There will be hundreds of obituaries about Safer, but at least so far, there’s been no mention of what I think was one of the most important stories he ever told.
In 1965, Safer was sent to Vietnam by CBS to cover the escalating U.S. war there. That August he filed a famous report showing American soldiers burning down a Vietnamese village with Zippo lighters and flamethrowers as children and elderly women and men cowered nearby.
The next year, he wrote a newspaper column about a visit to Saigon by Arthur Sylvester, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs — i.e., the head of all the U.S. military’s PR.
Sylvester had arranged to speak with reporters for U.S. outlets, including Safer. Here’s how Safer described it:
There had been some annoying moments in previous weeks that had directly involved Sylvester’s own office. In the first B-52 raids, Pentagon releases were in direct contradiction to what had actually happened on the ground in Viet Nam.
There was general opening banter, which Sylvester quickly brushed aside. He seemed anxious to take a stand — to say something that would jar us. He said:
“I can’t understand how you fellows can write what you do while American boys are dying out here,” he began. Then he went on to the effect that American correspondents had a patriotic duty to disseminate only information that made the United States look good.
A network television correspondent said, “Surely, Arthur, you don’t expect the American press to be the handmaidens of government.”
“That’s exactly what I expect,” came the reply.
An agency man raised the problem that had preoccupied Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and [U.S. spokesman] Barry Zorthian — about the credibility of American officials. Responded the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs:
“Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid. Did you hear that? — stupid.”
One of the most respected of all the newsmen in Vietnam — a veteran of World War II, the Indochina War and Korea — suggested that Sylvester was being deliberately provocative. Sylvester replied:
“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.”
At this point, the Hon. Arthur Sylvester put his thumbs in his ears, bulged his eyes, stuck out his tongue and wiggled his fingers.
Vance Hartke, a Democratic senator from Indiana, entered Safer’s article into the Congressional Record, and Durward Hall, a Republican representative from Missouri, called for Sylvester to resign. For its part, the Pentagon told CBS executives: “Unless you get Safer out of there, he’s liable to end up with a bullet in his back.”
Moreover, Sylvester absolutely meant what he said. By the time he met with the journalists in Saigon he’d already told some of the key U.S. government lies about the Cuban missile crisis and the Gulf of Tonkin.
You’d think this would have made an impression on American media outlets. And that going forward, they wouldn’t be so “stupid” as to believe what they were being told.
But in the 50 years since, from essentially everything the Nixon administration said about Vietnam, to the Reagan administration’s claims justifying the invasion of Grenada, to the George H.W. Bush administration justifying the Gulf War because Iraqi forces were massed on the border of Saudi Arabia, to the Clinton administration’s wild exaggerations about Serbian violence in Kosovo, to essentially everything the Bush administration said about Iraq, to Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper denying the National Security Agency gathers data on millions of Americans, most of the U.S. media has been, as Sylvester put it, “stupid.”
Time and again, members of the Washington press corps have credulously accepted officials’ lies and misinformation and passed them on to their readers as the truth. Their real-time skepticism is almost nonexistent. And they keep doing it.
If you look at the last few weeks of the New York Times, you’ll learn that U.S. officials say that American troops in Yemen “are working at the headquarters’ level and are not near the front lines” and that a Navy SEAL killed in Iraq “was two to three miles behind the front lines” when it happened. Do you think they’re telling the truth? Assuming that would be stupid.
And the important precedent you won’t find mentioned in either New York Times story is that John F. Kennedy initially lied about U.S. advisers being involved in combat in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan lied about U.S. advisers being involved in combat in El Salvador. (A 1984 Miami Herald story quoted an Army officer who said the military would go so far as to fly dead American soldiers home from Indochina and “insert a body or two into the wreckage” of helicopter crashes on U.S. army bases.)
Safer’s death should remind us of what the media consistently forgets.