From Vietnam to Afghanistan: The Media’s Relationship to the Presidency During War

Political media coverage seems to be everywhere. From newspapers to twenty-four hour cable networks, the press often acts as a sprinkler-head of information, splashing opinions onto the public sphere. But beyond saturating the political environment, the media occupies a pivotal point in American democracy by bridging a gap between the government and the people; explaining, critiquing, and supporting policies set forth by the Presidency as well as Congress. Within the triangular relationship between the media, government, and public, I am exploring the relationship between the first two as they joust to earn legitimacy in the public’s eye. Specifically, my project concentrates on the competition and cooperation between the government and media during wartime.

Of course, the media is not a homogeneous bloc. Its diversity spans across political, ideological, and national spectrums. Given this diversity, the Presidency will bicker with some pundits while it coordinates with others. Even within an outlet like the New York Times, different writers will hold varying views on any issue. What intrigues me is how the government treats reporters with whom they disagree and vice versa, how media members treat a presidency with whose policies they disagree.

Why focus on wartime journalism? Because the stakes are so high. A President’s costly decision to go to war requires a greater level of support than other less controversial policies.  As the country’s Commander in Chief embarks on a public relations campaign to sell the war to voters, he or she must lean heavily on the media to spread the message. As the war continues, the media’s role only grows as it reports on the conflict’s successes, heroics, and embarrassments. Yes, a President always has the power to speak directly to constituents but a great degree of the public’s perception of the war rests with journalistic framing. The power of the media is not difficult to ascertain: news outlets choose which issues to highlight and which to ignore. Columnists across the political landscape define and argue over metrics to measure success. The media plays a critical role in the outcome of the war. But few stop to ask, what exactly is the role of journalism during wartime?

For the project, I am surveying experts, both historically and professionally, to see what they have to say. I will frame the project around the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, first exploring Harrison Salisbury, a New York Times foreign correspondent, who challenged the Johnson Administration over the accuracy of American bombing in North Vietnam. For more recent commentary, I plan to interview a man who worked in the press department within the Bush Administration and US Embassy in Afghanistan during the War on Terror. In addition, I am speaking to journalists at Time Magazine who covered the war through the early 2000s. The interviews have a simple purpose: to find answers to questions about journalism during wartime from the actors involved. Initially I am looking at a couple main issues:

  • How should journalist behave when their nation is at war?
  • Do journalists have a loyalty to truth that overrides nationality?
  • When does reporting put soldiers in danger?

As the project grows, I am excited to see the answers to these questions and more.


About neilbooher

Vanderbilt University 2012 History, Political Science Researching the relationship between the media and Presidency during wartime
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