Journalism Loses an Icon

David Halberstam was killed Monday night in a car wreck south of San Francisco. The headline on the website for ESPN, the US sports channel, read “Famed Sports Author Halberstam Dies in Car Crash.”

Sports author? For another generation of Americans, the 73-year-old Halberstam, who did write several sports books later in life, was far better known for his reporting from Vietnam for the New York Times, starting in 1963. Halberstam was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, American journalism’s highest award, when he was 30, for seemingly single-handedly taking on the American government over another futile, ill-advised war in a faraway place. More than just reporting, what Halberstam did was to set the tone for journalism during the Vietnam War, encouraging a legion of skeptical and brave reporters to follow his lead.

Recognition of Halberstam’s 40-year-old reporting, and that of those who followed him, is important today, and ironic, in the light of a recent hour-long broadcast by commentator Bill Moyers on the American public television station PBS about the lack of skeptical reporting in the runup to the Iraq War. In a devastating 90-minute broadcast, Moyers delineated in reporters’ own words how the American media, day after day after day, simply bought without question the lies that the Bush administration was telling in its effort to sell the war to the world.

Certainly, the Iraqi invasion had its claque of advocates including the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and right-wing outlets. But as Moyers shows, advocacy of the war went far beyond that into the news pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and onto the major television networks in the face of clear evidence that the war was going to be a stunning disaster.

Hardly any Americans even knew where Vietnam was in 1963. But it was a time when American journalism saw as its responsibility the duty to send reporters in harm’s way to find out what was going on. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, ABC, CBS, NBC and dozens of other publications maintained fully staffed bureaus there without concern about the cost to the bottom line.

Certainly, the pressure they faced from the government in Washington, DC was enormous, first from the administration of John F. Kennedy and then, after he was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson, both of whom sought to curtail what they saw as negative reporting on the situation.

Halberstam, a skinny, hawk-faced reporter, didn’t stay in Saigon to listen to what were universally called the “5 o’clock follies,” the daily briefing from the Joint US Public Affairs Office. He got into little rattletrap taxis and rode down to the Mekong Delta to look around for himself, as did many of his colleagues.

Those colleagues included Francois Sully at Newsweek, who was kicked out of the country by the wife of then-dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, and who later returned after Diem was assassinated, only to die later in a helicopter crash. They included Larry Burroughs of Time and Life, whose stunning photos in 1965 brought the war home to readers of Life, and who was killed when flying into combat in Laos.

They included Merton D. Perry and Charles F. Mohr of Time Magazine. Time Publisher Henry Luce was a war hawk who refused to print their stories. Instead, Time printed a story in its press section saying reporters were getting their news out of the Jerome et Juliet bar in the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Mohr and Perry quit, Perry going to work for Newsweek and Mohr for the New York Times.

The US military certainly learnt its lesson. In the 1960s in Vietnam, reporters could get up at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m. pull on a helmet and flak jacket and take a taxi out to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and get onto a C-130 to go where they thought the action was. Once at the nearest military base, they jumped onto a Huey or a jeep and went out to where the shooting began. There was no such thing as embedding. It was an extraordinarily free atmosphere. If it was carnage at the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh or the cut-and-run antics of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, known as the ARVN – or the executions of hundreds of civilians at My Lai -- reporters went there to find out. Many paid for it with their lives, but they gave the US a clear and important picture of what Vietnam was about.

When the next war rolled around -- Desert Storm in 1991 -- that all stopped. The US military was never going to allow the press that freedom again, and largely it hasn’t. Reporters are largely herded like sheep in Iraq today, with considerable pressure to report only the good news. But more than that, as Moyers pointed out, the press post-9/11 lost its nerve. Partly it was because the wave of frantic patriotism following the explosions at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center meant that skeptical reporting was going to be greeted with death threats against the press.

Halberstam himself, in a recent interview with the liberal Nation Magazine, said that today the United States is what he called 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.”

The corporate ownership of newspapers today means that the kind of aggressive reporting that characterized journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign in 1973, is no longer possible. That kind of clamorous, insistent reporting by major news organizations in the face of public opinion, no matter how erroneous that opinion may be, fanned by jingoists waving the bloody shirt, causes editors and stockholders big headaches.

It is also important to note that reporting in Iraq today is far more difficult and dangerous than it ever was in Vietnam. Saigon in 1967 was a delight, a louche city at 3 am for hard-drinking reporters to find a bowl of pho, the ubiquitous beef-and-noodle soup, or a girl whom the novelist Graham Greene, in the novel The Quiet American, said would sing and twitter like birds on your pillow. Nobody ever worried about his or her personal safety. The restaurants, run by French-trained chefs, were brilliant. One writer described Vietnam as reeking of the mingled smell of shit and ambrosia, which was pretty accurate.

In Iraq, reporters have to travel with bodyguards. When they do manage to get out to talk to common Iraqis, the Iraqis are prone to breaking into a dead run rather than hanging around a target. Reporters are targets for kidnapping or death. An even 100 have died so far in Iraq – most of them Iraqis, far outstripping the 63 killed in Vietnam in 10 years of war.

But having said that, reporters, editors and publishers in the Vietnam era regarded it as their responsibility to tell what the story was. Today, as President Bush’s popularity descends into the low double digits, the American press is finally starting to find the backbone that had so clearly disappeared for so long.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Halberstam was single-handedly responsible for the tone of reporting on Vietnam, but he certainly was a model for others to follow, as were Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan of United Press International, Sully and many others who were there at the same time and were courageous, tough and skeptical, risking and sometimes losing their lives in the field to describe what the world needed to know. They were an exceptional bunch.

Some critics such as Peter Braestrup and Denis Warner would conclude that it was the press that was responsible for the loss of Vietnam. And if reporting the truth was what caused Vietnam to fall, so be it. The world owed David Halberstam a lot for that.