Inside Television's First War
April 2003

by Ron Steinman

Excerpted from Inside Television's First War: A Saigon Journal by Ron Steinman, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2002. For further information, please call (800) 828-1894.

Now that the war in Iraq is in full swing, it is time to reflect on how broadcast journalist covered the Vietnam War, now so distant, yet still the war because of all its problems that dominates our thoughts even in this, the early part of the Twenty First century.

Today high tech dominates our lives, including journalism. One thing remains though, the ability, integrity and talent of the reporters, whether working a video camera, or a still camera. In Vietnam our large and heavy cameras for television used film. Their profile
often made them look like rocket launchers, In Vietnam there were no computers. No equipment had microchips. Cell phones did not exist. Portable video tape was a gleam in someone's eye. Lipstick cameras and video phones were the stuff of science fiction. Digital was but a dream. Satellites only came with regularity during the Tet Offensive in January 1968. Today portable satellite dishes fit easily into a small suitcase. We transmitted nothing live. This may seem hard to believe, but we never fed anything from the battlefield and never anything from Vietnam. In this war, live transmissions are normal and if not live, journalists send material soon after they record it, sometimes after they've edited it. How long would the Vietnam War havelasted had we that capability? I'd wager it would have ended years earlier because the public would have said enough. We now have remarkable equipment for getting the story and each day it gets better. The pressures are greater because now there are many networks, local stations on the scene, radio stations, newspapers everywhere, more magazines than one can count and the insatiable Internet. The demand for immediacy is overwhelming. War was different in Vietnam. Our attitude toward war and how we covered it, was also different. We, that is the press and the military, our military and our biggest adversary, were in it for the long haul. We, as I describe below, went anywhere we wanted, and covered just about everything we wanted. That made all the difference in our coverage and what we presented to our audience. The following is a look how we in one bureau, NBC News, covered the war.

I became the Saigon bureau chief for NBC News in April 1966 and servedfor twenty-seven months until July 1968, thus becoming a part of the history of the war in Vietnam. The reports generatedb y my bureau andall the other news bureaus, broadcasters, wire services, magazines, and newspapers defined the war then andfor generations of Americans to come. We didnot know the effect the war wouldha ve on the future when we coveredit.

Covering the war in Vietnam was hugely different from the way we cover any story today, especially a war. We found our story in the field, in jungles, in rice paddies, and along the beaches and mountain ranges where we knew we could fill the screen with American soldiers in trying situations. The story moved too fast for an outside entity to run our operation. We had to move quickly, without waiting for the assignment desk in New York to say “go.” We decided what to cover because we were the ones on the ground and we knew the story better than anyone, especially someone in a dry, well-lit office thousands of miles away. To our advantage, communications with headquarters were terrible, which meant less interference. Today, network headquarters usually has control over coverage of events. Communications by satellite, computer, and telephone are far superior and bureau chiefs in distant places have less authority. Getting on the air live and first often takes priority over good journalism, a major problem of broadcast news today. We participated in a way of life and away of journalism during those busy years that none of us will ever see again. It is sad to think that most journalists today will never know the sustained high, the rush, that accompanies reporting under such intense, let-it-all-fly conditions.

Until the mid–nineteenth century, the modern war correspondent did not exist. When one of the London papers wanted to report a war, it arranged to have military officers or English nationals who were in the fight or observing the action—amateurs to journalism—write letters to the paper. These letters had the wonder of the new about them but were long and rambling, dominated by detail that only those with great patience could endure to read. These dispatches were journalism of a sort, but nothing like what would come. When the Times of London hired William Howard R ussell to cover the Crimean War (1853–1856), reporting on war changed forever. Though Russell and his fellow full-time reporters showed great courage in reporting from the front lines, technically they had to know only how to put their pen to paper and get their stories on the next fast packet to Great Britain, no small feat.

In Vietnam, television correspondents had to know much more about their craft, because it had become far more complicated. By the time reporters went to war, the overt trappings of their craft had be ome second nature. After all, most were children of television and, as such, had an unconscious, though learned, understanding of the medium. They knew how to stand, how to sit, how to hold a microphone, and how to conduct an interview for the camera. They knew how to “write to picture,” how many words per second to speak, and how to do the “stand-up”: how to look like you’re not in danger though you are and, conversely, how to look like you are in danger when you are not. If a correspondent lacked these basic skills, his reports would be weak, his composure unsteady, his ability to talk to his audience a failure. Fortunately, though such reporters existed, they were in the minority.

But few reporters who arrived in Vietnam had the training it took to be a war correspondent. Covering war is nothing like covering the local gardening club or the progress of a bill through the House or Senate. Unfortunately, news agencies did not have the money and staff to afford the luxury of sending only those experienced in war to cover war. Vietnam was the first major American groundwar since Korea and few , if any, of the broadcast journalists who covered Korea later made their way to Southeast Asia. NBC News recruited young reporters, many of whom were working at local stations, the farm system for the networks. Eager to succeed but anxious about falling bombs and flying bullets, most did well. Boot camps for war correspondents did not exist. Would they have worked? No. Only experience can teach journalists how to report on war. We had veteran reporters such as Wilson Hall, Dean Brelis, and Paul Cunningham along side the novices and I would like to think they sometimes led y example. But training by doing prevailed. Good journalists learn to parachute with little notice into the unknown. By virtue of tenacity, guts, skill, training, and intelligence—and often with the help of an apt local guide—they manage surprisingly well at the start of their tour to survive, then grow wings and fly .

Journalists who cover military issues can find themselves spending too much time trying to understand budgets. They concern themselves with investigating cost overruns, soldiers’ pay and housing , and weapons systems. All are valid and worthy pursuits. Their best education in war, however, is under fire. Exposure to danger matters more than what anyone can learn in the classroom. Textbooks provide templates for proper procedure: the who, why, what, and where of the story. But the doing—that is, the coverage itself—becomes so compelling, and often overpowering, that instinct rules rather than learned lessons. My reporters had varying strengths and levels of commitment to their craft. Some learned their trade faster than others. Some, however, never learned the skills to successfully operate in a war zone like Vietnam, with its ever-shifting, unstable fronts, its ambushes and frequent terror.

Though some of the reporters who worked for me had servedin the army or marines and several had covered other wars, most had no previous military experience. They all tried, though, and the lack of a full understanding of the military mind and its often arcane culture rarely got in the way of doing a good job . In the thousands of television stories and radio reports that we sent from the bureau to the American people, there were few mistakes of substance, though military purists might disagree. We learned to treat the military with respect and never to assume that anyone wearing a uniform was one-dimensional. We understood they could think for themselves when orders from higher-ups superseded good sense.

While many of us knew next to nothing about the military, its customs and culture, none of us knew anything about the Vietnamese people, their customs and culture. But we had to learn everything we could, and fast, to survive. I found ignorance of Vietnamese values and customs to be shockingly high among senior officers. Perhaps I expected too much, as these men only reflected the policy from Washington, and our legislators and the executive branch proved equally delinquent. The U.S. command dismissed the enemy’s goals as either simplistic or naive, rarely understanding that they believed truth was on their side. This made it a strange war by any yardstick.

We did not always believe what we heard from people in the government, whether in or out of uniform. They had an agenda and we did not. They had orders and we had curiosity. Many of us found it difficult to believe everything they said or, sometimes, preached. It resulted in a constant tug of war between truth and propaganda when we dealt with government officials. The situation in Vietnam demanded continuous intellectual pushing and shoving if we were to get the story we knew existed. Covering the whole war, we sometimes knew more about a story than an officer confined to a specific tactical zone. We were not always correct in our conclusions, but we tried mightily to get to the truth. The military thought, as do professionals in any business, that we journalists could never understand their work, especially when it involved danger. However, once you’re under fire from shelling or small arms, or witnessing a terrorist attack, that old saw dies quickly.

So how do you learn to cover war? In some ways, you never do. But you learn by doing, by asking many questions, and by coming to grips with fear. Knowing that fear is real often provides enough protective covering when the unexpected takes place, which it always does. To survive, you learn when to duck and how to identify the whistling sound of mortars and the angry belch of a 105-mm howitzer. You learn to distinguish the crack of a Viet Cong AK-47 from the pop of a Chinese recoilless rifle and the friendly soundof an M-16. You learn to cross your fingers and to wear, if available, a steel helmet on your head and a flak jacket to protect your chest, heart, and back. Helicopter pilots routinely lined the floor of their thin-shelled air craft with flak jackets. More than once, enemy rounds struck and pierced the floor of a helicopter in which I was a passenger. Fortunately, though the “bird” bucked from the impact, the rounds never made it any closer to those of us inside because of those extra jackets.

Even when there is no combat and no shots sound, there is little theorizing. Lessons for the future are rarely considered. Our bar talk concerned our lack of sleep, our horrible living conditions, the heat, the monsoon rains, the bad food, and the terrible wine. We may have swapped stories, but rarely did we discuss specifically how to cover the war. Reporters talked about how misunderstood they were by producers and editors at home, and how they missed their loved ones. They talked about their next drink, their last meal, and occasionally about women. They did not think of journalism as anything other than a way of life, one that they wouldn’t substitute for anything. I believed then that, more than the skills needed to cover the war, instinct honed by experience would guide the reporter through most, if not all, situations. I still hold that belief as gospel. To succeed in covering any war—especially a story as diverse as Vietnam, with its many images, in pictures and words, giving the look of a splintered windshield—it’s important to be active first and to intellectualize second.

But covering war is more than seeing and experiencing action. There is the culture, the history, the food, the climate. By learning how the local people live, you become a better reporter and help yourself to avoid injury or, worse, death. At least, that is the hope. It can also help you make sense of the mystery surrounding the story you are covering. Vietnam remained ever enigmatic. There were too many areas where meaning stayed unclear, motives vague, and goals clouded. The goal of the correspondent and the all-important cameraman—and, through them, my goal as well—was to clarify the puzzle, if possible, and dig through the morass without violating the principles of the trade. Once the story was complete, it was up to the gatekeepers at the various stages of production to ask the right questions in the quest for accuracy.

The public expects reporters to cover everything that happens—that is, all the stories we can find. But in war, many stories may have obscure origins and be difficult to explain. Today, many who hold top management positions at the media conglomerates also expect journalists to entertain as they inform. Fortunately, that attitude played hardly any role in the Vietnam era. Doubtless, much of what we reported from Vietnam influenced our audience: people at home and in government, the military, foreign allies, and our enemies. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, communications was still in its infancy as far as speed was concerned, and events with new twists sometimes overshadowed the events documented in our pieces. Yet, our stories remained valid and usually had enough heart to receive substantial airplay because they explained the reasons behind the events. Though the networks covered the war in the early 1960s, it took a backseat to other news, as if the press lords did not have the time, energy, or perhaps the stomach to focus on the war full-time. In Vietnam the buildup was slow, almost ignored until late 1965 when the number of American troops started edging into the hundreds of thousands, culminating in more than half a million by early 1966. Until the emergence of CNN in the 1980s, there were fewer channels demanding fresh news. News did not command the air twenty-four hours a day; news broadcasts had fixed times. Fixed schedules made for “appointment television.” Viewers knew they could see morning television starting at 7:00 a.m. The network evening newscasts were on at either 6:30 or 7:00. Listeners could find radio newscasts every hour throughout the day. Breaking news, if warranted, came into the home at odd times, but these stories were always special. We never broadcast anything frivolous, because we wanted the audience to know they could trust us to give them what we considered important. The television news business in that era had different motives, and I like to think we were better, more focused, less tabloid.

There were only three television networks, but we were not any less competitive. I knew our competition, their strengths and weaknesses, and I sometimes covered stories with that in mind. If CBS had a weak correspondent on a particular military action, I might try, if I had one available, to put a stronger team in the field. Rarely were we head to head covering the same squad or even platoon. Thousands of men were fighting or hunting for the enemy, but for us, most of the action took place on a very small scale. This allowed us to cover stories, or parts of them, where we were alone, the competition not in sight. Perhaps we were even exclusive (a much overused term) to an entire battle.

We hopedthat what we covered served a larger purpose than simply attracting and holding an audience. On the other hand, we were never so naive as to assume we could do without the audience, so we didn’t tone down our coverage or ignore the obvious. Combat, the battle itself, action, is what is obvious in war and the easiest story to cover. But when we covered combat just for the sake of combat, it served only to stir the prurient in us. It edged easily toward pornography. Showing only combat is a poor substitute for covering other news in a war zone (though there is nothing more serious than death). It limits the growth of the correspondent and his crew, and is thus a disservice to the audience. In the end, the audience appreciates that there is little difference from one combat story to another except the nature of the horror. Of course, battle footage, with guns firing and men wounded and killed, did serve a purpose. The people sitting safely and snugly at home had the opportunity to see the ultimate, inherent futility of the war.

There is a continuing debate about the so-called moral detachment of the journalist,
especially in war, where destruction and violence prevail. Is there a right and wrong here? How much should journalists be involved in the stories they tell? Does the choice of a sound bite and pictures, and the placement of those pictures against the narration, unduly influence the direction the story takes? When a reporter gives too much thought to the morals and ethics of the storytelling, the result can reek from the personal rather than be naturally strong from its inherent value. We must never underestimate the audience’s ability to recognize feigned or imposed morality. Such imposition can bring a story from the potentially airy height of pure reportage down to the muddy waters of personal involvement. There are those who believe reporters can and should show moral and social responsibility without their report suffering. I have difficulty with that
idea. I watched Buddhist monks immolate themselves in defiance of the Thieu government. I found what these men and women did abhorrent. But I would not allow my staff to editorialize and say, how horrible a waste of life. By playing the story straight, describing what happened and showing the pictures of the charred bodies, we did not compromise the story, the reporters, or the monks, their beliefs and actions. Because we could not expect families at home in America to fathom anyone taking his own life that way, we simply presented the facts, no more, no less. We maintained the art of storytelling by staying true to the event, to what the reporter and his camera team observed and recorded. Whatever occurred in the mind and heart of the viewer because of the report was a bonus and, perhaps, a salve to the reporter’s psyche. The risk was always that the correspondent might err too much on one side and thus cloud his interpretation and unduly influence that of his audience. Reporters can’t help but raise moral issues and taking a stand when confronted with anything abhorrent. But we should take seriously our role as purveyors of truth and clarity. The minute we try to serve another muse, however tantalizing, we are no use to our audience.

In Vietnam, reporting for television was like nothing anyone had done previously.
Television as the dominant mass medium did not exist in World War II. Newspapers, magazines with their wonderful still photographs, and radio dominated coverage. The occasional newsreel at the movie theaters featured government-released film of the war. When our troops entered Korea, where we sometimes euphemistically called the war a “conflict,” television remained in its infancy and there were few combat film photographers. Again, radio, newspapers, magazines, and newsreels containing official war film supplied the coverage. Broadcast journalists in the Vietnam War wrote a new set of rules that are still emerging and are far from being perfected today; in the language of journalism, they are in “rewrite.” These journalists combined eyewitness reporting, oral history, analysis, and even elements of legend and myth. My hope is that we will continue to fuse these diverse elements every way we can to allow them their
rightful place in the world of reporting.

We know the history of the Vietnam War, how it started perhaps naively, and with a purpose that fit its time. Today few argue its worth. The length of the war and the rising death toll changed attitudes toward the war. Only time will tell if this second Iraq war will know the same fate because of lengthy fighting or extended peace keeping. In the Vietnam War we frequently heard about the "role of the press," a term I found objectionable then and still do,. We exist to report what we see and to present it in all its glory or ugliness to our audience. We should always be tough-minded and accurate. At NBC News and the other networks, and news bureaus, we covered the war with then state-of-the-art equipment, yet we succeeded. Today that antiquated gear wouldn't have a chance. People made their stories come alive despite the tools. People
were our strength then and will always be our strength in journalism. However changed the technology, unless the reporter, print, still photographer, TV or radio, has a good eye and a good ear with the right instincts and training, all the high tech equipment available will make no difference in the end.

© Ron Steinman

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