Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
A group of scholars gathered in the sedate library of the Smithsonian Castle Wednesday to analyze a 13-year-old CBS-TV news story that brought the agony of Vietnam back to life.
On Aug. 5, 1965, Americans watching CBS saw some of their own Marines setting fire to a Vietnamese hamlet. Morley Safer of CBS moved in and out of the action, interviewing nonchalant Marines and observing anguished villagers, giving on-the-air instructions to his camera operator while surrounded by the smoke and noise of war and concluding that "today's operation was the frustration of Vietnam in miniature."
"There is litte doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here," intoned Safer, "but to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side."
Lawrence Lichty, a University of Wisconsin communications professor and former Wilson Center fellow who is writing a book on American television coverage of the Vietnam war, says "if any one story had impact, it was this one." More than any other story, Safer's report first brought the Vietnam War into American living rooms, according to Lichty.
The story was controversial. The Pentagon was furious, Chet Huntley of NBC criticized Safer (and later apologized). Safer and his Vietnamese camera operator were threatened by Marines.
But Safer won awards and fame for the story. Though he delivered a more upbeat report from the same village several weeks later, it was the stark skepticism of the earlier report that lingered in the minds of American reporters, officials and maybe even in the mind of Joe Doe.
The style of Safer's report, as well as its content, also made a strong impression, said Lichty Wednesday night at a Wilson Center symposium entitled "Television War." In these days of "Geraldo Rivera journalism." Lichty observed, it's hard to understand how seldom the cinema verite techniques used by Safer had been seen on American television.
Some of the style in that report, if not the content, remains controversial, judging from some of the comments at the coloquium. A comment of Safer's that "this is what the war in Vietnam is all about" was criticized by Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer, author of the book "Tet," for its "tendency to universalize." It was pointed out that several weeks later Safer was reporting a story that seemed to indicate that what the war was all about was something else entirely.
Wilson Quarterly editor Peter Braestrup - who wrote "Big Story," a study of how the media covered the Tet offensive - pointed out that Safer was crouching at the beginning of his report as though he were surrounded by enemy fire, even though one of Safer's points was the lack of substantial enemy fire. He asked how Safer could "jump into the minds of the peasants" in his final statement. Was Safer implying that the peasants were listening to "presidential promises" on the radio and caring about them?
Television journalism, said Braestrup, has a strong need for "melodrama," and "terrific pressure" is applied on reporters for "a strong beginning, middle and end" of their stories, ambiguous though they may be. He observed that print reporters could never have used Safer's closing words to sum up their feelings.
No one wanted to say how much impact Safer's report had on the American public or whether such a thing could be measured. It was generally agreed that presidential perceptions of American public opinion were more important than public opinion itself.
In this respect, however, Safer's report was credited with changing a few Marine procedures, at least temporarily. And, as Oberdorfer noted, despite any oversimplificatios on the soundtrack, the images of the Safer story were jolting indeed "because all the bureaucratic defenses hadn't been erected yet." There was the war, coast-to-coast, for all to see, and it wasn't a pretty picture.