In this media analysis activity, students will view selected clips from The Vietnam War and complete a graphic organizer about information found in the clips. They then will use the information from the clips and the organizer to write editorials/commentaries assessing Tet Offensive news coverage either as fair and balanced or as biased, turning American popular opinion against the war and undermining the US war effort.
In early 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces initiated the Tet Offensive, targeting cities and military installations all over South Vietnam, including Saigon and the US Embassy. More than half of the 58,000 men and women of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong involved in the offensive were killed, wounded, or captured. None of the South Vietnamese cities or American installations targeted in the attack fell to North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces.
However, as more and more news reporters filed stories from the front lines, many Americans became convinced that Tet was actually a major political setback for South Vietnamese and American effort. Calls became louder for a negotiated settlement that would allow American troops to leave Vietnam with honor. Continued promises from American leaders that victory was in sight and there was “light at the end of the tunnel” were increasingly questioned or ignored.
Two 50-minute class periods.
- Understand the importance of the Tet Offensive to both North and South Vietnam and America’s war effort.
- Analyze media coverage of a major Vietnam War battle and make conclusions about the impact of that coverage.
- Recognize the impact of news coverage on American perceptions about the conduct of the US military and the US government in regard to Vietnam.
- Develop persuasive writing techniques about a particular point of view.
- Attack on the US Embassy
- Press Coverage of the Tet Offensive
- Execution of a Viet Cong Soldier
- The Tet Offensive
- Begin the activity with a class discussion about instances when the media coverage of a story and the government’s message are in disagreement. Ask students if they can think of instances in which press coverage of a story is markedly different than government officials’ statements and view of the issue or event.
- Write the phrase “adversarial press” on the chalkboard. Tell students that in countries that have a free press, the media is not a tool for the government and has a right to publish information that can run counter to the government’s message. This can be interpreted as being adversarial.
- Have students brainstorm various cable, broadcast, or online news networks that might have an adversarial relationship with the government. Have them explain how these sources might unintentionally or intentionally present a different point of view from the government’s position.
- Have students provide examples of a media source being opposed to the government’s policies. Ask them to point out how this is different from a media source investigating a story and pointing out discrepancies or inconsistencies in the government’s message.
- Next, explain to students that they will be analyzing several video segments from THE VIETNAM WAR and completing a graphic organizer with information that will help them write newspaper editorials/commentaries evaluating whether news coverage during the Tet Offensive was fair and accurate.
- Distribute copies of the Media Coverage of the Tet Offensive Graphic Organizer to students and direct them to complete the organizer by viewing the video clips. If time is a concern, viewing clips and completing the graphic organizer can be assigned as a homework activity.
- After students have viewed the video segments and completed the graphic organizer, review some of the questions with them or ask if they need any clarification. Then distribute copies of the student handout Writing Assignment: A Tet Offensive Editorial. You may wish to show samples of editorials written for print, online newspapers, or magazines or ask students to bring in samples.
- Explain to students that editorials are opinion pieces that usually reflect the viewpoint of a newspaper, and not a specific writer. Commentaries are opinion pieces (such as Walter Cronkite’s famous “stalemate” commentary on the “CBS Evening News” after the Tet Offensive) that are signed and express the opinion of the author. Student editorials and commentaries should be written in persuasive language to encourage the reader to support the writer’s point of view. Students should use information from the graphic organizer to provide background and evidence for their writing, and should make sure their writing is free of spelling or grammatical errors. The teacher may wish to have students share their work with others through a class reading or posting in the classroom.
- Debrief: At the conclusion of the activity, lead a debriefing discussion over the following questions:
- In your view, did the press objectively report the events of the Tet Offensive?
- In your view, were the government and military truthful to the American people about the Vietnam War and how the war was going?
- Should the US government have done a better job of public relations in “selling” the achievements of the US military during the Tet Offensive?
- Do you think the media today has as much influence to shape public opinion as it did in 1968?
- Ask students to investigate how the US military managed news coverage during Operation Desert Storm or other military operations such as Operation Enduring Freedom. Was the military more or less likely to allow the press to have a great deal of mobility to travel with the troops and film battle scenes? Why or why not?
- Investigate the relationship between the “adversarial press” and US presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to the current administration. Write position papers suggesting that either the press is biased when covering the presidential administrations, or that the press is effectively carrying out its “watchdog” function.
- Ask students to write essays for or against increasing censorship in military operations. Is the press being responsible, or should increased controls on the press be allowed? Explain your answer.
- Ask students to investigate instances of when presidents tried to stir up public support by criticism of a decline of the “American spirit,” such as President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech (also known as the “Malaise” speech); or President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address (the “American Carnage” speech). Have students “advise” President Johnson, recommending whether he should make a similar speech to tell Americans they have “lost their way” and should unite behind him and support the war in Vietnam. Student recommendations should be written in persuasive style.