Media & The Cold War

Stacks of newspapers tied with rope or twine

Media is a central part of American life today. It provides information and entertainment and comes in many different forms such as television, newspapers, books, radio, etc. It plays a vital role in the politics of this country and because of that, wars. The Cold War was one war when the media was very important. It not only was a means to educate people but it also affected the way the war was perceived and received by the people of the country. The Cold War was a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. The Cold War had definite start or end date because it never developed into actual warfare. It includes proxy wars such as the Korean War in 1950 and when the United States sent troops to Vietnam in 1965. Also, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in 1962 (US History Timeline: Cold War). All of these are examples of the Cold War and the tensions between the United States in favor of capitalism, and the Soviet Union in favor of capitalism. During the Cold War, the media was a means to educate the public about the political and military issues of that time. However, it was not only to educate the public but also to manipulate their opinions.

The media was and still is an effective way to communicate information to mass amounts of people. There is no way to be aware of international news, national news, or even state news if television, the internet, newspapers, etc. did not exist. Without media the citizens of the United States would not have been aware of the going ons of the government during the Cold War. This is shown during the Vietnam War when the government and press had to work together. This was because “The one extreme [censorship] would have jeopardized the government’s campaign to win public favor for the war effort; the other [too much press freedom] might have compromised military intelligence and operations.” (McMahon, 305). The government was willing to let the public know about information regarding the Vietnam War. However, this willingness came out of not wanting the public to be angry at the United States government. If the government did not share information with the press, people would begin to point fingers and say that the government was trying to cover something up. The main reason people would do this is because they want to stay informed. They want to be educated and to have knowledge of the governments decisions and policies. Especially about the Vietnam war and the Cold war at this time.

Woman with a stack of newspapers and man reading a newspaper

So what do these people do with this information? There is a theory called “mobilization” that “argues that a combination of rising educational levels and easier access to ever larger amounts of political information have helped to mobilize citizens, both cognitively and behaviorally” (Newton 580–581). This means that because people are more exposed to information through different channels of media and the fact that more people are getting an education means that more people will become active in political issues including issues of war. This theory reinforces the idea that media is a positive way to educate people of the United States and to get them involved in what the media reports on.

Not only does media serve as a way to educate people, it also serves as a way to influence and manipulate people’s opinions. Media, in general, is often portrayed as corrupt because “the search for bigger audiences and circulation figures force the media to dwell on dramatic news, especially bad news about crime and conflict, death and disaster, political incompetence and corruption, sex and scandal, anything else that is sensational. If there is little conflict, the media will exaggerate what exists or try to create it,” (Newton 577). This often means distorting the truth so that a better story can be achieved. Manipulating the facts leads to people who view media to get false information and then can lead to them forming false opinions based on those manipulated facts. Not only can reporters distort facts but they can refuse to report on certain events. Instead of reporting on an event that is very important but not as interesting to the public, they could decide to report on an event that is not important but interests the general public much more. This can lead to important stories not being reported on which then leads to the public not being educated. Reporters can do all of this consciously but they can also do it unconsciously just because of simple personal opinion. Although reporters might try to be objective, “Countless studies of American and British mass media have shown, media objectivity is chimerical,” (Wasburn 115). One can never be completely objective because everyone has personal preferences and opinions. Media does not only reflect the facts but also the reporters personal opinions. This can affect the tone, meaning, and reliability of a piece.

The media is capable of manipulating and deceiving the public, but how does that relate to the Cold War? First of all, there were many different sides that the media could take. For example, some people wanted the war to end. However, others, like the government, were trying to bring in more support for the war. During the Vietnam War reporters often heard, “one version or another of ‘My marines are winning this war, and you people are losing it for us in your papers,’” (McMahon, 303). The government was doing the best it could to continue to drum up support for the Vietnam war at this time but the reporters, media, and public were mostly against it. By 1969, “a majority of Americans had turned against the war, morale was beginning to decline among the grunts,” (Small, 1774). This war was not popular and it was longer than expected. The media took advantage of the fact that “Public support for the war effort [was waning] markedly at home… [and]- in tune, weather vane fashion, with the shifting national mood — began to adopt a more skeptical stance toward the war,” (McMahon 306). The media gives the public what they want to hear. They react to the public’s feelings and thoughts. This limits the reliability of their reports because they may be twisting the
facts so that the stories appeal more to the public.

The Vietnam War was long and the United States invested a lot and also lost a lot during this war. The number of casualties was high and much more than was predicted by the government. This made the public hesitant about supporting it and as time went on their doubt grew. The media responded to these doubts by trying to report stories that would entertain and reinforce the public’s doubts about the war. This was why the relationship between the government and the media was strained during the Vietnam War.

The government and military tried to “manipulate, control, and limit the way in which the news media transmitted and interpreted information about the Vietnam War,” (McMahon, 305). Not only was the government trying to manipulate the media, but other groups of people were too. For example, there was a group of people who did not like the Soviet Union and liked that the United States had weapons to combat them. There was another group that disliked the Cold war because of nuclear weapons. These people did not like nuclear weapons in anyone’s hands including the United States. Putting this into the context of media, the first group needed “ to show that weapons [were] threatening and dangerous in soviet hands, and useful and power enhancing in US hands. In contrast, [group two had] no such problem: weapons [were] Threatening and dangerous in anybody’s hands,” (Stuart, 81).

Aftermath of an explosion in a flat landscape. Smoke billowing upwards

The media uses doubt already in people’s heads and simply elaborates on it. The Soviet Union also used this technique when they depicted” the United States as the land of drug addiction, unemployment, crime, and poverty ruled by a government pursuing an international policy of neocolonialism,” (Wasburn 115). The media exaggerated negative traits that already existed in the United States. Exaggeration is a way to dramatize a story. However, when you dramatize a story, you lose the factual integrity. Manipulating the media was and still is a very common occurrence and the manipulation can happen in many different forms and has varying affects.

During the Cold War, media was very important. Yes, it did educate people but most of the time it did not provide objective information but was instead opinions and dramatizations of the facts. The media was mainly used as a vessel to influence and change the public’s opinions about the war. Many different groups use the media for this purpose but they each represent different ideas and beliefs. The media can be used as a tool to educate people, but if it is too corrupt, the information given will not be helpful. In the Cold War era, there were too many different spins on the facts to be able to trust the media.

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Natalie Chow

UX designer interested in accessibility, designing for physical and mental disabilities, designing for kids, and gaming! Check me out at nmc-design.com