“Five o’clock follies” is a familiar and derogatory nickname for the daily press briefings that the U.S. military held for American reporters during the Vietnam War. In modern times, the phrase has been used to refer to any establishment effort to control the news about a given topic.
The original five o’clock follies took place over the course of eight years in a bar on the roof of Saigon’s Rex Hotel; they were conducted by a string of US military officials.
American journalists were widely critical of the briefings, which were seen as a way for the US military to use half-truths and carefully selected facts to make it look like America was winning the war when it was obviously becoming a quagmire. Richard Pyle, who served as Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press, famously called the press conferences “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”
Even members of the military accepted that the briefings were the frequent butt of jokes. In an acknowledgement of the briefing’s reputation, Army Major Jere Forbus, the last man to run the briefings before they ended, said, “well, we may not have been perfect, but we outlasted Fiddler on the Roof.”
During the first Gulf war, in 1991, journalists dubbed the regular press briefings the “four o’clock follies.” Reporters claimed that the briefings were full of pointless facts but that they failed to answer real questions about the war itself. Later, in 2019, some members of the media compared the press briefings in Hong Kong to the five o’clock follies.
The expression “five o’clock follies” is sometimes stretched to mean any effort at all to control the news cycle. In 2016, the Daily Kos ran a piece arguing that the New York Times and the Washington Post were effectively running their own five o’clock follies. The piece claimed that the “elite media” was trying to control popular perception of the Democratic primaries, in particular that they were trying to play down the popularity of Bernie Sanders.
More recently, the New Yorker has claimed that President Trump was running his very own five o’clock follies. Like the original five o’clock follies in Saigon, Trump’s briefings on the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic took place at 5:00 every day. The Trump administration was widely criticized for its failure to stop the disease from spreading; his critics claimed that he had failed to take the pandemic seriously. Trump claimed early on that he had the epidemic “very much under control” – later, he pledged that the US would reopen in time for Easter, so that the church pews could be “packed.”
The New Yorker argued that “just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment.”