David Halberstam died in a car accident yesterday. He was 73.
Given our current discussion on how the news media got that way, it’s particularly fitting that we honor Halberstam here. After all, he wrote two seminal books bearing closely on the subjects at hand – Viet Nam and the nation’s press establishment.
I used to have a first edition hardcover of Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and by the time circumstances forced me to sell most of my books, it was in pretty rocky shape. I took good care of my books, but when you read something 20 times and lug it around with you everywhere and lend it to anyone who shows the slightest interest and then have to hound them to get it back because they either don’t want to give it up or have passed it along to someone else, things happen.
Published in 1972 at the height of Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, The Best and the Brightest was an examination of the Kennedy Administration’s step-by-step involvement in Viet Nam, an involvement that led directly to the war under Johnson because the same people were in both administrations pushing the same line – the Domino Theory. Halberstam focused on how hubris, denial, illusion, unquestioning reliance on a deeply flawed doctrine, and domestic political considerations poisoned the efforts of these highly educated, highly respected men – “the best and the brightest” -to devise a rational, workable policy in Southeast Asia.
It was a startling book for a lot of people, myself included, not just because it documented the legion of mis-steps, inaccurate assumptions, and indefensible arrogance of the people making the decisions but because it laid bare the inescapable truth that even when they realized they’d blown it, they continued with it anyway for political reasons. Thousands of American servicemen died in the war in order to protect the illusion among the public – us – that the govt knew what it was doing. Halberstam, by simply reporting the facts, changed minds all across America and virtually destroyed Robert McNamara’s reputation (McNamara has yet to admit Viet Nam was a mistake, let alone his responsibility for making it). Halberstam’s exhaustive, exhausting book had as much to do with finally turning the country against the war as the demonstrations or the body bags on tv.
David won a Pulitzer, but not for that book. He should have.
Seven years later, Halberstam published a monumental work on the personalities and histories of major media news figures like William Paley (CEO of CBS for decades) and TIME’s founder, Henry Luce, called The Powers That Be. Along with more focused works like Joe McGinnis’ The Selling of the President, The Powers That Be is indispensable reading for anyone who needs to understand how the news business became what it was in the post-war years leading up to the Viet Nam War, and what it abandoned after Reagan.
If he had never written anything else, those two books would be reason enough for us to be grateful for his life and work.
(Link via Norwegianity)
Update: Glenn Greenwald makes the point for me.
David Halberstam’s death yesterday is certain to prompt all sorts of homage from our media stars describing Halberstam as a superior journalist, someone who embodied what journalism ought to be. And it is true that he was exactly that.
But modern American journalists — as Halberstam himself repeatedly emphasized — have become the precise antithesis of those values. The functions Halberstam and the best journalists of his generation fulfilled are exactly those that have been so fundamentally abandoned, repudiated and scorned by our nation’s most prominent and influential media stars. And most legitimate media criticisms today are grounded in exactly that gaping discrepancy.
In the rest of the post, Glenn contrasts Halberstam’s principles with the modern “journalist’s” desire to be part of the in-crowd. Here’s an illustrative example. First, Halberstam tells what happened after the military tried to freeze him and Neil Sheehan out of a battle and they had called several VIP’s trying to get permission – without success – to go along.
On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a Major but by a Major General, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in Saigon. It was in a different room and every general and every bird Colonel in the country was there. Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.
General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.
And I stood up, my heart beating wildly — and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.
I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.
So: Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.
Kind of hard to imagine Adam Nagourney doing that, isn’t it? Now here’s Glenn quoting our old friend Liz Bumiller on intimidation.
I think we were very deferential, because in the East Room press conference, it’s live. It’s very intense. It’s frightening to stand up there. I mean, think about it. You are standing up on prime time live television, asking the president of the United States a question when the country is about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and I think it made — and you know, nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.
(emphasis in the original)
Kind of explains things a little, huh? Go read the rest. It’s a long post but enlightening – in both senses of the word and from both sides of the fence.