While he may be best known for the photo he took of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation, Associated Press correspondent Malcolm W. Browne’s Pulitzer-winning print work was one of America’s major windows to the Vietnam War. He told the story behind that picture in a Fall 1964 CJR article that surveyed the challenges and limitations of reporting on the conflict. His article explains the conditions he and other journalists worked under during the Diem regime: sneaking film and copy out of the country with the help of a diplomat, rumors of a list of reporters marked for assassination, and misinformation from both American and South Vietnamese officials. Most tellingly, he worries that body count coverage distracts from vital, but rarely run and hard to tell, stories about the mood and “social upheaval” of the Vietnamese. The below paragraph ran above the original piece.
Malcolm W. Browne, Associated Press correspondent in Saigon since 1961 and now senior member of the press corps there, presents here reflections on covering a period in which Southeast Asia became America’s most persistent overseas problem. This article was prepared for Frederick T. C. Yu of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism as part of a study of crisis reporting. Other segments will be carried in future issues. Last spring Mr. Browne shared with David Halberstam of The New York Times the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
I remember once having seen a newspaper picture of an elephant being towed on water skis under the Brooklyn Bridge. As I recall it, an advertisement for toothpaste was painted on the side of the beast, and it clearly showed in the photograph. It struck me at the time that it is really fairly easy to manipulate even the best intentioned news media, provided you have enough imagination and gall. After all, an elephant on water skis is news of a sort, advertisement or not, and most readers are amused looking at such a picture.
This kind of press manipulation is probably innocent enough in itself. Unfortunately for foreign correspondents, similar but infinitely more sinister manipulations are frequently directed at newsmen abroad.
On the whole, most of the correspondents I have met in various parts of the world are extremely suspicious professionals who are willingly taken in by such things only rarely.
But reporting in times of crisis can be a trying and sometimes hazardous business, particularly when elements in the story are actively hostile to the free press.
One of the major pitfalls any reporter faces is the possibility of becoming an element in one of his own stories—a cardinal breach of the rules of our game. Ideally, every reporter is a detached observer, setting down fact after fact with clear-sighted fairness to all.
A few newsmen allow themselves to become actively involved in their stories from the very start. Last year in Jakarta, a foreign news organization hired an Indonesian photographer to get pictures of an Indonesian mob attacking the British Embassy. The cameraman went to the riot as directed, but after a few moments he was so caught up in the patriotic fervor of smashing things that he dropped his camera and picked up a brick. The news organization fired him, of course.
In other instances, newsmen can actually become hors de combat covering crises. Last year, a French news agency correspondent covering a racial incident in the American South was shot to death.
On July 7, 1963, I had been taking pictures at a Buddhist street demonstration in Saigon when a brick smashed across my chest and shattered the top of my camera. Looking around, I saw my AP friend and colleague, Peter Arnett, on the ground. Blood was coursing down his face, five plain-clothes police agents were kicking him and grinding his camera to fragments.
The police squad broke on its attack as suddenly as it had begun, dashing off into the crowd of spectators like thieves. Uniformed police broke up the remains of the demonstration rapidly, and Arnett and I dragged ourselves back to the office.
The incident itself was an ugly one, and had drawn us involuntarily into the story we were trying to cover as detached observers. But worse was to come. A few hours later, uniformed police came to our office with a summons. Charges were being prepared to the effect that Arnett and I had assaulted and injured several police agents.
Our subsequent interrogation lasted about eight hours, and we were permitted no transcript of the testimony. The Saigon prosecutor’s office coldly informed the U.S. chargé d’affaires that eight depositions filed by newsmen who had seen the incident would not be accepted in evidence. All these depositions said, in effect, that neither Arnett nor I had lifted a finger against the plainclothesmen, whose attack appeared completely unwarranted.
Newsmen make news