Sunday, July 12, 2009

TV Media & Politics: Robert McNamara Discovered That Managing The TV Media Image Of Ford Was Far Different Than Managing The Media Image Of War

Robert McNamara's success as the top CEO over at Ford during the 1960's seemed to establish him as a credible and effective manager. In those days, American auto producers had a commanding 90% market share with only Volkswagen presenting the biggest foreign challenge at the time. A few brands like the BWM Isetta or Renault may have attempted to penetrate the U.S. market, but with only limited success among a few buyers. And Ford's skillful use of advertising helped to cement a pretty decent market share in those days.

McNamara brought his keen scientific mind to the Kennedy Administration in 1961 acting as the new Secretary Of Defense, and bringing the sciences of "systems analysis" which evolved into a sort of "policy analysis" scientific view of issues and problems. At Ford, such scientific thinking proved to keep Ford as a top brand while some other automakers during the 1950's such as Kaiser, Packard, Willys, Studebaker began to slip into some serious financial problems. McNamara seemed able to effectively manage nearly any challenge. But then the war and the media reaction to it threw McNamara his biggest management challenge of his entire career.

One thing that McNamara never anticipated was that his successes or failures would be magnified by the television news media, as the American television news media created Vietnam into the first living room war for American TV viewing. All of this would mean that Americans would begin to establish opinions about that war based on the amount of coverage they watched. During previous wars such as WWII, the American government largely controlled the war news through newsreel footage that could prove propaganda purposes or spur Americans to buy war bonds. The public felt involved as well when kids to sacrifice as they found it nearly impossible to purchase chocolate candy bars or women had to paint their legs to look like they were wearing nylons because nylon was needed for manufacturing parachutes.

Countless massive bombing missions, and then bombing halts in Vietnam failed to deter the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. To McNamara's scientific thinking, such massive military acts would influence the behavior of the Vietnamese rivals to respond with a call for peace and bring about some sort of a quick settlement of the war. However, the Vietnamese discovered that they could create events that would be covered by the American news media that would break the American resolve to continue to fight the war. The well planned Tet Offensive of 1968 in which Viet Cong waged attacks in around 800 cities and villages in Vietnam seemed to badly shake American resolve that America could win that war. And as public opinion soured on the war, Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for president. For a time Richard Nixon seemed like a peace candidate, offering a just peace where American foreign policy would remain intact, a "peace with honor" he called it.

In the end, McNamara discovered that the rules of "systems analysis" and "policy analysis" are sometimes prone to failure. And his command to use the news media to cover his battlefield "successes" could quickly be turned back by the Vietnamese to also use that media to send back an image of failure for American forces, who might have been actually "winning" on the battlefield in as much as they could bring far superior power to each battle front.

Iraq became another living room war for Americans, where the early successes over Saddam Hussein became a huge celebration for Americans as they watched his statue fall in Baghdad on their televisions. But then the insurgency, taking a cue from the Vietnam experience, found out that a continued low tech war would only sap American will to support that war with every car bomb featured on their TV news coverage.

The fact of the matter is that every future war, including Afghanistan, will now become a living room war, where the American opinion will now judge those wars according to the TV news media coverage of those events. Television news media coverage of war has dramatically changed the canned newsreel footage of WWII forever. The instant gratification standards of the public seem unsatisfied when wars cannot be concluded very quickly, and the TV news media reminds the public that a military situation is only dragging along with no quick conclusion in sight.


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