Nearly 60 years ago, a young reporter in the Saigon bureau of The New York Times became the target of President Kennedy, who sought to silence his reporting of the United States' escalating involvement in Vietnam.
The choice David Halberstam — and the Times — made more than a generation ago to push back against Kennedy set a standard that can guide journalists today as they struggle to cope with President Trump’s unrelenting assault on truth and their credibility.
“If the government is telling the truth, reporters become a minor, relatively unimportant conduit to what is happening,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Halberstam told me one afternoon in the sunny living room of his Nantucket home while I interviewed him for “Dateline-Saigon,” a documentary film examining the press’ controversial coverage of the Vietnam War. “But when the government doesn’t tell the truth, begins to twist the truth, hide the truth, then the journalist becomes, involuntarily, infinitely more important.”
Halberstam survived covering combat in Vietnam only to be killed in an automobile accident in California in 2007. But his warning — and his example — did not die with him.
At Halberstam’s memorial service, Dexter Filkins, then reporting from Baghdad for the Times, said in his eulogy: “In Iraq, when the official version didn't match what we were seeing on the streets of Baghdad, all we had to do — and we did it a lot — was ask ourselves: What would Halberstam have done? And then the way was clear.”
What would Halberstam have done? It’s a question White House reporters would be wise to ask themselves today. The answer is simple in concept but hard in practice, and often dangerous: Speak truth to power.
Doing what Halberstam had done was not easy — or safe — for him or other reporters like Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne and Peter Arnett, who were among the early skeptics of the Vietnam War.
Halberstam didn’t fly into Saigon on a mission to be critical. “I come from a deeply patriotic family as the children of immigrants tend to be in our country,” Halberstam told me.
Halberstam’s expectation that his government would tell the truth and his initial belief in the righteousness of the American cause in Vietnam led him to expect he’d be doing the kind of supportive reporting his journalistic heroes like Edward R. Murrow had done in the Second World War.
And his early stories reflected the White House’s falsely optimistic narrative.
“I think we reporters all arrived rather innocent. It was very hard at first for me to accept that people I would’ve normally revered — a four-star American general — were lying,” he said.
But facts on the ground soon led him to see through those four-star lies. Halberstam’s critical reporting did not sit well with the White House. “Get on the team,” a general warned, tantamount in the eyes of some to calling him a traitor.
“None of us wanted this confrontation, involuntarily going against the grain of what the American mission wanted, and suddenly you've become the enemy,” Halberstam told me. “The idea that your own government would hate you for doing what you've been raised to do was really alien and stunning.”
In this sense, President Trump’s war with the media is not new. President Nixon infamously penned an “enemies list,” which included the names of prominent reporters. Nixon asked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to wiretap a number of them and had the IRS audit the tax returns of CBS’ Marvin Kalb and other journalists.
But Trump has taken lying and deceit to a new level. More public. More accusatory. More inciting. More dangerous. Daily.
Kalb recently asked an audience at the National Press Club, “whether the media, in its daily tussle with an impatient, powerful president, has the spunk, the stuff, and the public support to stand up and say, 'Mr. President, this far and no further?' ”
In his eulogy, Filkins reflected on what he’d learned studying Halberstam. “David taught us a great lesson — and not just to the reporters in Iraq, but to anyone who has ever tried to hold his government to account,” Filkins said. “And that is, the truth is not just a point of view. Truth does not adhere to the person who shouts the loudest. And truth does not necessarily belong to the people with the most power.”