A Second Look: Why Journalists Are Still Stuck In The Vietnam Era

By David R. Wheeler

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on May 20, 2016.

“Morley Safer, a CBS television correspondent who brought the horrors of the Vietnam War into the living rooms of America in the 1960s and was a mainstay of the network’s news magazine 60 Minutes for almost five decades, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.”
—The New York Times

Morley Safer, a CBS News correspondent whose coverage of U.S. military abuses in Vietnam helped shape opinion against the war and who later helped make 60 Minutes television’s highest-rated news program during his 46 years filing investigative reports and whimsical cultural dispatches, died May 19 at his home in New York City. He was 84.”
—The Washington Post

“Morley Safer, the veteran 60 Minutes correspondent who was equally at home reporting on social injustices, the Orient Express and abstract art, and who exposed a military atrocity in Vietnam that played an early role in changing Americans’ view of the war, died Thursday, according to Kevin Tedesco, a CBS News publicist.”
—The Chicago Tribune

Did you notice a pattern in these obituaries about Morley Safer, who died on May 19? I certainly did, and I even boldfaced it for you, in case you haven’t had your coffee yet. Despite the fact that Safer filed more than 900 reports for television’s greatest news magazine, 60 Minutes, this journalist is still celebrated primarily for his reporting from Vietnam, a half-century ago.

Why, in 2016, do obituary writers — and journalists in general — still have a fixation with the Vietnam era?

There are two answers: First, the 1960s and 70s were a time when journalism still made a tangible, unmistakable difference. Second, the institution of journalism was still widely respected by the American populace during this time. The coverage of Vietnam, along with the publication of The Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, convinced the country that democracy depended on a strong press.

Sure, the Fourth Estate has notched some wins in subsequent decades, but some of those victories have been bittersweet, and others have relied on user-generated content and non-journalists. During the Vietnam era, respect for journalism was at an all-time high, and today’s journalists, including those born well after the fact, still have nostalgia for that time period.

As a journalism professor, I rely on stories from the 60s and 70s to inspire my students. I show them images from the Civil Rights movement, which spurred a nation to march on Washington and pass the Civil Rights Act. I show them John Filo’s photo of the Kent State shooting, with Mary Ann Vecchio’s scream symbolizing our country’s agony over the war and determination to end it. I walk them step-by-step through the story of Watergate, making sure to mention that Woodward and Bernstein were just a couple of young reporters — “not that much older than you are now,” I tell them.

But here’s the thing: I wasn’t even alive when those events unfolded. I was born in 1977, meaning my first memories of a widely covered scandal come from the Iran Contra Affair — not typically celebrated as one of journalism’s greatest scoops. When I was in middle school, the big news events pertained to the fall of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall — neither of which were the result of intrepid reporting. Journalists didn’t break those stories; they merely observed them.

A couple of years later, the nation was rocked by images of white police officers beating a black motorist named Rodney King. However, the revelation of that horrific behavior on the part of the LAPD came not from a reporter’s notebook, but from a citizen’s home video camera.

While the media did an admirable job covering 9/11, they failed to ask the necessary, tough questions leading to the Iraq war two years later. And although The New York Times broke a big story on CIA wiretapping in 2005, causing some soul-searching about civil liberties in the post 9-11 era, it was an NSA contractor and an anti-secrecy activist who changed the conversation about privacy and security in the 21st century. Today’s debate over whether the government can force Apple to unlock a phone is shaped more by Snowden and Assange than by the Times and the Post.

Further diminishing the stature of the press is the question of whether journalists helped bring Trump to power by breathlessly reporting everything he did, said, or tweeted. Few outlets summed up the situation better than The Huffington Post’s Mike Green: “How the Media Helped Donald Trump Hijack the Republican Party.”

Is there a worse condemnation than “you helped bring Trump to power”? I doubt it. For myriad reasons, the media today is often viewed as part of the problem. Growing up in a conservative household, I was well aware of a growing disenchantment with the media’s perceived “liberal bias.” But journalists were crestfallen last year when they learned that Black Lives Matter protesters wanted (at least initially) to keep the media away from their tent encampment. We blew it with both conservatives and liberals.

Some of the smartest people in the country are trying to figure out how to fix both journalism’s image and its business model. The hand-wringing and navel-gazing never stops. Luckily, I get to work with optimistic college student journalists, who are unencumbered by the burden of journalism’s loss of money and status. They’ve never known any other world.

When asked in 2011 to pick his favorite 60 Minutes piece, Safer chose “Lenell Geter’s In Jail,” a 1983 segment that helped free an innocent man who had wrongfully received a life sentence for robbing a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

We in the media would do well to meditate on Safer’s chosen project. The pieces of journalism having the most success today often relate to scrutiny of the justice system, including season one of Serial as well as the Netflix series Making a Murderer. Notice how both of those journalistic accomplishments — a podcast and a web series — are highly unconventional forms of journalism. I’m taking a cue from my students, and I’m choosing to be optimistic about the future of journalism. We can learn about the triumphs of the past without being stuck there. It’s time for a new narrative about the Fourth Estate — one that celebrates more recent successes, and looks forward to the possibilities of tomorrow. The Vietnam era is over.

David R. Wheeler is managing editor of Alive Tampa Bay.

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