Despite attacks from rats, bats, lizards, roaches, technical gremlins, Asian dysentery and Henry Kissinger, the two networks that originated live broadcasts from Vietnam this week, to mark the 10th anniversary of American withdrawal, say they are glad they did. And CBS News, which limited its coverage to taped and filmed reports, is claiming victory by having sat on the sidelines.
For all the hardships and obstacles, the networks had little to show for their trouble and expense. All three networks, but especially ABC and NBC, were hoping for a break in the MIA story that might help justify the extensive coverage; it never came. Even as it wore on, a highly placed source at one of the networks that offered live coverage was expressing private doubts about the wisdom of undertaking the trip, anniversary or no anniversary.
"I think all the networks may be scratching their heads at this point and saying, 'What is this?' " the executive conceded. "Obviously this is something that had to be covered. But no news is being made. Vietnam coverage is becoming 'our Vietnam'; we're spending an awful lot of money, and we keep saying 'One more day and we can get that big story.' "
NBC News spent an estimated $1.2 million for its live Vietnam coverage, most of it on the "Today" show. The figure includes $300,000 to lease a "trans-portable uplink," or ground station, so live pictures could be sent back to American viewers. ABC News is believed to have spent about the same amount on coverage, much of it going to a series of live "Nightline" broadcasts from the Far East. CBS may have spent as much as $500,000 less by relying on film and tape reports filed by correspondents sent to the region.
But CBS News executive vice president Howard Stringer insisted yesterday that the decision not to originate live programs from Vietnam "was not a financial decision. It was an editorial decision. Going live can be interesting, it can be informational, but when you're in a controlled environment like Vietnam, it can turn out to be of little value," Stringer said. "I was somewhat aghast at the enthusiasm with which everyone seemed to greet the knowledge they could get live pictures from Vietnam. Well, you can get live pictures from almost anywhere on Earth. The problem is, you're after a story, not a picture.
"And a picture is not worth 10,000 words if all you see is an anchorman swatting bugs in the dark," Stringer huffed, a reference to NBC's "Today" show, which featured cohost Bryant Gumbel live in Ho Chi Minh City. It was nighttime there, and the huge TV lights attracted great hordes of winged creatures that encircled and bombarded the anchorman.
Gumbel, said one NBC insider, had to be sprayed with insect repellent and swathed in cloth like a mummy before each broadcast, then was unraveled as director George Paul gave the "one minute" cue and Gumbel went on the air. "The bug getting most of us is the internal kind," said "Today" senior producer Marty Ryan from Ho Chi Minh City yesterday, a reference to parasitic digestive disorders affecting many of those on duty.
ABC's intrepid Steve Bell began his reports from Vietnam with a rat on his foot -- and a rat "the size of a housecat," according to ABC News sources at the scene who reported back to the home office. One NBC News cameraman returned to his room at the Cuu Long hotel and found a bat flying around in it. He spent the night in the lobby. A print journalist was bitten by a rat while sleeping because he made the mistake of letting his hand dangle over the edge of his bed.
The hazards of going live, meanwhile, became most apparent Monday when "Nightline" staged its special one-hour Vietnam broadcast with Ted Koppel live in Ho Chi Minh City, questioning North Vietnam peace negotiator Le Duc Tho there and U.S. peace negotiator Henry Kissinger by satellite from New York. The program was hampered by technical snafus and Le Duc Tho's rhetorical excesses, and it was enlivened by Kissinger's on-air protests about the nature of the coverage.
Describing the situation in Vietnam as "a madhouse," ABC News executive vice president David Burke said yesterday that Koppel's main problem was that he couldn't hear. The "IFB" device in his ear would sporadically begin feeding him a phone line from New York instead of the program itself, Burke said. "The Vietnamese and the Russians were switching things all the time," said Burke. "Ted was in emormous difficulty that night. Technically, the difficulties were almost insurmountable. The Vietnamese were doing things like plugging in air conditioners and reducing the power down to 85 volts."
A stand-in for Le Duc Tho had helped technicians adjust the audio balance during two days of rehearsal, Burke said, so that viewers would hear the voice of a simultaneous interpreter during answers to Koppel's questions. On the air, though, Le Duc Tho's voice was as loud as the interpreter's and it was difficult to understand what was being said.
In New York, Kissinger heard, and saw, enough to infuriate him. First he scored "Nightline" for airing live shots of a Vietnamese parade staged to celebrate the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal. NBC News aired the parade footage at about the same time Monday night as part of a 15-minute special report. Correspondents on both networks took note of the fact that the parade might not have been so elaborate had their cameras not been there to photograph it.
"I think that there is something demeaning about having the three networks covering a victory parade over the United States in the city of the country where the victory was achieved," Kissinger said. Koppel let Le Duc Tho rant on and on in the hope that a discussion of the MIA issue would evolve (and because he couldn't hear much of what was being said anyway), but Kissinger was offended that his old nemesis was given so much unchallenged air time. Kissinger, a paid consultant of ABC News, had agreed to appear only if he and Le Duc Tho were on different segments of the program. They did not speak directly to each other.
"This is what I heard during all the negotiations," Kissinger said on the air of Le Duc Tho's harangue. "And I must say that the disproportion in this program between the American point of view and the Vietnamese point of view, and the absolutely one-sided account of the correspondents, is one of the explanations of how we got where we are."
Kissinger said that such coverage during the war, and the "cynicism" of reporters, helped bring about "a defeat that we inflicted on ourselves." Unfortunately, neither Koppel nor correspondent Charles Gibson -- called in to replace Koppel momentarily from Washington when the satellite feed went dead -- was willing to engage Kissinger in discussion on these points. They simply ignored what he said about coverage and pressed on.
This was not to be "Nightline's" finest hour. A loud off-screen crash, apparently a water pitcher falling during the Le Duc Tho segment, was another detail contributing to the impression of debacle. Yet it was a debacle hard to turn off. Burke says that while the technical problems had made the "Nightline" staff "blue," the decision to go live was still a wise one, even in retrospect.
"I don't think we could have had Le Duc Tho if we were just sitting here and calling him up," Burke said. Responding to critical broadsides from the competition, Burke said, "If they had a guy like Ted Koppel, maybe they'd do it live, too." NBC's Gumbel taped two hours with Le Duc Tho on Sunday for a "Today" show piece that was then edited down for air, a technique that "Today" executive producer Steve Friedman says worked better than a live interview. "When you sit there for two hours, you can usually get 12 minutes out of it," Friedman noted.
Then there is the matter of whether ABC capitulated too much to the Vietnamese and let them use the airwaves for their own propaganda purposes. On the air, Le Duc Tho made references that implied he and ABC had agreed in advance on the areas of questioning and the order in which questions would be asked, an unusual concession. But Burke said yesterday that while areas of discussion were covered when Koppel and Le Duc Tho met before the program, Le Duc Tho mistakenly assumed that the order in which they were discussed in advance would be the order in which they would come up on the air.
"I have great faith in Ted Koppel," Burke said. "I do not feel Ted Koppel was being misused. I feel that Le Duc Tho was long-winded."
On the matter of live broadcasts versus taped and edited reports, Burke said, "I don't think we should be so unsure of ourselves as journalists that everything we do has to go through a post-production studio and editing and all the other manipulations -- unless we are so plastic now that news programs, and all other programs, must be perfect, without any glitches whatsoever, and the public just glazes over."
Burke said the "unanticipatability" of a live broadcast communicates a greater sense of raw reality to viewers. "It was live, with all that 'live' entails, which can sometimes be chaos," Burke said. But Stringer said that the logistics of a live broadcast invariably involve such a large entourage that reporting itself becomes unwieldy and impractical. "When you go in with such an enormous number of people, you are a media event, and especially in a communist country like Vietnam, you are much more easily controlled," Stringer said.
Sources at all three networks did concede that a "circus" ambiance had afflicted the coverage because of so many broadcast and print reporters converging on the country. Not even Friedman was claiming that the Vietnam trip had been as big a success for "Today" as were previous trips the program made to Moscow and Rome, occasions when they had the locale pretty much to themselves. "When you do what everybody else is doing, it lessens the impact," Friedman said.
One could logically complain that television in such mad profusion was trivializing what should have been a profound event, but looking back on Vietnam through television's eyes seems only appropriate since that is how most of America perceived the war in the first place. For good or ill. This was also a time when Marshall McLuhan's pronouncement that the medium is the message appeared dramatically to come true.
For that reason and because TV's coverage of the war is itself historical, it seems particularly selfish and churlish of CBS News to have denied access by other networks to its footage of war reports aired a decade or more ago. CBS News refused to release footage of Walter Cronkite anchoring the news for an excellent NBC News documentary, "Vietnam: Lessons of a Lost War," with Marvin Kalb, and refused to release to the "Today" show the famous filmed report Morley Safer did at Can Me, where U.S. troops set thatched-roofed huts ablaze with cigarette lighters, even though Safer himself appeared on "Today" to discuss it.
CBS News vice president Bob Chandler said yesterday from New York, "When it comes to history, it can be a tough call, but generally speaking, we don't think we ought to be programming the other networks for them." Policy forbids the use of "the faces and voices of our correspondents" by competitors, Chandler said.
One crucial thing that none of the network newsbobs seems willing to consider is that by going to Vietnam, and with such a flurry, they missed the real Vietnam story, which can be covered without leaving the United States. This is where the American soldiers who fought and survived are, this is where the government and military officials who engineered the war are, and this is where the real scars are, as far as American involvement is concerned. Henry Kissinger was right in refusing to "refight the Vietnam war on television" and in trying to refocus the discussion on the domestic reaction to it. At its worst, the coverage offered such spectacles of dubious value as Gumbel interviewing fellow NBC reporter Garrick Utley while both served as conning towers for swarms of gnats and moths in Vietnam. At its best, there were such highpoints as Bob Simon's sensitive reports for "The CBS Evening News"; a taped interview on "Nightline" with Vietnam foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach (who explained how B52 bombing raids were foiled by guerrillas armed only with loaves of bread and packs of matches); and reports on all three networks from the Vietnam Memorial here.
What the live broadcasts most emphatically underlined was the inadvisability of doing live programs for the sake of doing live programs, and the dangers of being taken for a ride by a host country anxious for access to the American people through satellite-age television. After all the talk about the "lessons" of Vietnam, it would be fitting if the networks were to learn a few themselves.