It was a hot July evening in Vietnam, 1965. A group of members of the American press had gathered inside the villa of one Barry Zorthian, the minister-counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, known informally as the “information czar” in Vietnam. The news corp were there awaiting the arrival of Arthur Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, a man charged by Washington at the time with “giving, controlling and managing the war news from Viet Nam.” This official was to meet with the press to address the “vague ground rules” in regards to reporting on the Vietnam War, something that has been cause for much consternation and annoyance on the part of Journalists. The hope for them with this meeting, in essence, was to have the air cleared up in terms of these “vague” rules and for a clear-cut policy to be set.
By the time the meeting was over, however, the members of the press gathered at that villa would instead have their hopes crushed.
The meeting started off well, with some simple opening banter. Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary, would then brush all of that aside, and would go on to make some rather shocking remarks that would not necessarily sit well with the people in the room with him.
“I can’t understand how you fellows can write what you do while American boys are dying out here,” he said, following that up by talking about how the reporters gathered before him had a “patriotic duty” to cover the news about Vietnam in a way that made the United States look good.
This illicited a response from a network television correspondent. “Surely, Arthur, you don’t expect the American press to be the handmaidens of government.”
Sylvester answered, saying “That’s exactly what I expect.”
Someone in the audience then raised a point to the Assistant Secretary about the credibility of American officials. To that, Sylvester had this jarring, frank response:
“Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that?—stupid.”
Another person in the audience called out Sylvester for being “deliberately provocative” in his words during the meeting. He shot back:
“Look, I don’t even have to talk to you people. I know how to deal with you through your editors and publishers back in the States.”
As if his condescension and complete disdain for the people gathered before him wasn’t evident enough, the “Honorable” Assistant Secretary then proceeded to “put his thumbs in his ears, bulged his eyes, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his fingers.”
One of the reporters in the room at this meeting was Morley Safer, now well-known these days as a correspondent for the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Safer would go on to write about the shocking developments of this particular gathering in an article titled “Look, If You Think Any American Official Is Going to Tell You the Truth, Then You’re Stupid” (the money-shot quote from Sylvester), which was published in the September 1, 1966 edition of the Southern Illinoisan. The article gained quite a bit of notoriety at the time, even being referenced in Congressional meetings. Assistant Secretary Sylvester would respond to the article, seeing as how he comes out looking rather horribly here. He said that “no government official should lie when giving out information about the country,” while adding that “it was all right to withhold information to safeguard the country.”
And so, ladies and gentlemen, here lies one cautionary tale, among many others, about our government and our media. Of course, in advancing its interests, government is going to lie about its actions. It might be a bit of a stretch to say that it does so all of the time, but, generally speaking, that’s just what it does. The media, the group charged with holding government accountable for its actions, has to be aware of that in getting to the bottom of things and giving the truth to the people. That is an important lesson that, at least the time, a lot of journalists clearly understood. Apparently, it was something that Morley Safer understood very well.
Unfortunately, it is doubtful that very many people in the media these days understand that less. And there’s certainly no doubt that John Miller, the man who presented the atrocious 60 Minutes piece on the NSA, doesn’t understand that lesson
h/t to A Tiny Revolution.
A Tiny Revolution post on the Safer piece, containing a link to the original article as it appeared in the Southern Illinoisan:
– Danny “Lucius” Lundy