The Digital Journalist
Vietnam and Iraq
July 2007

by Ron Steinman

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, there were a series of meetings in Washington conducted by the Department of Defense about how the press covered the war. Other agencies came only by invitation. At times, some major press organizations joined the meetings, also by invitation. The purpose of these meetings, many of which were in secret, was to muzzle the press in future wars. My sources tell me the press lords in the 1970s and 1980s capitulated to the government on almost all counts.

During the Vietnam War, our government hated the freedom we journalists had. We could go anywhere and shoot anything, often risking everything to get that one good sequence on film or, if an agency or magazine photojournalist, that one good shot using a still camera. There were efforts by the Department of Defense and the White House to limit our coverage. Officials pressured the home office. Headquarters pressured us to limit our coverage or to give in to pseudo-censorship. These failed because the American military could not control our access and the unprecedented freedom of movement we enjoyed getting to the battlegrounds. We were never the enemy to our own forces and rarely to the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. When we covered a battle or saw wounded men helped by medics, nurses and doctors, we always respected the dead and injured. In Vietnam, we complied with military embargoes on operations when American troops were at risk. Interestingly, military information officers were often our best friends. They were certainly mine when I ran the bureau for NBC News in Saigon.

People at home had an insatiable appetite for pictures from the front. The press fed that endless maw. Also, and this is important, as the war dragged on, it had become so unpopular at home and in Vietnam that the military cooperated with us in ways that are unimaginable today. Soldiers and Marines allowed us into their lives because they knew that the war was a lost cause. Everyone, the press and the military, understood if we hid the dreadfulness of war, how would anyone know, excluding the combatants who knew too well, what bullets and bombs do to the fragility of the human body? It is obvious to me that when the public sees the true results of war these could and sometimes do offend everything we should stand for as a people. This is certainly true when the war we are fighting is increasingly unpopular.

Once the government succeeds in its aim, and gets the war it wants, it turns off the spigot that dispenses important information. It limits and denies access that will allow our free press to do its job. War is deadly. People die. Some are maimed for life. Cities and countries are destroyed. A press that reports too literally about what war is and what war does is deemed dangerous. A bad day at the front means a bad day in the White House, at the Pentagon, or on the Hill. Bad days affect policy. Period.

As I watch the war in Iraq unfold, and as I experienced war and insurrection firsthand – Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Philippines -- I wonder more than ever what it is that makes those who perpetuate it, and ultimately join in it, want to sanitize it beyond what it really is. Michael Kamber's startling, meaningful photos of recent action in Iraq speak volumes about this problem. What Kamber and other journalists in Iraq face is a result of all those mostly secretive meetings that took place after the Vietnam War.

The military, along with the highest level in our government, seems to want to protect the people from the reality of war by limiting access to military actions and their results. Yes, there are mitigating circumstances covering the war in Iraq. There is no traditional front as in previous wars, though in Vietnam the so-called front moved depending on the military operation and the battlefield. Iraq is supremely dangerous. Everyone is fair game to the enemy and this includes journalists. The battlefield is everywhere. The embed system seems to work because it enables reporters to cover stories they may not be able to if not for that method.

In Iraq these are mostly what we call aftermath -- the outcome of a battle, or a deadly explosion via IED or a suicide bomber sacrificing himself or herself in the pursuit of sectarian strife. There is no other conclusion possible than that our government is afraid of the truth, the horror and ugliness of war.

Government looks on the press as if it has the capability to the end the war with words and pictures. Those elected officials believed that the press helped lose the Vietnam War. They refused then, as revisionists do today, to credit defeat with failed policy. Someone had to take the blame. The press took the fall. Any clear-headed person knows that is nonsense.

As much as no one at the Pentagon will admit, attitudes toward the press in Iraq originated in Vietnam. Our leaders do not want another Vietnam, though that is where this war seems to be heading. I believe they think the easiest way to limit coverage is by building a wall around all coverage. If few have full access, the wall remains impenetrable. The military gets its way and many Americans are the poorer for the lack of information they have to make an intelligent judgment.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.