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From AJR,   October/November 2008  issue

Women Covering War   

On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam

By Joyce Hoffmann

Da Capo Press

442 pages; $27.50


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

High on the list of great unanswered questions is whether women and men, apart from physique, really differ all that much.

For journalists, a spin-off question is how news coverage changes, if at all, as women more fully integrate the field.

History probably offers some clues, and that is one reason to welcome Joyce Hoffmann's valuable new overview of women reporters and the Vietnam War. While she notes that women had reported on conflict at least as far back as the 1840s, when Margaret Fuller covered fighting in Europe for the New York Tribune, Hoffmann sees Vietnam as a turning point where "the female war correspondent was transformed from a novelty into the norm."

In part because women aggressively lobbied to cover a generation's huge story, in part because the war dragged on so long that nearly all hands were needed, the rotation of more and more women into the coverage "finally broke the barriers that had kept all but a few of them in women's news."

Her book focuses on more than a dozen reporters, from Gloria Emerson, a former fashion writer who first reported from Vietnam in 1956, to radio reporter Laura Palmer, who helicoptered out during the chaotic 1975 evacuation. The cast includes larger-than-life characters such as Marguerite Higgins, Martha Gellhorn and Frances FitzGerald.

For many women, getting the assignment was a battle in itself. Many went on their own as freelancers, or, as with Associated Press and United Press International reporters, under strict (though often disobeyed) orders not to cover combat. NBC's Liz Trotta spent more than six months badgering bosses who "recoiled at the idea of assigning a woman to the war."

Once on the scene, the women correspondents and their work don't seem at least at first glimpse all that different from their male colleagues. (See "Women on War," March 1994.)

They braved unspeakable dangers, not only from shrapnel and gunfire but also from leeches and parasites, blisters and swollen limbs, fever and malaria, exhaustion and emotional upheaval, to cover every kind of story from battlefields to street uprisings.

They squabbled among themselves, routinely offended local and American authorities, bedeviled editors back home, and blew up in foul-mouthed tirades when they didn't get what they needed.

They tended to arrive supporting the American effort and to grow steadily disillusioned at the "parade of follies, lies, evasions, and missteps..."

And their work won practically every prize in the book, from Polk Awards (Emerson, Dickey Chapelle and photographer Catherine Leroy) to the Emmy (Trotta) to the Pulitzer (FitzGerald).

In those ways and others, they seem in retrospect a lot like reporters anywhere making the commitment and sacrifices for a big story.

But in other ways, their experiences do seem different from those of their male counterparts. In fact, Hoffmann tantalizingly suggests that the women had some built-in advantages.

"Vietnamese culture," she writes, "was considerably more open to women than American culture was at the time. Vietnamese men appear to have had fewer qualms than some American men harbored about working with women..."

Hoffmann doesn't belabor or systematically analyze this point. But her book as a whole powerfully demonstrates that women reporters arrived with a kind of outsider status and perspective that gave their coverage unusual independence and insight.

Often relegated at first to soft, non-battlefield features, the reporters profiled here spent less time in briefings with officials and more time in the field with soldiers and locals. Emerson's first two articles focused on a public health enterprise and the lives led by young Americans in Saigon. On her first day in Saigon, the AP's Edith Lederer wrote about a Vietnamese woman who had lost three sons in the war.

This approach tended to broaden the reporters' horizons, leading to less "muddy-boots" coverage, more stories about "the human and social impact of the war," and a readiness to challenge conventional wisdom.

Who really knows whether it was their sex or outsider standing that most influenced this pattern? But it does seem clear that diversity and a certain maverick spirit contribute mightily to reducing establishment bias in the news, a reminder we seem to need over and over.

Another eternal lesson involves the competitive fire that drives so many brave journalists. One of the book's best lines comes from the Chicago Defender's Ethel Payne. Asked why she, rather than a man, was assigned to Vietnam, Payne replied pointedly: "Because I was the best writer they had."

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@jmail.umd.edu), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.