Americans Growing Mistrust in Government and Media Paralleled to the Decline of Victory Culture

by Kyle Stapinski

America has seen many hills and valleys when it comes to trust in media and government. Beginning with the Comstock laws of the late 1800s where Americans were subject to mail subversion to prevent the spread of “reproductive products”, Americans have typically been at the cannon’s mouth of both the government and the media. As the Comstock laws declined, American trust in government was never fully restored. During the early 1900s, Muckrakers would survey the United States, and uncover some of the social equalities they found. This was one of the first major pushbacks against the current state of news media. What was being reported prior to the Muckrakers sphere of influence was typically what the government or military was doing. After the Muckrakers revolution before the First World War, this elitist-style of reporting would quickly be paralleled to reporting the “average Joe”—the everyday American and their struggles.

            According to Tom Engelhardt, the post-World War II period was comprised of a declining victory culture, where Americans would spend the second half of the twentieth century learning how to lose. The theory of victory culture is used to promote the idea that before the Cold War and Korean conflict, Americans were used to victory, so used to it that it was engraved into American culture. America also required an enemy, according to this theory, that would prove itself over the latter half of the century. After the decline in German and Japanese influence, America was hoisted to the pedestal of a world stage, where it would find itself assuming a role way beyond its borders. Now America was responsible for instilling a system to restore the destroyed world. The United Nations was created to fill this gap, but the United States held many of the responsibilities of the United Nations.

            This decline of victory culture, beginning with the Korean Conflict and continuing until today, can be viewed through the lens of news media. Media has always been a major contributor to the American war effort, but Korea is the first time during this technological era where America was not as blatantly victorious as they had been before. Also, with the looming communist ideology also in competition on the world stage, America found itself stretched thin in terms of influence and deemed it necessary to save the free world. Korea was more than just a foreign civil war. American press coverage of the Korean Conflict varied differently than the previous major military conflicts. At first, the American press was encouraged to report the war in its totality. The government figured it would be a quick conflict, where America could continue its running victory culture, but through the following years they come to a different result.

            Since the UN forces were successful in their push against the North Koreans, General MacArthur and the American government were fine with this total style of reporting. The New York Times provides two different style of articles during the early days of 1951. First, the article titled Korea Front Calm before Offensive discussed what United Nations’ soldiers were doing on New Year’s Day, 1951. Not even a week after, the New York Times released another publication titled Korea censorship Tightened Again which highlights some of the legislative changes paralleled to the military defeats in Korea. As the North Koreans began to challenge the UN forces, censorship was strictly imposed, even to where censors were appointed to read any and all information leaving Korea. This created a state where the media was less free to report what they wanted and had to submit to MacArthur’s wishes. He claimed it was for the security of the military but had no problem with the same information being published while they were on the offensive. This strict censorship remained in place until the deportation of United Nations’ troops in 1953.

            A decade later, the United States is attending another civil war overseas to prevent the spread of communism in Vietnam. The reporting of Vietnam was drastically different than that of Korea, not just the style of reporting but media technologies as well. The television was much more common in houses now than during the previous Korean conflict, and Americans are generally more exposed to these atrocities. Aside from the technologies, the style of reporting varied as well. The military did not want to repeat its stance on media that it underwent during the Korean conflict, but instead would call for a more open press. When reporting any war, it can be dangerous, and reporters often find themselves alongside soldiers in these sticky situations. Vietnam is no exception, but compared to a majority of previous American conflicts, the guerilla fighting style of the North Vietnamese’s made for a more total war. Reporters would have to rely on the flow of information from the top, so the stories they were actually able to report were often identical to that of other publication companies, but with their own little twists.

            Americans decline in trust of these major establishments is severely strengthened during the Vietnam conflict, and the following greater Cold War. The mishaps in publication made for incomplete stories, and as the American people would realize that media and government were not always on the same side, they began to question the integrity of these establishments. The overall declining victory culture set the stage for Americans to lose faith over time and can be observed through News Media and war time press.

            Today, Americans are continuing this growing mistrust in government. Fake news is a major talking point, and people are generally aware of the declining credibility of media and government. Being a Secondary Education and Social Studies teacher would constitute talking about these modern political issues in class. Students will always have questions about the world around them, but to better equip them to understand the current relationship between the people, government and media is essential. This research can be broken into a lesson, where students view print media publications prior to, and after the Second World War. Students could compare the different media corporations or discuss specific individual articles. The style of reporting prior to the second world war is generally more in favor of the United States government then after, due to the decline of victory culture. By comparing these articles, students will be able to identify this overall decline on the positive outlook of government and can trace how it formed the current day political and news media scene.

            Another way to teach this concept would be to have students compare magazine or newspaper articles from the Korean or Vietnam wars. Here, there are many events that received media coverage, and students can take the same event and compare different companies’ reports on that event. This will help contextualize biases within reporting and can contribute to a greater unit about credibility of sources. All of these skills are necessary for successful history students, and twenty-first century citizens.

References

“Nixon has no Peace Plan, Says Harriman.” (1970). Chicago Tribune, May 08, 1970. Retrieved from http://library.rider.edu:4048/login?url=https://athena.rider.edu:2278/docview/169857897?accountid=37385.

“Tiny Peorian Outtalks 19 Nazis; Nabs All.” (1944). Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan 10, 1944. Retrieved from http://library.rider.edu:4048/login?url=https://athena.rider.edu:2278/docview/176921012?accountid=37385.

“After the Tet Offensive.” (1968). New York Times. February 8, 1968. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1968/02/08/88925050.pdf

 “Korea Censorship Tightened Again.” (1951). New York Times. January 7, 1951. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1951/01/07/87088432.html?pageNumber=14.

 “Korea Front Calm before Offensive.” (1951). New York Times. January 1, 1951. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1951/01/01/89765923.html?pageNumber=2.

 “U.S. Group to Push Free Press in UNO.” (1945). New York Times. December 30, 1945. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1945/12/30/109349330.html?pageNumber=1.

Engelhardt, T. (1995).  The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the disillusioning of a generation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1cx3t0j.

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