It is ironic that while it was silent, even ignorant, about the coming Vietnam War, television had prepared the nation for just such a battle. It was not a conscious brainwashing, but a subtle persuasion acted out over a dozen or more years of programming. TV told Americans the world was black and white, good and bad. TV showed that American virtues always triumphed, that American answers were best for mankind, and that Americans were selfless, wanting only to help others.
Simplistic in its anti-Communism, increasingly venerative of national political leaders, and traditionally superficial and biased, TV indicated there was no need for profound analysis or for skepticism. Whether fiction or actuality, child-oriented or intended for adults, video ill served public discussion. It offered too many distorted images of the non-American world. It provided far too little information with which to assess world affairs. At a time when Americans depended upon the medium for honest diversion and accurate reportage, television offered too much propaganda and shallowness.
At no time in the nation's history did the United States go to war as in Vietnam. There were no cries of "Remember Pearl Harbor!" or "Remember the Maine!" Vietnam was not an openly declared "police action" taken in conjunction with a vote of the United Nations. Kennedy did not go before Congress, as had Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, to obtain a constitutional declaration of war. The Vietnam War was eased into. Without open debate and without popular comprehension of the issues, motives, or consequences, Americans one day simply found themselves in an Asian land war. The anti-Communist action that under Truman and Eisenhower had been only a holding action in Southeast Asia now became an active American war undertaken on the basis of secret decisions by Kennedy and his advisers.
The first television exposure of the Vietnam War was made by James Robinson, the NBC correspondent stationed in Hong Kong. On Projection '62, televised January 5, 1962, Robinson seemed to flabbergast his colleagues when he bluntly declared to anchorman Frank McGee, "Well, Frank, like it or not—admit it or not—we are involved in a shooting war in Southeast Asia." No American broadcast journalist or network had ever described the actions of U.S. advisers in Southeast Asia as did Robinson.
In his analysis Robinson left no doubt that American forces were not just training South Vietnamese troops to resist Communist insurgents:
American troops in battle uniforms, fully armed, are being killed [by] and killing Communist-led rebels in South Vietnam. American officers are in full command authority of important military operations there. And our active military participation in this war is on the increase. Our involvement stems from the fact that the South Vietnamese are unable, and in some instances, unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to save their land from Communist take-over. United States officials there have told me we must win this war, even if we have to militarily attack North Vietnam, the present source of Red infiltration and aggression.
Perhaps the most objective correspondent at NBC, Robinson refused to see the struggle in Vietnam in terms of anti-Communist clichés. Instead, he explained the conflict more realistically:
The Asian Communist strategy to conquer South Vietnam is not based on ideology. Rather, it's self survival. The Red regimes in Peking and Hanoi are proved economic failures. They simply can't feed their subjects. They must have the surplus food of South Vietnam in the very near future, and eventually in all Southeast Asia, or they'll collapse.
Robinson recognized that the new Vietnam War was the result of political and military decisions made in Washington. But he warned against overestimating American prowess and underestimating the strength of the enemy. "The presence of American soldiers in this battlefield doesn't necessarily guarantee victory," noted Robinson, "for U.S. involvement will trigger increased efforts for the Asian Communist camp." He added ominously, "Is President Kennedy willing and able to cope with this avalanching military challenge in the Far East? Many there doubt it."
To this date network TV had communicated the battle between Communists and non-Communists in Vietnam as classic Red guerrilla subversion valiantly resisted by freedom-loving, religious South Vietnamese. When Vice-President Johnson visited the South Vietnamese premier in mid-1961, he called Diem "the Winston Churchill of Asia"—this to go along with Diem's other sobriquet, "the Abraham Lincoln of Southeast Asia." As for the American role in Diem's struggle, it had been portrayed as advisory (helping the South Vietnamese to help themselves) and economic (providing financial aid to bolster the South Vietnamese economy). This was the essence, for example, of the two-part CBS documentary "Guerrilla", which aired on The 20th Century series on November 12 and 19, 1961.
That James Robinson startled his peers on Projection '62 is apparent from the following reaction to his assessment.
McGee: Now, Jim, let me get this clear. I think it's important. You're saying that we are not simply training South Vietnamese troops over there to fight, but that American soldiers in uniform are carrying guns and shooting at the enemy?
Robinson: That's absolutely right. Also, our Navy is patrolling in South Vietnamese waters to seal off infiltration from the North. We have our Air Force in combat operations there. Rangers and Special Forces are out in hand-to-hand combat in the jungles and in the delta regions of South Vietnam.
Cecil Brown: Jim, a few dozen helicopters and a few thousand troops do not represent a very extensive commitment....
Sander Vanocur: ... Jim, I think that your evaluation is much too strong. We are not in a war there, we don't consider—a local operation ....
Robinson: Well, Sandy, in a sense this is a pretty shocking political morality from Washington. Because we have already promised officially to South Vietnam that we will go to any efforts to save that country from the Communists. And what are we doing? Carrying out an experiment now in American lives there without knowing really what we're going to do?
Bernard Frizell: Well, I think the question, Jim, really is: Is this going to develop into another Korea?
Robinson: It certainly is! It already has developed into another Korea! We have many countries anxious to get in there. Many countries already participate in the war there. You have Malaya sending considerable amounts of equipment. England has sent advisers. You have the Philippines and Thailand ready to send troops in there.
The only comment more unnerving than Robinson's revelations of active U.S. participation this early in the Vietnam War, was his prophetic final statement on what Americans might expect in Vietnam in 1962: "Tragic news will shock, sadden many American families in 1962—news of deaths of Americans killed in Southeast Asian conflicts."
The Kennedy administration offered television journalists a wide variety of crises and program innovations to fill the evening news and documentary specials. From civil rights at home to the Peace Corps abroad, from Cuba and Berlin to the Alliance for Progress in Latin America and new initiatives in central Africa—there was under JFK a news dynamism absent from politics under Eisenhower. Moreover, with television technologically more mature by the 1960s, visual communication of domestic and international challenges to Kennedy's activism could be more thoroughly presented.
American TV, however, seemed more fascinated with the Kennedy personality than the Kennedy policy. The surprised and defensive reactions of those NBC correspondents to James Robinson's report—essentially a "radio" report with no pictures or film to enhance his points—reveal the shallowness of TV news when it gravitates to personality instead of thorough, objective analysis. On January 12, 1962, NBC aired its eleventh hour-long JFK Report without having fully probed developments in South Vietnam. On February 25, 1962, that network broadcast an NBC News White Paper entitled "Red China," again without closely examining American policy in Southeast Asia.
For its part, the Kennedy administration continued to exploit the president's aplomb in short-answer news conferences and succinct statements taped for the nightly news. By late March, Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin liberal Democrat, publicly urged JFK to use television more responsibly by speaking to the nation in detail about administration policies.
On the matter of South Vietnam, the president at his news conferences was seldom pressed for details when he mentioned American commitments. Without a probative retort, on January 31, 1961, he announced, "The situation in Vietnam is one that's of great concern to us.... The United States has increased its help to the government." On February 7 he spoke of U.S. economic aid to Vietnam, and the existence of "training groups out there which have been expanded in recent weeks as the attacks on the government and the people of South Vietnam have increased," but there were no follow-up questions asking for specifics. Nor was there a press reaction to JFK's appeal for caution in reporting on South Vietnam. He told the journalists on February 7: “Now, this is a danger area where there is a good deal of danger, and it's a matter of information. We don't want to have information which is of assistance to the enemy—and it's a matter which I think will have to be worked out with the government of Vietnam, which bears the primary responsibility.”
When asked to explain developments in Vietnam because "We don't have any overall coverage.... [and] because the Pentagon won't put out anything," Kennedy on March 7 brushed off his questioner: "I don't think you could make a judgment of the situation," he remarked, adding, "It's very much up and down, as you know, from day to day and week to week, so it's impossible to draw any long-range conclusions." A month later, in his conference of April 11, the president lamented the death of American soldiers in South Vietnam, but quickly added, "We cannot desist in Vietnam." Again, however, there were no follow-up questions.
As presidential evasion continued, television by the spring of 1962 finally began to analyze the situation in South Vietnam. On May 8, NBC aired Viet Nam—Last Chance, an hour-long analysis narrated by Edwin Newman and James Robinson. Variety described the program as "at a superficial level ... a good war story in motion pictures, and at its most profound ... a balanced, purposeful study of U.S. policies, native politics, and armament in Southeast Asia."
More revelatory was the May 23 ABC telecast of Howard K. Smith with News and Comment. Since leaving CBS in the fall of 1961 and moving to prestige-hungry ABC News, Smith had been given a prime-time commentary program in which to treat issues he felt most pressing. In this installment Smith's topic was "What is Kennedy going to do about the Cold War that past administrations didn't do?" Specifically, he focused on South Vietnam and "one of his conspicuous new approaches, Mr. Kennedy's interest in guerrilla warfare."
Smith opened areas never fully explored on network TV. He told how in one year Kennedy had raised the number of American Special Forces from slightly more than 1,000 to a projected 10,000. While all were volunteers, Kennedy "passed down word that promotion will be faster for regular Army men who ... volunteer for guerrilla service." Further, Smith reported American "troops pouring into Thailand."
Smith presented administration spokesmen who explained the necessity of increased U.S. intervention. Walt Whitman Rostow, chief State Department policy planner, described Communist guerrilla warfare as "a type of war they [Communists] feel they can impose on a transitional society at a certain moment in vulnerability in the course of its movement towards modernization." Roger Hilsman, the director of intelligence for the State Department, likened the Communist guerrillas to the gangsters in Chicago in the 1920s—lacking true popular support, but operating freely because local government was not effective in controlling their terror and retaliation.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was both manipulative and forthright when he discussed the Vietnam situation with Howard K. Smith. After the ABC journalist had presented strong criticism of Diem's autocratic regime in Saigon, McNamara spoke glowingly of the premier's accomplishment "to move his country toward a democratic structure." When quizzed more specifically by Smith, the Secretary admitted that in Vietnam "autocratic methods within a democratic framework were required."
More frankly, McNamara held out little hope for a quick victory over Communism in South Vietnam. When asked to estimate "how long it's going to take to settle this issue in South Vietnam," his answer was not encouraging. "I can't, but I'm certain it isn't a matter of months," McNamara responded, "rather a matter of years. I would guess three to five at a minimum."
It is important to note that throughout this program—in fact, throughout the several years that Howard K. Smith broadcast his commentaries for ABC—he was not opposed to the anti-Communist commitment in Southeast Asia. This program was filled with encouragement for the administration to upgrade its performance, militarily and psychologically. Smith also subscribed to the domino theory, which envisioned the collapse of countries like Burma and Thailand should Communism be victorious in Indochina.
Journalistically, Smith was a product of World War II. One of Edward R. Murrow's young protégés covering the war in Europe, Smith made one of the war's most powerful broadcasts when, in May 1945, he described conditions in bombed-out Berlin—once the fourth largest city in the world, now in ruin because of Allied bombing and occupation. Like so many from that era, words like "appeasement" and "isolation" were to Smith synonymous with the advance of Fascism; and Hitler's policy of conquering one independent country after the other was a political pattern never to be allowed again.
Howard K. Smith was an anti-Communist, but within a liberal framework. He called for the overthrow of Castro because the Cuban leader was like Hitler. On his program of September 30, 1962, he declared:
My completely personal view is that Castro's Cuba has become a threat to U.S. security—a more important threat than the Communist invasion of South Korea was.... I think Castro's satellite government has to be removed. Cuban patriots, aided by us, should do it. But if Russian guns have made that too difficult, direct American action should be contemplated.... For us, this is a little like watching Hitler's march into the Rhineland. He could have been stopped easily then.
Smith also viewed Communist China with values from the Hitler experience. "In China the need for living space is not out of date," he told his audience on March 7, 1962. "In China, Lebensraum may become the sharpest of all issues.... the huge Chinese population is way out of control. It's going to have to move somewhere sometime unless Chinese technology improves immensely." Still, he could be pragmatic. He was willing to recognize, for example, that China and the Soviet Union had national interests that differed, and this meant a world of Communisms to be dealt with diplomatically. Thus, on December 12, 1962, he could suggest: ...it is all a rich opportunity for us.... If Communism is no longer monolithic, our attitude in dealing with it should cease to be a solid monolithic opposition. The use of Western trade to reward moderate Communist countries and to punish radical, aggressive Communists—this while standing firm on basic commitments—might change the course of history by peaceful action.
In the early years of the American slippage into the Vietnam War, television journalists failed to offer informed rebuttal or even healthy doubt when the government explained the imperatives for a military commitment in Southeast Asia. Smith was the only network newsman regularly editorializing; there were no opposing voices urging a full exposure of the issues in Vietnam, a weighing of all sides, a full national debate of the advisability of the American actions, or an adherence to constitutional processes in the expanding military role of the United States in Southeast Asia.
In many cases, moreover, American TV journalists held political views that matched administration perceptions. Like Kennedy, many newsmen envisioned Communist China as an aggressive anti-American power threatening to establish hegemony over all of Southeast Asia—and perhaps all Asia. The two CBS correspondents stationed in Asia, Bernard Kalb and Peter Kalisher, saw Chinese Communism behind Asian upheavals. On Years of Crisis: 1962, Kalb contended the Chinese never made a secret that Communism for all Asia was their goal. "Their objective," he contended, "is to brainwash all of Asia, rattle Asia, weaken Asia, and then make Asia ripe for the taking over by the Communists."
For Kalisher, "Red China sees world domination for Communism, with Red China at the head of the band." The principal Chinese weapon, according to him, was manpower. He contended that because "You can't tell a Chinese from the Vietnamese or from any of the other races—most of them—in Asia," the Chinese were able to pour "men and enthusiasm into all these trouble spots in Asia." This tactic, Kalisher said, allowed the Chinese to feel they "can bring us [the United States] down where the Russians can't with atomic might." Therefore, he noted, the Chinese "think that this nonsense about paying lip service to American atomic might is ridiculous because they've got ways of getting around it."
One of the few newsmen to see weakness and conservatism in Communist China was Marvin Kalb of CBS. On Years of Crisis: 1963 he argued with Peter Kalisher, contending, "I question very much any marked success either in Chinese internal or external policy." According to the younger Kalb brother, "The only mild success that Communist China has had in several years has been in conveying the impression to the Soviet Union and to many other Communists that they stand for something very revolutionary. But the fact is that Chinese foreign policy has been marked by great caution throughout Asia."
While Kalisher, the Far Eastern correspondent, continued to claim Communist China was the disruptive, aggressive force in Asia, Marvin Kalb was the CBS correspondent at the State Department. And Kalb's view seemed less an independent conclusion than a reflection of a "new look at Communist China" he described as taking place at the State Department. Here in the first weeks of the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, Kalb suggested that "We are now taking a more pragmatic, less emotional, . . . dispassionate and calm look at China," especially at "the second echelon of authority and power in the Chinese Communist party ... the younger generation coming up. . . ."
If the opinions of many correspondents might have been affected by Cold War slogans and official government policy, even more questionable were those journalists who worked for the government. Two of the most prominent TV newsmen, Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite, on more than one occasion lent their talents and prestige to the making of government propaganda films. Specifically, they narrated and appeared in Defense Department motion pictures extolling the anti-Communist goals of the U.S. armed forces.
Early in 1960, while co-anchor of the top-rated Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, Chet Huntley narrated The Ramparts We Watch, a propaganda film lauding the cooperative efforts of the four major branches of the American military. The half-hour motion picture opened with a statement from Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, Jr. It included footage and voice recordings of President Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The film suggested to its viewers—most likely would-be recruits and trainees—that despite modem technology, that the soul of the armed forces remained the human being. Huntley's narration was accompanied by pictures of American GIs operating machinery, and carrying out human assistance programs in Hong Kong with "refugees from Red China" and with children in a Taiwanese kindergarten.
While the modern military carried out missions in outer space, Huntley reminded his viewers, "We still face the need for defending the Free World's ramparts on Earth." What was needed, he suggested, was traditional and human: "The nuclear soldier may look different from today's soldier, but [he] must have the same patriotic fighting spirit and more specialized training."
Even more professionally compromising was Huntley's narration of The United States Navy in Vietnam. Produced in 1966, this propaganda piece was a 30-minute commendation of the Navy's role in the Vietnam War. Huntley stood dockside and lauded vertical envelopment, amphibious landings, and other new techniques the Navy was using "to help the people of Vietnam protect themselves."
Viewers saw "civic action" in action as sailors gave boots to an old villager and clothing to a Vietnamese infant. Here was the latest naval equipment: destroyer-frigate, jets, and helicopters strafing enemy positions, big guns pummeling the Viet Cong enemy from offshore, and the massive aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise. At a time when millions of Americans watched Chet Huntley weeknights for a better understanding of the war in Southeast Asia, he was contracting with the Pentagon to appear on camera and narrate its self-promotional motion pictures. At a time when his profession needed the utmost in objectivity to report accurately to the American citizenry, with uplifting music in the background Huntley lavished praise on the "Navy man":
Vietnam has already written a new chapter in the annals of naval history. Never before has the potential of the Navy-Marine team been so fully realized. And yet, one important thing remains unchanged: the success of the overall effort will rely, as it always has, upon the acts of the individual man. Whatever credit is due will rest with many thousands of individual men who stand behind the aircraft, the ships, the boats, and the rifles, from the delta to the South China Sea. And whether he serves ashore or in the rivers and coastal waters, at sea or in the skies above, he will shoulder the responsibility for final success or failure. And he will be the one to make the needed sacrifice. And it is important to remember, that no matter what his job or whatever his duty, he is the Navy's greatest single asset: the individual man. This is the American Navy in Vietnam, moving quickly where and when needed, displaying the flexibility of modern sea power, controlling the seas, extending its influence on land, and holding superiority in the air—a three-way force for peace geared to meet aggression at any spot on the globe.
More aggressively anti-Communist were the government films narrated by Walter Cronkite. Although he began working in 1950 for CBS News, in 1953 Cronkite narrated a Defense Department film, The Price of Liberty. The motion picture dealt with the role of women in the American armed forces. But clearly, from Cronkite's opening words, this fifteen-minute movie had other purposes: "Liberty is the most expensive commodity in the world today," proclaimed Cronkite while seated at a typewriter. "We have it only because we are willing and able to pay the price for preserving it against Communist aggression." This was a time of "the fight for world freedom," he suggested, and "Today armed vigilance must back every truce in the war between freedom and slavery." And, he noted, "Military strength is still the only practical answer to the menace of Communism."
Throughout his career Cronkite's programs on CBS were marked by their reliance upon the Pentagon for film footage, statistical information, and interviews with prominent military men. This was the case with The 20th Century, Air Power, and The 21st Century. Still, only a few months before he replaced Douglas Edwards as anchorman of the CBS evening news in April 1962, Cronkite narrated The Eagle's Talon for the Department of Defense. Ostensibly a report from Secretary McNamara on his first year in office, the film was a paean to the Kennedy administration for strengthening American military power.
In the film Cronkite declared the Soviet Union was "the opponent" of America, and all those Polaris, Minuteman, Nike-Hercules, Nike-Zeus, and other rockets were intended to protect the United States from a first strike by the Russians. While he noted that thermonuclear war started by the Soviets "would mean disaster for themselves," the CBS newsman reminded viewers "that does not mean Communism has curbed its ambition for world conquest." According to him, "Communist China even now has plans to dominate Asia by mass murder as in Tibet, destroying ancient civilizations." On Cuba, he remarked, "Right next door is a nation we freed in 1898, Cuba, as Communist tyranny holds sway and whiskers do not hide the naked face of dictatorship."
This was powerful propaganda: oversimplified, well-scored, graphically illustrated, and stridently narrated. The Defense Department film described a world in which the U.S. Army "is face to face with Communism around the world." To meet the threat, the film argued, the Kennedy administration was enhancing the nuclear and nonnuclear potentials of the armed services.
In classic propaganda style, after having frightened viewers with images of nuclear war and threats of savage Red aggression, Cronkite reassured them that with Kennedy everything would be fine. "No matter what the future holds, there is no need to fear for America," Cronkite guaranteed, for "The President, as Commander-in-Chief, keeps the decade of decision alert to Washington's advice, still timely today: 'To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. '"
Importantly, the situations with Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley were not anomalies. There were many significant instances of network news personnel having close ties to government. In the 1950s and 1960s several network newsmen were associated with syndicated radio programs made by the North American Air Defense Command. For example, among those journalists recording promotional spots for Norad’s Our Date with History radio series in 1962 were Ned Calmer and Larry LeSueur of CBS, Quincy Howe and John MacVane of ABC, and Merrill Mueller and Ed Gough of NBC.
Also while at CBS the distinguished journalist Edward R. Murrow narrated films for the U.S. government in the 1950s. Among them were Survival Under Atomic Attack (1951) for the Federal Civil Defense Administration; Conelrad Alert! (1951) with NBC newsman John Cameron Swayze for the U.S. Air Force; and The Whites of Their Eyes (1955) for the U.S. Army Reserves. Several of his See It Now programs were actually obtained by the Pentagon and distributed as Armed Forces Information Films for training purposes and community persuasion. In 1961 Murrow left CBS to join the new Kennedy administration as head the United States Information Agency (USIA). He died, however, before returning to broadcast journalism.
John Chancellor of NBC left his network in 1965 to become director of the government's principle propaganda outlet, the Voice of America. After several years in that capacity, he returned to NBC. In a reversal of the movement from broadcasting to government service, James C. Hagerty became the head of ABC News in 1961 after having been press secretary through most of President Eisenhower's two terms.
Corporate executives in the television industry also were closely associated with the partisan political interests of government. While it was common during World War II for broadcast leaders to work for the Roosevelt administration, the practice was not widespread in the 1960s. Yet, at least two major TV executives were active in the Johnson administration: Frank M. Stanton and Robert E. Kintner. Stanton was president of CBS while also a trustee and chairman of the RAND Corporation, a government-supported think tank that one journalist described as "an annex of the Pentagon." He was also appointed by President Johnson to head the Committee on Information Policy, an advisory group offering advice on government propaganda policy. Stanton, furthermore, was a close friend of the president. He and his wife once considered building a house on LBJ's Texas ranch.
Kintner, the president of NBC in the mid-1960s, was also a personal friend of Lyndon Johnson, that relationship extendng back to Washington during the New Deal. As he did with Stanton, the president occasionally telephoned Kintner to complain about TV coverage or to seek advice. When Kintner left NBC in 1966, he accepted a Johnson appointment as special assistant to the president.
Government found television networks and producers eager to assist in U.S. propaganda efforts around the world. By late 1961, according to Broadcasting, the United States Information Agency was receiving the greatest possible cooperation from commercial TV interests. Whether the agency wanted an hour-long NBC documentary on Ernest Hemingway, a CBS drama about the Berlin wall, or a David M. Wolper documentary concerning the great African-American athlete Rafer Johnson, American television was cooperative.
To ensure this harmonious relationship, however, President Kennedy and Edward R. Murrow met in the fall of 1961 with the network chiefs, impressing upon industry executives that the government wanted easier access to network archives. While there had always been a cooperative relationship between TV and the propaganda agencies of the U.S. government, beginning with the Kennedy administration access was simplified, streamlined, and generally enhanced. As one USIA official reported in late 1961, "Our arrangements with them are working well.... We're in touch almost daily.... We're getting material all the time.
While conflicts of interest and bias among broadcast journalists were discernible in most cases, a less obvious influence on TV news came from personal and corporate self-interest within network management. While he defended the integrity of news operations "at the news department level," Louis G. Cowan, former president of CBS, rebuked unnamed executives "at the network level." Speaking in 1967, Cowan chided those executives who were more concerned with profits than with network responsibility to cover the news, even "the news that does not get an audience. Certainly they have not done as much as they might have about news."
Robert MacNeil, a former NBC-TV newsman and co-host of The MacNeil-Lehrer Report on the Public Broadcasting System, echoed Cowan's criticism of network news. According to MacNeil in 1968, "The news executive may, under unusual provocation, stand by a principle and threaten to resign.... Yet control remains beyond his grasp." This inherent weakness in network news, MacNeil pointed out, was socially dangerous. Because TV was for many Americans "the primary source of information"—and because it was "increasingly invaded by politicians and under great pressure from powerful officeholders, especially in the White House, to present issues in a manner favorable to them"—TV news more than ever needed to be a thorough and honest presentation. Instead, he argued, "the system of many compromises" that is television journalism "is simply not good enough, for the product is compromised."
In the United States, news is a commercial product. It has sponsors, Nielsen ratings, and other measurements of its popularity with the audience. As early as 1955 there was talk of a possible Senate probe of TV news to ascertain the influence of sponsors and other economic interests in suppressing and slanting the news. Although the investigation never materialized, the phenomenon of Camel cigarettes (CBS), Gulf Oil (NBC), and other corporations bringing the news to mass America was not without its critics. On December 22, 1968, Senator John O. Pastore told an audience on the National Educational Television investigative program PBL (Public Broadcasting Laboratory) that the networks allowed competitive considerations and pressures from advertisers to affect news coverage. The root of this situation, according to the chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, was "Money. Money. Advertising. The Hooper [Nielsen?] ratings. Money. Money is the source of all evil.... And there's lots of money in broadcasting. "
While it is difficult to pinpoint instances where corporate sponsorship interfered with story selection or actual reportage, the fact that something so crucial to American society—the latest information on domestic and world events—was associated with a specific commercial product raised the potential for undermining the quality and respectability of TV news. There were numerous instances in entertainment television where sponsors and advertising agencies exerted censorship over programs they purchased. Thus, by inference there was a distinct possibility that reportage was affected similarly.
Even more potentially influential, however, were the economic interests of TV corporations themselves. While the networks were reporting the news of the Vietnam War, for example, in many cases their parent corporations were making millions of dollars supplying the military with war materials. The Radio Corporation of America, the parent company of NBC, was ranked twenty-fourth among Defense Department contractors in 1965. That year RCA obtained almost $214 million in military contracts. As the war escalated in 1966, that figure rose to $242.4 million.
And the RCA-NBC situation was not unique. General Electric, with extensive interests in TV and radio, had government contracts totaling $824.3 million in 1964 and $1.187 billion the following year. The contracts of General Tire and Rubber, which owned the RKO-General broadcasting enterprises, rose from $302 million to $327.3 during the same time span. Kaiser Industries owned TV stations and earned $218.8 on government contracts in 1964 and $441.4 the following year. Westinghouse owned the Group W radio and TV outlets and had Defense Department contracts totaling $260.9 million in 1965 and $348.7 million in 1966.
While ABC and CBS were not subsidiaries of any corporation, in the mid-1960s there were moves toward merging these networks with larger corporations. The legal moves to merge ABC with International Telephone and Telegraph were thwarted principally by a scandal at ITT in 1968. ITT was a major defense contractor with $206.7 million in 1965 and $219.8 million the next year. There were also tentative maneuvers toward merging CBS with either Litton Industries or International Business Machines. Both of these corporations were major war contractors.
Add to these financial influences the fact that many network advertisers were also profiting from the Vietnam War. Table 9, listing the top 30 Defense Department contractors in 1965, suggests that many companies—selling everything from telephone services and automobiles to refrigerators and typewriters—made billions of dollars from the war,
|Table 9: Leading Defense Department Contractors, 1965|
|1) Lockheed Aircraft||$1,715.0|
|2) General Dynamics||1,178.0|
|3) McDonnell Aircraft||855.8|
|4) General Electric||824.3|
|5) North American Aviation||745.8|
|6) United Aircraft||632.1|
|7) American Telephone ∓ Telegraph||587.6|
|9) Grumman Aircraft Engineering||353.4|
|10) Sperry Rand||318.4|
|12) Ford Motor Company||312.0|
|13) General Tire and Rubber||302.0|
|15) Hughes Aircraft||278.3|
|18) Northrop Aircraft||255.9|
|19) General Motors||254.4|
|22) General Telephone and Electronics||222.5|
|23) Kaiser Industries||218.8|
|24) Radio Corporatin of America (RCA)||213.9|
|25) International Telephone and Telegraph||206.7|
|26) Todd Shipyards||196.6|
|28) Litton Industries||189.9|
|29) International Business Machines (IBM)||186.2|
|30) Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock||184.8|
There were, however, a few voices in the wilderness asking for an analysis of the relationship between what Americans saw of the Vietnam War and the influence on TV of war contractors. In 1966 Bill Greeley wrote of this situation in Variety, No accusation will be here stated of any government propensity in news coverage by the subsidiary of defense contractors, but such charges are made privately and semi-privately by critics. No specific evidence can be charged, but it will be recalled that it wasn't too many years ago that $100 payola put radio deejays off the air.
The following year Variety returned to the issue, wondering "Can a major news medium like television do a thoroughly honest job when it is owned and controlled by a parent corporation that has a financial involvement with the government?"
Nicholas Johnson, an outspoken member of the Federal Communications Commission in the late 1960s, several times rebuked the networks for failure to discuss economic interests in the Vietnam War. Appearing on PBL on December 22, 1968, to discuss TV journalism, Johnson spoke of "a form of self-imposed censorship" that was the failure of television to cover, or cover well, "those things which affect its economic interests and the economic interests of its suppliers and the economic interests of others who share the basic philosophy and background and participation in the industrial establishment that broadcasting shares." Several months later in TV Guide, Commissioner Johnson returned to this theme, pointing out that "We have been shown miles of film from Vietnam, it's true. But how much has television told you about the multibillion-dollar corporate profits from war?
Americans wanted and needed accurate, in-depth information from their television receivers. A study in 1960 by Gary A. Steiner, published as The People Look at Television, revealed a great demand for more news and informational programming. Although Steiner's statistics showed that only sixteen to twenty percent of those surveyed actually watched news-related TV, part of the reason was that with the exception of nightly newscasts, most such programs were relegated to commercially poor viewing hours: Sunday mornings and afternoons.
In the spring of 1960, at the same time Steiner was drawing his conclusions about TV news, Frank M. Stanton, the president of CBS, explained to a gathering of television executives that electronic journalism was now "as important as printed journalism and as much a part of the lives of Americans." Stanton was there to defend video journalism and to speak against Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934.
Section 315 had two important dimensions as far as broadcasters were concerned. First, it stipulated that candidates for election must be given free equal time should an opponent be allowed to use radio or television without charge; should a candidate buy air time, opponents must be allowed to purchase a similar amount of air time at the same fee.
This "equal time" aspect was augmented in 1949 with the so-called "fairness doctrine." By this broadening of Section 315, the FCC ruled that all sides in controversial issues must be treated fairly by broadcasters in news and commentary. Stanton spoke for most network executives when he called Section 315 a "straitjacket," a regulation that "strips broadcast journalism of both the right and the responsibility of news judgment."
Unfortunately for viewers of news-related television, this function of TV needed no enforcement of Section 315 to be journalistically compromised. Inherent in the corporate structures and personal politics of important newsmen were conflicts of interest that eroded the objectivity and thoroughness of broadcast journalism.
Stanton knew the inadequacies of his industry. Yet, he insisted that TV news was crucial to the viability of American society. "It is, in sober fact," he told his audience, "a battle to meet the increasingly urgent need for information if this society is to survive." Still, he blamed Section 315, alleging that because of it the "use of television as education for democratic living and, indeed, for democratic survival is plagued and choked."
The CBS president was correct to conclude that by this date the survival of democratic society in the United States was dependent upon the educative information received through television. But the provision for equal time and fairness was not the culprit. It was television journalism itself that betrayed the American people by the consistent dissemination of propaganda instead of complete truth, clichés instead of wide-ranging analysis. And by the late 1960s, as the nation faced its greatest domestic unrest since the Civil War, the situation was caused in greatest part by the misinformation, and even deceit, regarding the Vietnam War, transmitted by TV.