But frankly it never occurred to me to interfere. I have always felt that a newsman’s duty is to observe and report the news, not try to change it. This attitude may be subject to criticism, but that is how I reacted on July 11, and how I would react again.
As a matter of duty, I photographed the whole horrible sequence of Quang Duc’s suicide, and relayed the pictures and story as fast as possible into The Associated Press network. It is difficult to conceive of any newsman acting otherwise.
But reaction came swiftly as, I am sure, the Buddhists had anticipated. At a single blow, they had won their battle to focus world attention on their campaign. It is significant within the scope of this article that had a Western newsman with a camera not been present at Quang Duc’s suicide, history might have taken a different tum.
Millions of words had been written about the Buddhist crisis, but the pictures carried an incomparable impact. I have been told that when Henry Cabot Lodge was called in to see President Kennedy about taking over the ambassadorship to Viet Nam, the President had on his desk a copy of my photograph of Quang Duc.
Buddhist leaders made huge enlargements of the photograph, most of them colored in by artists, which they carried at the heads of processions. Men and women, tears streaming from their eyes, bowed in reverent prayer before the photograph. Letters reached me that back-alley vendors of “feelthy pictures” in towns as distant as Lisbon and Dar-es-Salaam were hawking copies of the photograph.
Communist China printed up huge volumes of the photograph for distribution throughout Southeast Asia. Captions described the suicide as the work of “the U.S. imperialist aggressors and their Diemist lackeys.” A wave of suicides in Quang Duc style was reported from Burma, Ceylon, India, France, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere.
In the United States, a group of prominent clergymen used the photograph in full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, over the caption: “We, too, protest.”
In short, that picture meant many things to many people, but none of those things did the Diem regime much good.
Diem and his family felt strongly about the matter. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, his sister-in-law, again denounced the Western press, and government rumors began to spread about the credibility of foreign correspondents. Diem himself asked former U.S. Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting Jr., if it were true that I had bribed the Buddhist monks to murder one of their number by fire for the purpose of getting a good picture.
Heavy-handed though Diem often had been with foreign newsmen, I was stunned by this particular tactic. The president was surely well informed about all my activities, since his men had kept me under the strictest surveillance for many weeks past, and, in any case, I had never attempted to hide anything.
At any rate, strictures on the Western press grew increasingly severe. Getting any news or photographs out of Viet Nam became a major smuggling operation. On one occasion, I found myself completely without resources and appealed to an American ambassador (to another country) who happened to be passing through Saigon to carry out some film and copy for me. He willingly agreed, having seen what these items were.
I will not mention his name, but if he should happen to read this, once again, I thank him with all my heart. There were all too few people willing to help newsmen in those days.
These are some of the pitfalls of reporting in crisis—physical censorship at the source, or of actual news output, harassment by authorities, and the dangers of involvement in stories, even when such involvement is wholly involuntary.
In large measure, I am convinced they can be overcome by attention to detail, hard work, and most of all, fairness at all cost. On the whole, I believe the reporting from South Viet Nam was essentially fair and complete during 1963.
But there are other difficulties besides those described above.
The flow of news from the event to the reader, listener, or viewer is essentially a two-way street. It depends not only on the news itself but on the demands of the news consumer.
The news consumer in America is a busy man or woman. He or she is leading a life of his or her own, in which news may be consumed as entertainment, as information, or a combination of the two. There is little time for detailed study of issues and complicated situations like those that pertained, for example, in South Viet Nam in 1963.
Readers and editors therefore demand their news in the simplest capsules available, sometimes limiting their consumption to mere headlines.