Press Briefings, Viet Nam-Style: Two Versions of Truth
Published in American Report, April 29, 1974
By John Spragens, Jr.
SAIGON — The press corps is not paralyzed behind their desks in Saigon. Such articles as David Shipler’s Feb. 25 New York Times piece on the continuing U.S. involvement here show that there still are reporters who get out where the news is.
For all that, though, most of the stories that eventually show up in Hometown Gazettes around the world are written basically from official press briefings.
In the “old days,” briefings in Saigon were quickly dubbed the “5 o'clock follies.” Since they’re now at 3 in the afternoon, the convenienent alliteration is lost. The American briefing officers with their charts and maps are missing, too. The grim amusement value remains.
The second floor briefing room in the downtown Press Center is set up with rows of chairs, lecture hall fashion, and a small raised platform in front.
Shortly after 3, Saigon’s chief military spokesman, Lieut. Col. Le Trung Hien, arrives flanked by his interpreter, An, carrying stacks of one-page handouts in English and Vietnamese. They purport to give the day’s roundup of where military activity occurred and what the box scores were.
Hien, heavy set enough to dispel any speculation that he suffers seriously from recurrent Saigon austerity campaigns, has two sets of expressions. One is rather bulldog gruff, the other sly and charming, punctuated by winks at appropriate moments. He handles himself like a near master of stage craft, using his excellent English only when sidekick An is not along.
An is less accomplished, and somehow never seems to lose his surly expression even when he laughs. His English seems nearly as fluent as his Vietnamese, and thus it is surely not ignorance that causes him to translate references to “the other side” as “Viet Cong.” When the questions are presented in Vietnamese, he doesn’t bother to translate at all.
After the handouts are snatched up by the jostling journalists and everyone retreats to a chair, Hien usually says he has nothing further to add, and calls for questions. When no one wants to bother, the briefing ends a couple of minutes after it began. When there are lots of questions, it may stretch on for 10 or occasionally 15 minutes. Questions are fielded adroitly with official responses, except for the more interesting issues which draw the response, “You’ll have to ask the government spokesman about that.”
The government spokesman, Bui Bao Truc, has his office right beside the briefing room, but seldom makes the trip to meet the press. When some special issue draws him out, he makes his presentation first in Vietnamese then in English and pity the poor reporter on the other side of the language barrier who would like to understand questions and answers.
The PRG is rationed by Saigon to one press conference a week. Far from being given the diplomatic status called for in the Paris Agreement, the PRG and DRV delegations to the Joint Military Commissions are kept in forced isolation on Tan Son Nhut airbase and see the press only at the two-to-three-hour Saturday morning press conferences and at occasional parties sponsored by the Polish or Hungarian delegations to the ICCS.
The only way to the press conference is on a military bus, escorted to the base by an ARVN officer in a jeep. Before the bus pulls out, he takes down the name and agency of each press member going along, and occasionally demands to see someone’s Saigon-issued press card. The bus drives to the gate of the PRG/DRV compound where young PLAF guards inside the fence face a Saigon military police post across the road.
Inside the compound the atmosphere is relaxed. The road is lined with banana trees and flowers planted by the Hanoi and PRG delegations, and delegation members greet correspondents as they walk the few dozen yards from the gate to the briefing room.
Two long tables for the journalists run the length of the room, and a shorter table cuts across the front. When everyone is settled, the day’s briefing officer, normally Col. Vo Dong Giang, deputy chief of the PRG delegation to the two-party JMC, is introduced at the he table, and the briefing begins with a statement read in Vietnamese and translated into English.
Giang is a trim, intense man with graying hair. The expression of seriousness and urgency seems never to leave his face. He is assisted by two young interpreters, who apologize that they are limited by having studied their English in the liberated zone. No matter. Their translations in both directions are meticulous, even when questions are posed in hostile terms, and even if they have to help each other to catch certain words.
It would be pleasant to report that the question period, which follows a break after the opening statement, offers a free and open exchange of opinion. But that is not the case. In the formal questions, and even in informal conversations with delegation members during the break, the definite impression is of people who are very conscious of their role as official representatives of their government’s policy. They will explain that policy as well as they are able. But they refuse to elaborate or speculate beyond its public limits.
For all the frustrations of wading through the officialese of press conferences from both sides, trying to pick out nuggets of real significance, sometimes there is relief. One day Colonel Giang opened his remarks with the comment, “I hope we can conclude the press conference by 10:30 or earlier today. Some members of our delegations have prepared a musical program for you.” It was a delightful respite, and probably a source of considerable consternation to the Saigon MP’s across the road.
Copyright John Spragens, Jr.
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