Tuesday, December 31, 2013

years ago, but...I'm still in Saigon!

on to Saigon...again   (re-post)
NBC News flew me first class to Tokyo and then to Saigon. On the leg out of Japan I had my first taste of Kobe Beef.  Never in my life had I tasted anything as good.  Beef just melting in your mouth...no need to even chew.  It was the first time I ever ask for seconds of airline food!  To this day I’ve never been able to find Kobe beef in any of the places I’ve been.  And I’ve eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the world.  What a shame.
My NBC news corespondency got off to a rocky start.  Upon arrival in Saigon there was no one to meet me at the airport.  This was not a big deal because of my experience in Saigon earlier...but it should have giving me pause because of the breakdown in the “protocol” of not greeting a new reporter.  I made my way to the NBC News office and a somewhat surprised staffer immediately contacted the bureau chief who wasn’t around... who blamed the whole thing on New York.  I found out later that a new boss was coming in shortly so the whole Saigon bureau was in a state of flux. 
I settled in at a nearby hotel which wasn’t too bad...and no rats to traverse to get to the front door.  
My reports were fed to New York via phone line at 7AM and 7PM each day...seven days a week.  During the balance of 1969 and   1970...I had more stories broadcast by NBC Radio news on the hour than any other correspondent before or since.  On any given day New York would run from three to five or more reports from me...ending with “Stan Major...NBC News Saigon”.  My parents were very proud...and I was making a lot of money based on reports aired on the network.
Shortly after I arrived in Saigon the bureau got a new boss. The new bureau chief shall remain nameless for reasons that will become painfully obvious in the next pages.
The guy (like the rest of us) had his watch ripped off his wrist by the infamous “Honda mafia” dudes.  Saigon had a bunch of them...guys doubled up on motorbikes who would rip the watch off your wrist as you were being rick-shawed down the road.  We soon learned to trade our expensive watches in for a Timex..no expansion band please.
Well..the new boss was livid about losing his watch.  
      So angry in fact that he ordered all three tv correspondents and crews...about nine staffers in all with cameramen and soundmen to be dispatched to several key places where known watch thief's operated.  He wanted to catch the culprits on film.  So...the whole war stopped on the tv side for a couple of days while they staked out the roads and bridges in Saigon on behalf of this guy’s bruised ego.
     They never did catch anything on film, of course.  We had some good guys there...like Kenley Jones and Robert Hager who wasted their time on this and were obviously embarrassed by it.  
I didn’t cover much on the TV side.  Because as radio correspondent I had to meet the two circuits seven days a week so I was landlocked in Saigon most of the time.  If there was an interview or story in Saigon that needed both tv and radio I would cover it which allowed Hager and Jones and others like the late Wells Hangen to roam the war zone for their stories.  Wells was killed in Cambodia shortly after I came back to the states.  He was an excellent correspondent...of great reputation but I’ll always remember the day he broke the cardinal rule in our building.  
He took the French made elevator, something the rest of us were warned about, and was stuck in there for awhile.  He wasn’t too happy when they finally got him out.   We all learned quickly not to trust three things made by the French:  elevators...telephones and plumbing!
Anyway, I soon learned how the Pentagon got its points across by using the media. I was dispatched to interview a General...but with the proviso that during the TV interview I ask him one very specific question which had been planted by the Pentagon with someone in New York.  So, about halfway through the interview I dealt him the planted question...he answered...and I made the Huntley-Brinkley report on NBC-TV that night.
Another interesting facet about NBC’s coverage of the war lay in the fact that I was told right off the bat after arriving in Saigon that each time I fed the circuit (reported stories to NYC) which was twice a day...seven days a week...I had to include a war story i.e. something about a battle somewhere and causalities.  This was tough at times because some mornings there just wasn’t anything to report.   But I would scratch around and rewrite something from the day before or perhaps write a short piece about a possible engagement forthcoming...just to give the impression there was still a war going on.
I never really found out the “why” of this rule  at NBC News Saigon...whether it was New York inspired or just a local edict.  There are two possible answers here:
a.  The brass in New York wanted an antiwar slant a couple of times a day and the best way to get that was an increasing American causality count. (see Iraq coverage)
b.  The local bureau wanted to insure their continued full staffing so what better way than to pretend there was a big battle everyday. 
Take your choice.
One wonders if the same ground rule applies for current Iraq coverage.


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