April 24, 2007
He Was an Excellent Reporter

David Halberstam did some good work. The right people disliked him, which says a lot. He was filing negative reports from Vietnam for years before most Americans even began to catch on to the disaster we’d created.

From today’s Froomkin:

“William Prochnau, who wrote a book on the reporting of that period [the US-Vietnam war], ‘Once Upon a Distant War,’ said last night that Mr. Halberstam and other American journalists then in Vietnam were incorrectly regarded by many as antiwar.

…‘They were shut out and they were lied to,’ Mr. Prochnau said. And Mr. Halberstam ‘didn’t say, “You’re not telling me the truth.” He said, “You’re lying.” He didn’t mince words.’

As Glenn Greenwald says, what made Halberstam a great reporter is exactly what journalism now lacks: dogged pursuit of the truth regardless of the toes you’re stepping on, and a willingness to go against the conventional wisdom if that’s where the facts lead. (I particularly recommend the extensive quotes from Halberstam Glenn has included; they’re often stunning.)

From John Nichols at The Nation:

Weich: In The Next Century, you wrote: “As the network news format trivializes political debate, the political system adapts to it. Serious discussion of serious issues is too complicated.” That statement could be applied any number of recent events, including the most recent presidential election.

Halberstam: And very much to our political system now. It’s really very trivialized.

Weich: Where does that leave us?

Halberstam: We’re an entertainment society. We want to be entertained more than we want to think. It’s a serious problem. We’re the most powerful nation in the world, but our network broadcast is increasingly about celebrity, sex, and scandal. It’s less about substance than it used to be. It’s not as good as it should be. And it makes us a more volatile society.

We pay very little attention to the rest of the world, then when the rest of the world doesn’t act in concert with us and salute us, we’re very angry. We think, How could this happen? Why don’t they like us more? We’re not paying very much attention.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at April 24, 2007 07:44 PM
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He disliked the right people too. There's a story that he once walked out of a literary event attended by Robert McNamara, hissing "that war criminal...".

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 24, 2007 8:53 PM

I wish I had known Halberstam, but I got to SE Asia after he left. Everybody has been saying that he was a great and courageous reporter, which he was. But the thing I most envied about him was his energy. If something caught his interest, he'd sit right down and write a book about it. Back in the 80s I enjoyed sculling; went out most mornings when the weather permitted. Back in the 80s, Halberstam did, too. Only he did a book ("The Amateurs") about our oarsmen at the l984 Olympics. In between writing more books than any American journalist that I can think of. I admired him. He was quality and he was quantity, and they don't often come in the same package.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on April 24, 2007 9:11 PM

Another one of the best quotes involved Halberstam's statement that journalism's not about fame and fortune; the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you tend to be. And that in reality journalism is about being paid to learn.

That is an attitude our press corps today wouldn't even recognize.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree (Belisarius) on April 24, 2007 9:15 PM
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