On April 17, 2017, an article appeared in The New York Times entitled The First Televised War by Ron Steinman. In this piece, Steinman wrote of his experiences covering the Vietnam War from Saigon as NBC News bureau chief. A few months following this publication, we met Ron Steinman when he kindly donated many books from his private collection to our library. He was asked if he might care to do a presentation for us. He agreed and a date was set for late spring of 2018. His career background is extensive, and it was decided that for the presentation he’d focus primarily on the time he spent with NBC News, which spans nearly four decades.
Ron Steinman appeared at the Pawling Library to present an interactive lecture on June 19. He sat before a rapt audience, many of whom could recall the 1960s and the events he spoke of. There were three networks back then that most people turned to for the local and world news at 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.: CBS, NBC, and ABC – news that people relied upon and trusted. “Now our world is different,” Steinman said. Newspapers are failing and claims of false news run rampant. News sources that once could be counted with fingers are vast. Information is reported rampantly to the public and often labeled as breaking news with little time to process the bombardment.
We learned that Ron Steinman received his first White House press pass in 1962. “I met Kennedy once,” he said. Stenman covered America’s space program, politics, the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war, and the Watergate scandal, virtually everything of national importance that was occurring at the time.
The Washington pressroom was once small and reserved for a select few. “There was no one you worried that would upstage us,” Steinman said. There weren’t that many covering the news back then. A huge space is now required and fills with journalists representing a multitude of news organizations. “There was a time when people sat down with the president to get the news to put in the newspapers,” Steinman recalled. “I think the news has declined. It’s become entertainment.”
Throughout his presentation Ron Steinman questioned the audience. “How many of you watch the news at night? What bothers you?”
“Repetitiveness,” one person answered. “They go on and on.”
Another person commented that the material reported tends not to be examined in detail in a way that that makes you think. She and a few others felt that one of the last places to find quality, in-depth reporting, a resemblance of the early days of news programming, can be found on PBS.
“What was the most difficult story you covered?” Steinman was asked.
“The Vietnam War,” he replied. “You had to learn to live with the situation. You could walk down the street and a bomb would go off behind you. People were targets, but not specifically the journalists as they are today. The weather was tough, hot and muggy, and getting around was difficult.” Every day was spent covering the war. In Saigon, Steinman worked with an international staff. They had to capture a story on film, create a script, do a voice over, find an airplane, a flight attendant or a pilot to give the film to and deliver the film to a place where it could be processed, edited and then finally aired on television. All of this took days.
“Can you address what is fake news?” Steinman was asked.
“There is a fact you can interpret a certain way,” he said. “It used to be truth was more important than money.” He advised his listeners to find more than one place for information. “Go to as many sources as you can,” he told us. “It isn’t easy, as we have busy lives. Try to be careful.”
Steinman thanked his audience and applause followed. His talk ran for an hour, yet it felt like only a few minutes had passed. The audience found his stories of such interest they could have listened for another hour without being aware of the passage of time. During his presentation Ron Steinman said to us, “When I covered the news, I wanted to tell another story – a story of the people.” And that he has most certainly accomplished throughout his career.
Ron Steinman is the winner of the Peabody Award, a National Press Club Award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards, and has been nominated for five Emmy Awards. He is the author of Inside Television’s First War: A Saigon Journal. Please visit his website at RonSteinman-Vietnamwar.net for his full biography.