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War, Media, And Public Opinion Essay, Research Paper

The discussion of the media’s influence on public opinion is a complicated one. The ways in which the media talks about subjects and the spin that they project on the subjects often changes the way the public views certain issues. Everything from the adjectives they use, to the pictures they show, to the tone of voice they use brings out different emotions in their viewers and readers. It is the same as imagery and sound in the movies. For instance, in the movie Top Gun the same image appears with some slow scary music and again with the up beat hero music. They each showed the same plane but one scared you the other excited you. This is the way media coverage has effected public opinion over the years.

In earlier eras the media was not what it is today, with real time information being relayed over satellites to show you live pictures of bombs hitting Belgrade. It started with information being released through reporters typing on manually operated typewriters, then to radio shows where families would gather around the one radio in the house and listen nightly to the news broadcast. Then as it was during World War II, it was movie tone news that was broadcasted at each movie house when you went to watch a show. At the time the sound was limited more likely than not you were reading the captions off the bottom of the screen. However, “By the 1940’s on average each American went to the movies three times a month”(Roeder 1993 4). Then into the sixties and seventies there were the networks, the big decision each night was which of the big three(ABC, NBC, CBS) were you going to watch. There was no cable audience, or no satellite television. They came later. In the 80’s the cable shows made an emergence with entire news networks such as CNN. There were more options on where your news would come from. Then, in the early nineties during the Gulf War there was real time television. You could watch a missile hit Baghdad on television if you choose to or you could read it and view the captions on the paper the next day. Now in the late nineties there are channels that have round the clock live coverage of the “Crisis in Kosovo”. MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and so forth have shows to discuss different options and different views on this issue. Or if you have what a growing majority of Americans have, a computer, you can go online and be connected to vast global knowledge of views and situations. You can speak to people who are typing on there computers in Belgrade as bombs explode outside there homes, or place of employment. This is the evolution of media coverage and how it influences which images and ideas that are brought to the mind. The main question most asked is how and which way does this coverage affect our public’s opinion. This question is frequently asked, but always asked during times of war. Since the evolution of man the information he receives has affected his beliefs, we are going to discuss only a brief part of the history. The period from WW II to present day when war, media, and public opinion have been intertwined so much.

This paper will start with CPI (Committee on Public Information) used during WWII, Life magazine and movie tone news. Then during Korea, how was coverage effecting public opinion? Was it adversely affecting opinions or was it positively helping the government? Then we will discuss why reporters no longer dodge bullets with the soldiers like they did during Vietnam. The eighties operations such as URGENT FURY, ELDORADO CANYON and JUST CAUSE will be discussed. Then to the reporter convoys used to transport and identify sites in the Gulf War will be discussed. How CNN showed the clips from the missiles hitting their targets is another recent first in the media world. Then we will end with the little information and history that we know of the Kosovo incident, or maybe by time this paper is finished, a war.

The Second World War, was one of “good vs. evil” It had to be because of the images the U.S. public saw according to Jean Bethke Elshtain “after studying war imagery”(Roeder 81). During the time of WWII the United States media and public were different from today. The people of that generation had to be because of the circumstances that they faced. The Greatest Generation, the title of Tom Brokaw’s book about the people of that time period (1930-1950), shines a little light into a period where men and women rose to new heights, achievements, and sacrifices not because they wanted to but because they had to. Society, as a whole was hurt, the Great Depression made it near impossible to survive with out finding new ways to live. Family, the word itself meant something and when the War broke out it meant so much more. Everyone knew, and more likely than not was related to someone in the war. Many hung stars of different colors in their windows to show that their men were either at war, coming home soon, or not coming home at all. The war touched home many women had to go to work in the factories because the men were all at war. Planes, guns, and ammunition had to be built. People had victory gardens, can drives, and glass mailboxes to save metal for the military. Society as a unit was strong people were good and wholehearted, everyone did their part to “support the war effort”.

“In 1941 the government’s “informational, promotional, and publicity activities” engaged the equivalent of 8,433 full time workers, and their numbers swelled during the war”(Roeder 1993 82). This too helped the war effort. Movie tone news was the wave of the day, there was no networks, no CNN, no MSNBC, no Internet, nothing. However chances are three times a month people on the home front went to watch their version of the news at the movie house. If that was not the case they read the information out of the newspaper which got its information from the government that, information that went through three separate censors on the way home. “Fifty million viewers a week saw war information shorts produced by OWI (Office of War Information) or by a motion picture industry and shown as a public service by fourteen thousand theatres”(Roeder 1993 83). The motion movie industry he speaks of includes Disney and other major movie producers. At the time the media was different. No information was seen real time over satellites, phone lines, or fiber optic cable. Public opinion was not easily changed by television. There was no Television cameraman running through cross fire. There was military pictures released that went through every agency’s censor before being seen or heard by the public. There was The Office of Censorship, the before mentioned Office of War Information, then The War Activities Committee that encouraged that the motion movie industry produce visuals “that publicized war needs and goods” that all censored and reviewed information sent to the eyes of the American People.

Most of the Second World War was censored for the media, but it could be. The media in that time period was easily manipulated to help the public opinion be supportive of the government policy. “Because in wartime the various outlets of popular culture behaved almost entirely as if they were the creatures of their governments, it is hardly surprising that they spoke with one voice ” (Fussell 1989 180) is the way one historian describes the why WWII media acted. The technology of the time was not advanced enough to show the people first hand the horrible face of war without the government’s help, and it was not helping. The people of this time period were stronger and more morally secure then today’s age. The media could not change the face of that public drastically even if they wanted to. The media was not strong enough, and the public was not biting on any anti-war sentiments. The media could only do what it did and strengthen the publics resolve.

It played a positive role in the Second World War. Through movies such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Bombardier the media gave a positive out look on the war to a nations people who were going through the most trying time of the nations history. However through positive media coverage such as Norman Rockwell’s world famous painting and others the country’s positive view of the United States role in the war was enhanced. The only people who were not being pushed toward a positive outlook were the soldiers who “knew that despite the advertising and publicity, where it counted their arms and equipment was worse than the Germans’”(Fussell 1989 268). Still people know that the media does not always have a positive affect on public opinion during wars especially the government. They know that “it would be difficult to underestimate the importance that American defense and diplomatic staff attach to the press as a conduit for shaping public opinion on foreign affairs”(Woodward 1997 167).

As with all wars in this country’s history the people come together as a nation in support of it’s troops going to war. It is still the obligation of the government to ensure that the war is fought successfully and/or quickly to satisfy the public. They also seemingly need more positive media coverage as time progresses, the media gets stronger, and the publics resolve becomes weaker. This started slowly with the Korean War.

During the era of the Cold War people were on edge we had just ended the largest war of the world’s history and were already eye to eye with another enemy, the communist. The spread of communism caused people to become scared of another major war that would take more young American lives. This became a major discussion of the media. The attack by North Korea south of the 38th parallel brought the U.S. in to another war. This one against a smaller country backed by a major rival, the communist. As usual, with the first American military involvement started off with a supportive public view of their government’s policy. However with the increase of American casualties and the rate of casualties (Mueller 1985 36) when the Chinese entered the war the publics support slowly began to drop. Then General Douglas MacArthur Supreme Commander of UN Forces started to make statements to various media outlets that we should drop nuclear weapons on North Korea and China. The media began giving this war negative coverage due to the fact that the American people were already knowledgeable of the destructive capabilities of the A-bomb from the Hiroshima, and Nagasaki incidents from the previous war. The people were fine with the previous use of the weapon because it saved the needless lose of more American Soldiers. However to use it again would mean many innocent civilian casualties. Then adding to the media fire General MacArthur continued to make statements to the media after President Truman ordered him not to. This dispute between the two high profile leaders, received negative media coverage which took support away from the war for the sole reason it was a controversial. Eventually MacArthur was fired by President Truman which received much press that took away from positive coverage of the war. Even though the media did not have much negative news about the war the sheer controversy between Truman and Mac Arthur gave a bad image to the Korean War that was not around during the Second World War. Support of this war was fading before the negative media assistance, but the media did give it a push down in the polls.

The Korean War, the Forgotten War may be unfamiliar to many of this day and age but is often compared to one war that many who today can still taste. The Vietnam War, also known as the South East Asian conflict is very similar to the Korean War. The similarities include both wars were to aid the democratic side of a small Asian country split between a communism and democracy, both opposing forces were aided by the Soviet Union and Red China. Another similarity was “both wars were limited: they took place within a fairly specific area, and in both cases the United States refrained from using the most powerful weapons in its arsenal”(Mueller 1985 33). However the similarities there were many differences, one of the major ones was the home front. Society itself had weakened. The babyboomers were getting older and moving a side to a new generation, a generation that did not grow up with the hardships. This new generation did not see the poverty of the depression or the awful truths of WWII. The family unit itself was no longer as structurally sound as it had to be in the past children rebelled and no longer grew up working for the good of the family. There was a social rip between many children and their parents. Then the Vietnam War broke out and caused even more friction on the home front.

During this same period the media was gaining strength. Television sets were in almost every home. The major decsion every night was no longer to listen to the radio or not, it was which network should we watch. The big three (ABC, NBC, CBS) were now in full force with much power behind them. Millions tuned them in nightly; Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntly and David Brinkley were competing for ratings. Every night people watched the news on the war and learned the number of servicemen who had given their lives that day to a war that their country wasn’t behind 100%. They watched Dan Rather and his cameraman run through the jungle dodging bullets and broadcasting the horrible face of war to the millions of viewers at home who watched the nightly news and saw what war actually looked like. The media no longer needed the government’s assistance in showing the public the atrocities that a war included. The country media had grown in size and strength. The nature of the monster had changed.

As early as October of 1954 the United States had been supporting, supplying and training the South Vietnamese Military. Starting in February 1965 the U.S. started playing in active role in the war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, first with air attacks then with ground troops landing in South Vietnam in March of 1965 to protect U.S. base from Viet Cong attacks. Defense Secretary McNamara’s promise of removal of all U.S. troops by 1965 was over. As always the public support at the opening of the war was a strong sense of “rally behind the flag”. Many thought that even though the war was not directing threatening the United States, the thought of stopping the communist and the so called domino “affect” was reason enough for sending troops temporally to help an ally. No one thought we were entering the longest and costliest war in the history of the United States. However as the war dragged on the media showed and told of the casualties the public became more and more bitter for the idea of war. Unlike the previous wars fought the people at home were no longer trying to “support the war effort” television and other media facilities had damaged the before censored image that the public thought of war. There were no movies and service announcements that told of great triumph and heroic acts by the unselfish. Then a tactical victory for the military happened as they repelled the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive. This also happened to be the United States worse strategic loss of the war. The Viet Cong had brought the war to the streets where U.S. television and newspaper reporters saw and reported on the horror of the terrorist like attacks and the brutal punishment for suspected enemies. The American people saw women and children burned and killed by bombs planted and thrown in restaurants in the cities through out South Vietnam. Suspected Viet Cong were shoot on the street by south Vietnamese police, this all happened while U.S. cameras were rolling and aired and shown through out U.S. papers and Television daily. This image pushed an already skeptical public over the edge, and support of the war was faded quickly. People could be siting poolside on the roof of the Presidents Hotel in Saigon and see planes dropping napalm only 30 miles away. This war was one that the government could not hide. It was to a visible war. Just as in the Korean War the Democratic Party lost the presidency to a republican who promised a quicker end to the war. The election of Richard Nixon caused the size of American involvement became steadily less. Then with the launch of Operations LINEBACKER I and LINEBACKER II the North Vietnamese agreed to peace talks that ended with the withdrawal of All-American troops by the end of 1972. At this time the drafted American troops that were forced to fight a war and give there lives to a cause that didn’t believe returned home where they were harassed and labeled “baby killers” by the public and the media. The result: American politicians afraid to enter any military conflict that will produce casualties.

Once again a democratic president lost his presidency because of a military mistake. Jimmy Carter and his parts for eight broken helicopters that were part of a botched military plan to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran Iran. The media quoted his Campaign manger as saying those parts cost him the presidency. The media once again helped change public opinion. The next military missions took place during the Reagan Administration, Operations ELDORADO CANYON and URGENT FURY. ELDORADO CANYON were airstrikes launched against Libya for housing terrorists. URGENT FURY was to save one thousand U.S. students stuck on the small island country of Grenada when rebels revolted against the government. There the U.S. military succeeded in saving the students and restoring the official government. These military actions were highly classified and recieved very little press form the media. The next action was by Reagan successor, his vice-president George Bush. OPERATION JUST CAUSE was the capture of Nicaraguan drug lord Manuel Noreiga. The operation was a success. Media coverage was light again.

The people of the eighties and nineties were different from before. These people had grown up with the glooming shadow of the Vietnam War over their shoulder. They were not warmongers, but were Vietnam veterans and knew the price of entering wars half-heartedly. They knew that if you become committed to a cause you back it 100%. The media had also changed. CNN, real time communications, meant that a camera could view an image and at the same time convey this image over millions of television sets around the country.

Saddam Hussein with the fourth largest military in world invaded in a Blitzkrieg style the small oil exporting country of Kuwait. Unlike Vietnam where we slowly committed ourselves, we acted rapidly and precisely. Sixty F-15 Eagles were launched from Langely Air Force Base Virginia and flew 17 straight hours with aerial refueling to Saudi Arabia where Saddam was now angling his forces. Operation DESERT SHIELD began with the launch of the fighters to Saudi Arabia. Saddam called off his force from attacking Saudi Arabia. This allowed for the U.S. to send and emplace the capabilities of the world’s greatest military machine the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and the one who played the largest role The United States Air Force. This received positive news coverage from the media and was virtually entirely backed by the public. Every tree, fence and car antenna had a yellow ribbon tied around it signaling they supported the troops.

Then entered operation DESERT STORM, this operation allowed the media to show the public the military’s new “smart bombs”. These new weapons allowed the Air Force to destroy a target with a single plane and a single bomb, when before it would take a fleet of bombers loaded with thousands of bombs. The media highlighted these weapons as not only a way to improve war capabilities, but as a way to save civilian casualties. The Air Force in sixty days virtually decimated Iraq’s military force. With extremely low causalities. That is the only type of war the public would tolerate, one with low casualties. That allowed General Schwartzcoph to launch his 100-hour “hail Mary” invasion and liberation of Kuwait. The media and the public completely supported this war because of the way it was fought and the images they viewed.

The images they viewed were the tapes from the “smart bombs” entering windows and airshaft, all complicate successes. Which resulted in all positive media coverage. The ground coverage they saw was not from young television reporter’s dodging bullets from the actual battle. The government learned the lesson of what to not show the public from the Vietnam. The reporters in the Gulf War were brought around in media convoys. They needed the government’s help to view the battlefield, in this respect it was similar to the Second World War. President Bush also learned that to wage an effective war he needed to have full support from the country, and must have a quick decisive victory because the country would not stand for a long dragging war. That is what they got. The President had give the military his goal and told them to get it done quickly and precisely. The military then ran the war they knew best. This was done because the lessons learned through the government ran Vietnam War. When the soldiers returned home they were greeted by hugs and handshakes from a public that was grateful for the service they had done. These lessons from Vietnam were learned

A president surrounded by controversy, and labeled a draft dodger. The media is already having a field day. The media has also changed its face it is no longer just CNN, and the networks. It is now worldwide on the Internet where information changed hands daily. MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, CSPAN and many others have twenty four-hour coverage of the news. Then we enter another Vietnam style conflict between a sovereign nation that is in the middle of a civil war. Just as we did in Vietnam we are slowly committing ourselves more and more as the conflict in Kosovo continues. The media show pictures of refugees and broadcasts live from the edge of the battle. Every night the public watches the images of thousands of people struggling to stay alive in “tent cities”. Also like Vietnam we have a president that is fond of reading polls and following the trend instead of doing what has to be done. The public and the media at first supported the military action. However as it drags on with no clear end in site and no clear way to define victory the media and the publics support of the conflict decrease daily. The phrase some media have been using “this is another Vietnam” scares many people who lived through that awful war.

As the media constantly changes and becomes larger with more capabilities its strength in controlling the public will only increase. More than 60% of today’s homes are equipped with cable or satellite television. More 80% of today’s public interact with the Internet in one form or another. The media keeps expanding in different directions tighten its grasp on the American public. The public itself is getting weaker in its views. The new generations and some of the old are becoming more depend on the media for it opinions on different issues. The spin that the media puts on issues have more leverage in moving support towards or away from the governments polices. Therefore as time has proven the media industry has grown in strength over the years. More and more people are becoming highly dependent on the media for information. This along with the weakening of the publics ability to rationalize and form independent opinions outside from the media spin has caused the media to have more control over the publics opinion as time goes on.


Gary C. Woodward. Perspectives on American Political Media. Neednam Heights MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1997

George H. Roeder, Jr. The Censored War. Yale University: New Haven, 1993

John E, Mueller War, Presidents and Public Opinion. University Press of America: Lanham MD, 1985

Paul Fussell Wartime. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1989

Tom Brokaw The Greatest Generation. Random House: New York, 198


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