The Digital Journalist

Broken Promises
Editorial by Dirck Halstead

In December of 1965, I was aboard the carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea photographing Bob Hope's Christmas show for the American troops serving in Vietnam. With the Hope party was a group of American college students who had been flown to Vietnam by the Administration to get a "first hand look" at the "magnificent war effort" in the first full year of major U.S. troop involvement. In the evening, several of the students asked me questions about what I thought of the progress of the war. I was then a 25-year-old UPI photographer, and had been "in country" roughly as long as the troops. 

Before they had left the states, the students had been granted an interview with President Johnson. In response to their questions, LBJ told the students that the U.S. had absolutely no plans to create any permanent bases in Vietnam. American soldiers were there to solve a short-term problem, and he wouldn't be surprised if most of the troops would be on their way home by New Year's. 

The kids asked me if Johnson's assessment was true. I told them that a week before, I had covered the start of the construction of Cam Ranh Bay supply base, billed as the largest construction project of its type in  Southeast Asia. One Navy officer had told me that the sprawling deep-water base would eventually replace  Subic Bay as the main U.S. facility in Asia. It was being built to stay. I also told them that it was just the sort  of bald-faced lie that was at the heart of our problem in what I--like most of my colleagues--foresaw as a  long and difficult war. 

Ten years later, I watched as the South Vietnamese government totally fell apart in less than 55 days from the start of the Communist offensive. There were a lot of reasons for the collapse, many you can see firsthand in our streaming video of "Goodnight Saigon" that is part of this month's issue. There was one overwhelming reason for the defeat of the U.S. and our allies. It was a growing sense of panic by the South Vietnamese leadership brought on by a total cutoff of American aid at the time of greatest need for that country's survival. The United States promised repeatedly that it would not desert Vietnam. However, at the end of the day, Congress, acting in response to public opinion, failed to come to the aid of a country where 150,000 Americans would be wounded and more than 58,000 would die. 

Twenty-five years later, recent events have caused me to consider whether other betrayals--this time of the American consumer--are happening before our eyes. To be specific: Congress passed regulations that would reform our communications laws in the mid 1990s. The objective, which involved the granting of new licenses to broadcasters, was to hasten the arrival of High Definition Television. The winner in this was to be the American consumer. Instead, broadcasters realized that this new spectrum they were granted could be a bigger economic windfall than they expected. So, rather than provide the sparkling wide-screen movie-quality images, they could take the spectrum, and using digital technology, split the signal into 6 standard-quality signals, or even 36 low-quality images, with about the same resolution as today's VCRs.  Meaning, more programming of lower quality, instead of the promised HDTV. Since then, with the exception of a few programs--"JAG," "The Tonight Show" and an occasional sports event--High Definition is nonexistent. 

On May 1 of this year, a war broke out  between two media giants. ABC's owner, Disney, decided unilaterally to demand $300 million more from Time Warner to carry their network than they had agreed to in a previous negotiation. Disney was wary of the TW acquisition by AOL. Disney also wanted Time Warner to agree to carry a number of new Disney channels, and add the premium Disney Channel to the basic cable tier. 

Time Warner refused, and in an unprecedented move, pulled ABC from their lineup, and blocked millions of viewers from ABC's programming during the most important broadcasting period--Sweeps Week. ABC's signal was not available in several major markets, including New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. 

Although this may be viewed as a war between two giant corporations, the people who are getting mowed down in the crossfire are American consumers. Inherent in the most basic of principles guaranteed over 75 years ago by our government is that broadcasting has an underlying public service function. Other than the physical limitations of radio expansion in which some outlying areas could not receive clear signals, broadcasting was to be available to all the people. I believe, that for the most part, we in the press have always tried to honor this concept of public service.

Unfortunately, as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations are acquired by megacorporations, this most fundamental concept has begun to seem quaint and irrelevant in today's economy. 
For the moment, the Time Warner-Disney dispute has been put on hold, and viewers around the country can get back to watching "Good Morning America" and "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But just as with Vietnam, the bigger question of moral leadership and obligation should haunt us all.

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