Sunday, August 21, 2011

Carmen & Roland's Five O'Clock Follies

The Press: Farewell to the Follies
Monday, Feb. 12, 1973

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The cease-fire has been bullet-riddled, and the U.S. withdrawal was far from complete last week. But there was one sure sign of vanishing American involvement: the daily military press briefing, an eight-year-old Saigon spectacle known as the 5 O'Clock Follies, had its final performance with an American cast. Army Major Jere Forbus, the last Follies star, sighed, "Well, we may not have been perfect, but we outlasted Fiddler on the Roof." The Associated Press Saigon bureau chief, Richard Pyle, was less benign but more accurate when he called the briefings "the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia's theater of the absurd."

The briefings were originally designed to give reporters clear, concise summaries of widely scattered action. They grew out of casual sessions started by Barry Zorthian, a former Voice of America official, after he became head of press relations in the U.S. mission in Viet Nam. Now a Time Inc. vice president, Zorthian recalls that until he arrived on the scene, there had been no regular briefings. Gradually the 5 O'Clock Follies evolved into a strange show that satisfied no one. "The military instinct," says Zorthian, "was always to provide less rather than more. Many times the information we gave out was incomplete. Or else it was too early for us to be sure of its accuracy."

Partly as a result of reporters' demands for precision, briefers began to deal in body counts and other statistics that eventually proved to be of dubious value. As time passed, most enterprising newsmen boycotted the Follies. Explains Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News: "They seldom bore any resemblance whatever to the facts in the field." On March 16, 1968, a mimeographed release included this passage: "In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City. Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day." Thus did the Follies announce the infamous action at My Lai.

Fortunately for the newsmen—and for their audiences back home—the Follies represented only one aspect of official press policy. Veteran Viet Nam reporters agree that almost everything distorted or left unsaid at the Follies was readily obtainable in the field. More important, the U.S. military was usually willing to transport reporters to the action. Says Don Wise of the London Daily Mirror: "You were taken wherever you wanted to go, to see whatever you wanted to see." Horst Faas, who won two Pulitzer Prizes as an A.P. photographer, agrees that it was easier to cover the war than to cover less violent stories in parts of Europe. "Because the Americans made it so easy to get around," he explains, "it was easy to get killed. That's why so many died—freedom of the press." A total of 55 newsmen are missing or dead in Indochina, and many others have been wounded.

Faas, who says that he is determined not "to step on that last land mine," points out that it is still easy to get killed. Last week two television newsmen were wounded. With the South Vietnamese now in full control of press regulations, conditions are becoming more difficult. Credentials are being issued for only limited periods and are lifted at the slightest provocation. After an argument with a Vietnamese province chief last week, Craig Whitney of the New York Times and Peter Osnos of the Washington Post had to watch as their tires were shot out and their film was exposed.

Covering "peace," in other words, can be as difficult as following the fighting. At Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where some members of the Saigon press corps and other newsmen gathered to wait for the P.O.W. flights from Hanoi, a cadre of 55 military press officers descended on the base with orders to keep P.O.W.s and reporters apart. Afternoon briefings—quickly dubbed the 2 O'Clock Follies—were begun, as one officer explained, "to provide the press with a time to air their complaints." Finding this outlet insufficient, A.P. Reporter Peter Arnett filed a story outlining the perfumed and powdered care that base nurses planned to lavish on the P.O.W.s. Fearing howls of outrage from P.O.W. wives, the Pentagon hastily dispatched two high-level press officers to negotiate a cease-fire with the press.

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