This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
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.
Having once been a newspaper desk man, I have a keen appreciation for the exacting and difficult work of the headline writer. He must pack as much information as possible into a very small space. Numbers are ideally suited to headline writing.
The number of home runs, the number of weekend traffic fatalities, and the number of delegates pledged to a given political candidate all are apt subjects for headlines. So are battle casualties in Viet Nam, or the number of Buddhists, or the number of square miles controlled by the Communists.
But, unfortunately, Viet Nam does not lend itself well to numerical reporting, or even to the kind of simple, narrative statement required of the average newspaper lead. There are too many uncertainties, too many shades of gray, too many dangers of applying English-language clichés to a situation that cannot be described by
Alien social patterns
Obviously, there are human elements in Viet Nam that can be described adequately in simple terms, because they are universal. But there are other things so alien to American social patterns and thinking that they cannot be reported simply.
War reporting in itself, for example, is technically fairly simple. Reporting a single clash with X number of casualties is not unlike reporting a sports event. By an adroit use of verbs, the writer can create an impact that comes close to reproducing reality.
But in Viet Nam, the actual clashes are probably less important than the subtle thinking of people and, the social upheaval of the nation. These are difficult to capture in words, and for a reader to digest.