Op-Ed: Sanitized for Your Protection

I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War. When I was young I would watch with fascination the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on my families color Magnavox console television set.

Almost every night there would be pictures and video, taken by photographers and reporters that had pretty much free reign to go wherever they wanted of the war. Soldiers slogging through jungles rivers and streams with their machine guns above their heads, helicopters picking up wounded soldiers, carpet bombs being dropped on unnamed villages far below.

Many of the pictures were unedited, many of the videos shocking in both black and white and color showing soldiers bleeding to death, dying, shot through the heart or head, lying in their own blood, or of body bags waiting to be picked up. America saw the war every single night, right at dinner time.

Tonight’s war is brought to you by Palmolive Soap or Geritol or Chrysler. Every night, “Uncle Walter” as he was lovingly called, would dutifully tell us what was happening in those pictures and we learned the names of exotic far away places like Saigon, Denang, the Ho Chi Mihn Trail and Cambodia.

Walter and America also watched the young people protesting the war, burning draft cards, burning the flag. Walter, like an irritated grandfather, would report but you could tell he didn’t agree with “those hippies.”

Eventually after years of reporting on the war, he decided to see for himself what the vast majority of Americans already knew. He went to Vietnam to see what was going on.

He came back from observing the Tet Offensive and on February 27, 1968 Cronkite read these words to the nation:

“Both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”


It was with those words, that the adults, the older people, the parents and grandparents that fought in World War II and thought the government was basically always right, and that we should never question our leaders, and that had supported the Vietnam War were finally given a heavy duty gut check.

If Walter Cronkite,the “most trusted man in America” a man their age whom they watched and trusted every night on the CBS Evening News had turned against the war, then perhaps all of those protesting kids in the streets weren’t totally wrong. Maybe the government hadn’t been complete straight with us about the toll of the war.

Because of Cronkite’s rebuttal of the war, Lyndon Johnson said at the time “If I have lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” and decided not to run for reelection. It was Cronkite’s words that started the gradual, slow end to the conflict.

To this day, pictures of Kim Phuc running from a napalm bomb attack which burned the clothes off her body and of Life magazine covers are still part of the American psyche.

Video and still pictures are powerful things.

Pictures, both moving and still had changed the course of history.

Unedited video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police led to riots that led to reform.

Many of us remember the incredible videos shown over and over and over of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center building, people leaping from the 90th floor trying to save their lives.

Months and months of those images played on 24-hour cable news galvanized the country into war against Iraq. And so we went to war against a country that may or may not have had weapons of mass destruction or was even involved with the attacks themselves. We were convinced, as a country to do something because of pictures.

Since Viet Nam however and with the exception of 9/11, the depiction of violence and war in the news has become sanitized, pasteurized, and homogenized. Even the most innocuous of news stories that might have something controversial begin with a warning to get the kiddies out of the room.

Our US military no longer allows media photographers or videographers into war “hot zones” without a special escort, not unlike how North Korea only allows media into specific areas of their regimeand never without a government escort.

The official military reason is that it is for the photographers safety, but in reality, it is to make sure that only one side of the story is told. What we see is the version of war the military wants us to see.

Can you think of the last time on the US news, either network or cable, that you saw a US soldier actually having gotten shot, bleed and die like Walter Cronkite showed or Life Magazine printed? We see black and white high tech drone footage of some million dollar guided missile blowing up a building or cave or convoy, but we never see the actual bodies of the people in those buildings or caves or convoys.

War coverage becomes not much more than narration of a video game: Rated T for Teen.

We see the sanitized, wrapped-for-your-protection version of war. We only see the wins, we never see the losses.

We occasionally will see a picture of a set of coffins wrapped in American flags, but we never see how they got into those coffins to begin with. We see war that will not offend anyone. War, rated PG. Produced by your US Military.

Other countries have no such qualms about showing carnage both inflicted by US and to US. In fact, because middle eastern news, indeed most world news media readily show the aftermath of our bombings, our raids, and our excursions into hostile territory, their nightly news has become a great recruiter for those seeking revenge on the “great Satan.”

“Why are they so hostile towards us?” Americans often ask when hearing about another Islamic extremist group that is born out of the rubble of another neighborhood in a country where we decided that our “precision air strike” also might include a few kids and a few women out shopping for groceries.

We call that “collateral damage.” We don’t call them “dead civilians.”

Sanitized war.

Let the kids watch the news parents, they wont be offended. There is nothing on the news to upset anyone.

I was thinking about the sanitized news this week as our country endured yet another mass shooting at a school, this time in Florida. 17 Dead. 15 children and 2 adults. Kids who will never make it to prom, the next football game or graduation.

How do we show this on the news? We show kids running out of the building with their hands in the air, and then we show the yearbook pictures of the victims.

We never show the actual crime scene footage.

We never show the pictures of the students bleeding to death, dying, shot through the heart or head, lying in their own blood, or of body bags waiting to be picked up. Even in the worst of shootings, we show the sanitized versions.

Today’s shooting has been wrapped for your protection. Yes, lots of dead kids. But we won’t show you that. We will show you this like we did at Sandy Hook.

Here are the Florida victims, all so damn happy.

All happy smiley faces. See? Being shot through the head or heart or lungs or liver or major artery isn’t such a bad thing is it? Heck, they were probably smiling while being shot!

CBS News did run social media footage of the Florida High School shooting as it was happening, and told Politico:

“We think it is important to not conceal the horror of tragic events as we report on them, although we have been careful to add a warning about the graphic nature of the video so that viewers can watch it at their own discretion,” a CBS News spokesperson told POLITICO. And going forward, the CBS spokesperson added, the video would not be used in teases and the sound muted after about 10 seconds.“

Because it has to be sanitized for your protection. Produced by the NRA. Guns make you smile!

I think it is high time we start showing the actual crime scene photos of these shootings. We need the country to see what a 1st grader with her their head blown off looks like. We need to see a freshman high schooler emptied and dead in their own pool of blood. We need to see the horrible effects of exactly what this scourge of guns and gun violence looks like.

Not sanitized.

Not pasteurized.

No stupid fuzzed out areas that might offend sensitive viewers.

The images we show now on the nightly news and online of school shootings are the equivalent of the images the military wants us to see in Iraq.

What we need to show are the images that Al Jazeera is showing the populations across the globe. We need to show the Vietnam war.

People need to be uncomfortable. People need to get upset. People need to see truth.

We are at war with guns and the gun lobby and gun manufacturers and politicians that support them. A war just as much as the war in Vietnam. The only difference is that we are fighting this war against ourselves and the combatants are well financed gun lobbyists and politicians that have made pacts with the devil to sacrifice our school children in the name of being reelected. The enemy apparently are our children.

We need to convince the generation that would be listening to the Walter Cronkites of today that they need to change their minds about guns.

Just as powerful unedited, unsanitized images changed helped the course of history and helped to end the war in Vietnam, saving tens of thousands of young men from being slaughtered, we need to show the war that is happening in our schools, our movie theaters, our malls, our outdoor concerts and our Universities.

We need to show the dead, not smiling, but exactly as they were found by the authorities: crouching in fear, dead, with bullet wounds piercing their young bodies, mowed down in their prime.

Until we can make the public actually understand through pictures and video, just as we did in Vietnam, I don’t think much will change. We have to change the clean cut Andy Griffith narrative that the NRA wants you to see.

We need to un-sanitize, we need to un-pasteurize, we need to show exactly the effects of gun violence. We need to stop worrying that someone might be offended. We need to change minds.

We need to show how much damage a high powered rifle bullet can cause on human tissue.

We need to see the stories of children that have been permanently maimed by a gunman’s attack.

We need to show the those people that believe that dead children are simply the “price of freedom” and that NRA contributions trump common sense in some politicians minds.

Pictures and videos are powerful weapons.

It is time to unleash them again. Uncle Walter would be proud.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.