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NMSU professor says "reality violence" started with the Vietnam War

A New Mexico State University journalism professor says television's "reality violence" programming got its start with the Vietnam War.



J. Sean McCleneghan, a 19-year NMSU faculty member in journalism and mass communications, says "reality violence" on television started with coverage of the Vietnam War. McCleneghan's thought piece on the subject will be published in the "Violence in Ame

think about the history of television, reality violence would have to emanate from the Vietnam War. You just didn't see violence on the news before the war," said J. Sean McCleneghan, a 19-year NMSU faculty member in journalism and mass communications. "It was America's living-room war and its impact on baby boomers, who grew up with it, continues today for their children and grandchildren."


McCleneghan traces the emergence of reality violence on television in a special section of the Winter 2001 "Social Science Journal."

McCleneghan explained that TV's reporting of the Vietnam War gave America its initial doses of reality violence on national news in "grisly detail" for more than a decade. Televison news viewers from 1964-67 would have seen film of Vietnam civilian casualties and property destruction less than once a week on the average, but the 1968 Tet Offensive changed the picture coverage, he said. Violence of the war appeared almost four times more often.

"Pictures of military casualties jumped from an average of 2.4 to 6.8 per week. Our teen-age G.I. grunts were now bleeding in color in greater numbers," McCleneghan said. "Color TV, the beginning of the satellite age, and a decade of civil rights coverage were the hallmarks of our window to the world."

In 1968, reality violence on TV was relentless. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In May, student protests rocked France. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. In August, Chicago saw violent rioting as the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey. In October, the Mexican government massacred hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.

By 1972, the Vietnam War could be measured by its violent still photographs.

"The most memorable were the 1963 image of the burning monk, the 1968 Saigon street execution and the 1972 picture of napalmed children," McCleneghan said.

The journalism educator suggests reality violence on TV grew naturally out of the Vietnam War. He says local TV news, marketed as "Action News," with its blood and guts ambulance-at-the scene format, followed the war coverage on week nights.

"Live TV coverage today continues to capture the images of those who are badly hurt or killed in acts of violence," he said. "More violence is marketed today by the networks in prime time (7-10 p.m.) than ever before. No one is backing away from it -- not advertisers, not parents."

McCleneghan asks, "How violent will televison programming become with 500 channels to eventually fill cable? And, what form will it take?"

He points to the latest example for violence tolerance in "3,000 Miles to Graceland," a Las Vegas heist movie released in March.

Two endings were shown to 18-to-25-year-old focus groups. One ending was violent, the other romantic. The violent cut scored 20 percent higher.

"The violent cut made it to the movie theaters to sell the popcorn," McCleneghan said.

McCleneghan's thought piece will be published in the "Violence in America" section scheduled for publication about October 2001. He served as department head for the NMSU journalism and mass communications program from 1982-94 and is author of more than 80 scholarly publications in media studies.