The Truth about the Five O’ Clock Follies

News at Home
tags: Vietnam War, journalism

Ron Steinman was bureau chief for NBC News in Saigon from April 1966 through September 1968. He covered the war until 1972, with frequent trips to Saigon from posts in Hong Kong and London.


Recently some in the world of journalism compared President Trump's daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic to the daily 5 pm briefings, dubbed The Five O’clock Follies by the press, held in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do not know any journalist covering the war who took as gospel anything said at the Follies, except perhaps certain facts that were undeniable, such as the number of flights made by jet fighters on a given day. In Saigon, the daily brief by the political arm in civilian clothing and military men in uniform purported to update the press corps on what was going on in Vietnam. It was a show, one we in the press eagerly participated in some days as our only entertainment. It is worth repeating -- it was a show. It is clear that President Trump's motivation is political, erroneous and self-serving. The 5 O’clock Follies were something else. 

I do not believe there are many of us around today who can recall those briefings as well as I. In my tour as NBC News' bureau chief, starting in 1966 in Saigon and from Hong Kong until 1973, I estimate conservatively that I made more than 300 trips to the darkened auditorium in the Rex Hotel. Meaning, I sat through hundreds of hours of often-meaningless drivel. Only, in fairness, the briefing was much more. If one listened, you would learn where the major actions were, the number of allied casualties, often incomplete and, because of that, hard to believe, and worse, the number of enemy casualties which were even more suspect and hard to believe because those numbers were seemingly always inflated. We learned how many sorties had been flown by Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter planes, the occasional daring helicopter rescue, and even sometimes, sadly, civilian casualties. 

Located on busy Nguyen Hue, the Rex was the headquarters for JUSPAO (Joint United States Public Affairs Office), the propaganda wing for the United States in Vietnam. It was the civilian arm of the American war machine, the Pentagon's beachhead in Saigon. There, I and fellow members of the press corps would listen to briefers of all stripes tell us tall tales about the war that we covered every day. We often knew more about the war than those sometimes inexperienced briefers did. Callow is a better word, though many of the men who briefed us were older than we were and had been in the military for many years. I say inexperienced because some who briefed us had never been more than a block a two from their headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Airport. For some of those men, briefing was a come down from fighting a real war. But they were good soldiers and did their job as best they could. Truthfully, the briefers were well informed about everything, but their role was to tell us, the press corps, either nothing or as little as possible. A few of the briefers were also intelligence officers who had a deep knowledge of the war from every angle. Despite the game we all played at the briefing, as a journalist if you played it well, you could come away with a healthy dose of information though never learned from the briefing itself. Barry Zorthian, the urbane head of JUSPAO, briefed us, too, but he did that only rarely. I often had a private briefing from Zorthian in his back room office where I was privy to deep intelligence files that helped me understand what was happening on the street in Vietnam and in the upper reaches of Vietnamese politics. 

My bureau was directly across from the Rex and, thus JUSPAO. On my days in Saigon, most of the time, shortly before 5 p.m., I headed for the small, often broken elevator in my building and hoped it was working. If not, I would have to take the darkened stairs down five flights, the stairwells filled with tiny geckos, occasional birds and many large water bugs. I walked across the crowded, busy street dodging cyclos and broken down cars. At the entrance to the Rex armed MP's checked my ID and allowed me into the dank auditorium. I found a seat, usually in the back, lit a cigarette, opened my notebook and settled in for what I knew would be the usual briefing empty of information, wishing it would provide something new and interesting. Most days I knew better. There was too much dissembling from the podium to believe what the briefers said. To believe them from their perch in the auditorium would have been naive and foolish. 

However, the briefing itself mattered little to me. My aim was to corral one or more of the briefers after their show and get a personal, more intimate picture of the war, one they would never divulge from the podium. 

Though others did, I never hooted, howled, argued, shouted, sought attention, hissed, yelled, disagreed publicly, or in any form, something my colleagues often engaged in out of frustration, anger, and disbelief during briefings which could last as long as an hour. Lying was not so much the issue. The problem was in trying to get the press corps to buy into the half-truths, subtly and shrewdly, rarely blatantly, that the briefers preached. But they knew, as well as we did, that would never happen. In time I knew the briefers personally. We shared beers, lunch, and card games at their billets. We could never let on that we had a relationship. Getting to know many of the briefing officers intimately helped me cover the war and fulfill the needs of the NBC News producers in New York.  I had five crews, each with a correspondent, cameraman, and soundman who were constantly in the field covering mostly combat and other stories. My job was to feed the insatiable news shows with as many stories as I could produce every day. Knowing the truth and the details behind the many briefings I attended helped me do that every day. 

About that comparison to today's Trump press briefings. Just because the surface looks the same does not make it the same. In Vietnam the press might have been the enemy but there were no orders to destroy us. Officials sought our help. They did not like what we did but they never stopped us from doing it. The military and civilian staff rarely castigated the press in public. They complained. They corrected us in public but never harshly. Often the Pentagon complained to our headquarters and to us privately behind closed doors. Whatever they did, it never stopped us from reporting what we believed to be the truth. The White House and the Pentagon needed our help to pursue a war that had been slipping through their fingers for years. We never complied with what they wanted, which was to get across the message that America was winning a war which, as the years went by, it was not. We covered the war as we saw it and many of those stories were negative or perceived as such. There is no comparison between the daily news conferences President Trump holds today during which he attacks the press, all media, individual journalists, and anything else he sees before him that he disdains. For Trump the press is a threat and must be stopped or eliminated. During Vietnam, the press was a threat to the entrenched establishment and had to be manipulated, which it never was. This was something we lived with for the duration of the war. It was not until the Gulf Wars that the Pentagon finally gained some control over the press. But that is another story for another day. 

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