothers toward the Vietnam War also prompted CBS censorship. For their Mothers Day broadcast in 1968, they planned to show a Mother's Day card reading "War is not healthy for children and other living things.... I don't want candy or flowers. I want an end to the killing. We who have given life must be dedicated to preserving it. Please talk peace." CBS censors, however, cut the entire segment. The network explained that the mothers' group distributing the card might be subversive, and that in an entertainment program, "We do not permit political positions."
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was dropped by CBS in the spring of 1969—only days after it had announced a 26-week extension of the show. Cancellation of the program stemmed not from any specific act of censorship, but from Tom Smothers' professional "indiscretion" of complaining in person to senators and FCC officials about CBS expurgations and what he felt to be network inhibition of his artistic freedom. Both network and talent had lived successfully for two years with the deletion of program segments and controversial jokes. But, as Robert Metz noted in his controversial book, CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, "Name calling, even if it reaches the press, is forgivable. But going to the Feds—whether the FCC or Congress—is not playing the game."
Despite two years of battling CBS executives, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was pivotal in the history of television. It brought "political positions" to entertainment TV. It sprang from a liberal, anti-establishment mentality, and the consistently high ratings it received proved that there was an audience for such programming. More than That Was the Week That Was—and certainly much more than the slapstick comedy of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In—the Smothers brothers' show opened network TV to a new type of humor. In the 1960s the Smothers Brothers created an oasis of liberal commentary. In the next decade its satire paled before the irreverence of Hawkeye Pierce and B. J. Hunnicut, as well as the indictments from Mike and Gloria Stivic as they fought for antiwar values against Archie Bunker.
In the years since presidents Kennedy and Johnson plunged the nation into an Asian land war, commercial television had exhibited small, but expanding, political diversity in its reportage. Where the medium had been the principal means of persuading the nation to accept unquestioningly a conflict against Communism thousands of miles from the United States, it began now to pay attention to political voices critical of government in general—and of the Vietnam War in particular. Some of its most popular stars—in entertainment, but more so in journalism—now began to speak out against the war.
Ironically, several days before Tom and Dick Smothers were canceled by CBS, a Roper poll showed again that more Americans received more news from TV than from any other medium of information, but by the widest margin—44 percent to 21 percent for newspapers, 11 percent for magazines, and 8 percent for radio—they now rated TV the "most reliable" news mediums.
In the following decades the importance of television to the nation would increase. There would be more war in Vietnam to cover. There would be the Watergate scandal and the resignation of an incumbent president. And in the 1980s, there was the growing threat of war in the Middle East and Central America. In all cases, however, network television acted as it had not in the past, to present a balance of opinion and a willingness to investigate without bias. It was a crucial function for TV to perform. Unfortunately, it took a costly war in Asia for television to recognize its responsibility to American society and to perform with integrity, independence, balance, and relative thoroughness its function as the most important medium of communication in the nation.