Paul Steinle of Ashland reported from Vietnam
Paul Steinle is retired in Ashland from his work as associate provost and journalism professor at Southern Oregon University, and earlier as president of United Press International, news director of KING-TV in Seattle, CEO of Financial News Network — the impressive list goes on — but half a century ago, he was a young radio journalist for Westinghouse Broadcasting, learning his way around the Vietnam War.
On Christmas Day 1969, he filed these lines in a story to affiliates all over the U.S.: “Christmas. It’s like tomorrow and yesterday. All the days here are the same. That’s the kind of reaction you get from the American soldiers who live and fight from the small U.S. firebases scattered across the countryside. ... When you step inside the firebases, the stereotypes dissolve and the young men who face death everyday become real people. Some handsome, some jovial, some deeply morose, some totally unable to cope with what they are facing.”
It was the peak of a seemingly endless slog through that war, which was tearing Vietnam — and America — apart. Steinle, then 30, was a “reporter on scene,” with priority clearance to hop on airplanes or helicopters to and from bases whose names — Tan Son Nhut, Da Nang — became familiar to listeners as deadly, nightmarish zones.
“I was free to rove and do enterprise reporting at all the firebases,” says Steinle. “There was danger, to a degree, not like the grunts faced. I would write and record six-part series. The (Christmas series) was from the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border. I did 50 series like that, about drugs in the military, the Vietnam elections, the culture of the regular people.”
To Steinle and many others “in country,” it was apparent that the war, with 473,000 Americans involved, was not getting won, but “I steered clear of the question ‘is this working?’” Instead, the futility of it showed up in stories, such as his “day in the life of the main cemetery in Saigon where, despite all these proclamations of goals, the net effect is this flow of bodies with no sense it’s ever going to be resolved.”
Steinle in 1962 graduated from Amherst College in biology-chemistry, hoping to start medical school, but it was while viewing a TV documentary on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that he realized broadcast journalism was what called to him. He wanted to become what he calls an “information consultant,” and write simple, direct, truthful statements about and for his community, locally and globally, in the style of TV legend Edward R. Murrow.
Steinle freelanced for ABC, CBC, NPR and Newsweek in Singapore in the ’70s, worked at TV stations in Boston and Syracuse, New York, and taught journalism at the University of Miami and Quinnipiac University. He still teaches online at Quinnipiac. His earned his MBA from Harvard and went on to many posts in academia.
After retirement from SOU, Steinle and his wife, Sara Brown — they’ve been married for 33 years — took a two-year road trip, doing 50 in-depth stories with newspaper people in almost all 50 states and finding out if the sorry refrain “newspapers are dying” was true.
It wasn’t. In his book on the venture, “Practicing Journalism: The Power and the Purpose of the Fourth Estate,” Steinle says the digital revolution is hugely changing journalism. Craigslist virtually wiped out classified newspaper advertising, which once provided a third of revenues. Now it’s 5%. Ad inserts have made up some of the loss, “but no one has figured it out yet.”
When the internet arrived, newspapers expected a profit windfall but instead were overwhelmed with competition and there have been waves of layoffs, he wrote. With the internet, news media became “fractionalized,” and information comes from many more sources.
However, one huge thing has not changed, “We’re the glue that holds community together,” he says.
New — and menacing — on the national stage is the campaign to brand news “fake” and “the enemy of the people,” which Steinle staunchly rejects.
“There’s always been tension between politicians and the journalism community. Some politicians may not like it, but most come to realize the power of the First Amendment and how fortunate we are to have people through whose eyes and ears we’re able to know about very important realms that influence our lives.
“Only a very small minority of journalists are mean-spirited and would attempt disinformation, which is an intentional effort to deceive and harm you. ... It’s sad to see a leader who is supposed to represent the best values of America who is incapable of understanding the role of journalism.”
Sitting in a coffee shop across from his Siskiyou Boulevard home, Steinle, now 80, shows a photo of his youthful self standing in front of the barbed-wire that surrounded the Presidential Palace in Saigon. He pulls out a poignant, nearly poetic 50-year-old script typed and pencil-edited at a Mekong River delta firebase, which he recorded and short-waved to Los Angeles, to be heard by millions of Americans.
“It is the deepest part of the night, although dawn is just minutes away. Inside the artillery bunker, a sleepy-eyed lieutenant lights up another cigarette and stares at his charts. His guns already have delivered over 300 rounds into the night. A radar operator sits, slumped, sleeping in his chair.
“As you try to catch a few moments of rest now, before the dawn, the artillery sends out its last barrage. The sound crashes through your brain like someone smashing a bass drum beside your ear. As you fall asleep, dawn creeps over the horizon. The night ambush patrol, its vigil ended, teeth chattering, soaked to the skin, starts grim-faced back into camp again. One day in Vietnam has ended and another day has come. One day closer to going home. This is Paul Steinle in Saigon.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.