If You Believe the Goverment, ‘You’re Stupid’
In August, 1965 Safer appeared in what became one of most famous TV segments of the Vietnam War, showing U.S. troops setting fire to all the huts in a Vietnamese village with Zippo lighters and flamethrowers.
A year later in 1966, Safer wrote an article about what he’d seen firsthand during a visit to Vietnam by Arthur Sylvester, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (i.e., the head of Pentagon PR). Sylvester met with reporters for U.S. news outlets at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon:
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 Barry Zorthian [a press officer based in Vietnam] — 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.[For the full article by Safer, see below.]
There are several significant aspects to this:
– A top U.S. official was honest enough to tell reporters: look, we lie to you constantly and you’re a moron if you believe anything we say. He also honestly expressed his total contempt for them and intention to manipulate news coverage by dealing directly with their management and employers.
Moreover, Sylvester (who before going to work for the Pentagon had been the Washington correspondent for the Newark News) put his beliefs into practice at key moments of history. He lied about what the U.S. knew about Soviet missiles in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and personally told the key lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident (listen to him here).
And word was passed to Safer’s superiors at CBS that “Unless you get Safer out of there, he’s liable to end up with a bullet in his back.”
This is such important information about how politics and the media work that it should be taught to everyone in second grade. It’s not.
– Even if regular people don’t know this story, you’d expect it to be famous within the media — and particularly famous at “60 Minutes.” You might even imagine that “If you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you’re stupid” would be spray-painted on the walls of the “60 Minutes” offices. But if the performance of John Miller and his producers on the NSA segment is anything to go by, that is not the case.
It’s hard to imagine what more the U.S. government could do to get reporters to distrust it, and all for naught. John Miller likely has an office feet away from someone who’s been told by a top U.S. official that reporters are morons if they believe anything top U.S. officials say. Miller’s response? Believe everything top U.S. officials say. (Of course, given that Miller is recreating Sylvester’s career path, it may also simply be that he agrees with Sylvester on the necessity of the press being handmaidens of government.)
– Even if reporters have forgotten this story, you’d expect that it would be Exhibit A for left-wing media critics and repeated so often that it would be common knowledge in those limited circles. Yet the forces of forgetting in the U.S. are so powerful that I’d never encountered it, and I’m probably one of America’s top 25 consumers of left-wing media criticism.
I can’t find any references to it by Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Norman Solomon, Jeff Cohen, Robert Parry, Robert McChesney or Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. (William Blum does tell part of what happened in his book Killing Hope, and the key sentence appears
in some online collections of quotes about the media.)
To make it even more surprising, Safer’s story was well-known enough at the time that Indiana’s anti-war Senator Vance Hartke referred to it on the Senate floor as “the now famous article.” And references to it sometimes appeared in books about Vietnam during the late Sixties and early Seventies. But after that it evaporated.
So if something this significant can disappear from history, truly only god knows what else has been thrown down the memory hole. To try to pull it back, I’m putting the entire text of the article online for the first time below, and adding the gist to Safer’s Wikipedia page.
I’m also going to try to get John Miller to answer a straightforward question: has Morley Safer ever told him this story?
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