Barry Zorthian's War: The Pentagon and the Press in Vietnam

tags: Vietnam War, media, journalism

Ron Steinman was bureau chief for NBC News in Saigon for 30 months starting in 1966 and continued to cover the war through 1972. 



The terrible relationship during the Vietnam War between the government and the press was what I walked headlong into when I arrived in Saigon in early 1966 as bureau chief for NBC News. Before I landed in Vietnam, relations had already fallen apart between the press, the military, the State department, and the White House. The contentious divisions, that at one time were only skirmishes between the press in Vietnam and government and military officials, had become open warfare. In my many years covering the war the problem would only get worse. In the years after Vietnam the mutual mistrust between the government and the press would further intensify as the United States engaged in a series of late 20th century wars. Vietnam was where today's distrust in the media started and made possible today's climate of "fake news" accusations and open governmental hostility toward the press.                                                                      

In Vietnam in the 1960s most officials were unhappy with what we presented in our reporting. Though we were free to roam wherever we wanted and we were free to photograph and interview anyone we wanted, including those in uniform on the battlefield, we did not always have the trust of the men in command. In time things only went downhill. In some ways (even though it is difficult for me to speak for everyone), when it came to getting accurate information about an event, especially when death was part of the story, we in the press found ourselves dealing with a toxic mess in a war that increasingly seemed endless.                                                     

When I took the desk in Saigon, David Haberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Peter Arnett, among other enterprising reporters, had already started to open the public's eyes with their effective, detailed, tough minded and riveting reporting. The official military and civilian briefers were starting to recoil with fear when confronted with the truth--call it the real war--, and thus they attempted to limit our knowledge of the details of everyday action. I learned quickly that State and Defense did not always agree. Though one person in Saigon was in charge of all information, there was more often a sharp disconnect between those two branches of government. 

We knew there was a man behind the curtain orchestrating the dissemination and flow of information. He was Barry Zorthian, who headed JUSPAO (Joint United States Public Affairs Office.) Zorthian's role as chief of information from 1966 through 1970 was basically to advise the ambassador on how information from both the civilian side and the military got to the press, but his main role was to control the flow of information to the press. During my coverage of the war for more than 6 years, I had no idea what motivated Zorthian or what rules he lived by. 

Now I know what he thought because of a 1970 speech called "Effective Press Relations," recently discovered by Donald M. Bishop of the Marine Corps University. Zorthian gave the speech to the Command and Staff College the year he ended his more than four-year tour in Vietnam, and it was subsequently published in the Marine Corps Gazette. 

Barry Zorthian had a carefully thought out philosophy of how to disseminate information. He was intellectually high-minded. The truth was important to him. Accuracy was important. But he was in and of a government for which the malleability of the truth was sometimes more important than its reality. He was first a high government official with a mandate to make America look good. He had a role to play and he played it well. I know personally and now from his speech that he believed in a free press. This does not mean he always followed that dictate. Considering the pressure he had to be under from every branch of government I understand how his beliefs were probably at times impossible to follow. Because of an ever-changing, fluid war Zorthian never fully achieved what he wanted.

His ideas are particularly relevant today because we live in an era of vicious slurs of fake news fostered by official attempts to harness the press in Washington, especially at the White House. This piece is more about attitudes than specific events. It is about how people who controlled information in Saigon went about their jobs particularly as the war continued and there were always more questions than answers. Zorthian believed that the government's approach to information had been disingenuous, if not purely deceptive and misleading. He believed that "you simply cannot get away with a gap between reality and your (meaning a briefing officer’s) articulation of it."

I was in Zorthian's presence at least once a week for more than 3 years during my first tour. I knew what I was getting from him every moment. I knew that he knew when he was dissembling, modifying, stretching or shrinking the truth to fit an official need. In some ways we were playing a game in which each of us believed we had the upper hand. Because I rarely gave in to his needs and used the information he gave me for my, meaning NBC's needs, I never felt used. Truth is, I did not need Zorthian's help in covering combat. It was important to deal with him because of his official capacity but I had no need for what he had to offer for my daily needs. 

We sometimes played a game. I learned from him what he wanted me to know, mainly about Vietnamese politics. He learned from me that I took most of that information and usually buried it because I had no outlet for it. We were both cynical in our relationship, but we made no pretense it was otherwise. I was not naive nor were most of the press who covered the war, as he was not. Controlling the flow and amount of information is what Zorthian tried to do. Our job in the press was to take a long hard look behind the curtain in the pursuit of the truth--not always an easy task, and rarely fulfilled without flaws. 

Zorthian was rarely completely open. He gave you just enough information but not too much. He maintained as close control over information as possible, only divulging that which benefited America's position on Vietnam. I gleaned inside information about Vietnamese politics. My only regret is because of the demands of the producers in New York we did not cover more local political stories about Vietnam and the Vietnamese than we did. We mostly covered combat with American troops in the field and we did that very well. Because we neglected everyday life in Vietnam, however our storytelling was never complete. 

Barry Zorthian died in 2010 and never lived to see what life has become as a journalist in the era of Donald Trump. He would be appalled. Zorthian thought that the confrontation between the press and the government in those years was the worst in history. That was then, but today it is even more severe. It can be fairly said that where we are today in our poisonous relations between the press and the government is a result of the Vietnam War where we openly went at each other with every weapon at our disposal. When Pentagon or State was unhappy with what we did, which was often, there were complaints to our home offices. There were occasional investigations. Nothing went anywhere because those complaints were mostly ignored and rightly so. 

As laid out in his speech, and from what I saw over the years in my dealings with him, he was against lying to the press. He wanted to restrict security to a minimum. He believed in setting clear ground rules with the press so there would be no misunderstandings. He wanted his briefing officers to be firm with those ground rules and to take the initiative when presenting a point of view. According to the speech he thought a public affairs office should work to blunt the harm that might ensue from a damaging story. Make it less bad than it might otherwise have been was his mantra. But do not lie. 

His biggest problem was controlling military public affairs officers who doted heavily on security and wanted every action they described to stay in the shadows, impossible because of the freedom of movement we had. He thought that too often the military did not understand the distinction between information and publicity. Military briefers lacked training. From my dealings with the military, I knew they resented being told what to do even by their bosses. They were not bothered by their need to protect their own and to do so would err on the side of divulging almost no information. After the Vietnam War, fostered by the Pentagon this led to the concept of embedding, in the wars that followed, a way to control reporting as the term implies, by inserting reporters inside units, thus controlling and limiting their movement. By any other name it is censorship because it limits free access to a story. Recall that in Vietnam we had freedom of movement. That did nothing to end the war but it allowed us to cover combat in an open way. It is sad to note that every news organization I know gave into embedding and as far as I am concerned gave up something of their birthright to a third party, the Pentagon.

I am certain that others who were in South Vietnam when I was or who came after may not agree with me all or in part. Each experience and memory is different. I accept differences. I welcome differences. I know this-- If Barry Zorthian were alive he would be revolted by what is going on between the press, the government and the increasingly difficult partisan divide. 

Our way around changing any new and frequent restrictions in Vietnam, restrictions that did not make sense, and the frequent untruths we believed were created by briefing officials that made less sense was our belief in the freedom of the press. It still may be possible today. That entitlement that we believed we enjoyed extended to everything we did to get the facts we reported on day to day. I still believe in it today.

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