April 23, 2007

Few reporters of the last generation have been more associated with speaking truth to power than David Halberstam. The reporters of the generation before him, especially those who covered World War II, served, for the most part, as loyal propagandists in their country’s war against Nazi aggression.

Halberstam and a new generation of reporters in the 1960s were ready to play the same role in Vietnam, but arrived at a different place, and were compelled to write a different narrative based on that most powerful of journalistic strategies: the power of their eyewitness testimony.

Halberstam, who was killed in a car crash in California Monday, described that experience for Commentary magazine in 1965:

“No one becomes a reporter to make friends, but neither is it pleasant in a situation like the war in Vietnam to find yourself completely at odds with the views of the highest officials of your country. The pessimism of the Saigon press corps was of the most reluctant kind: many of us came to love Vietnam, we saw our friends dying all around us, and we would have liked nothing better than to believe the war was going well and that it would eventually be won. But it was impossible for us to believe those things without denying the evidence of our own senses…. And so we had no alternative but to report the truth….”

This testimony from Halberstam was crucial because it undercut a competing narrative: that young, radical reporters in the 1960s took their counter-cultural lenses to Vietnam war with them and viewed the war through pink-colored glasses.

“The job of the reporters in Vietnam,” wrote Halberstam, “was to report the news, whether or not the news was good for America. To the ambassadors and generals, on the other hand, it was crucial that the news be good, and they regarded any other interpretation as defeatist and irresponsible.”

In today’s political climate, given the war in Iraq, the phrase “whether or not the news was good for America” is worth lingering on. At the time, it was that type of sentiment that inspired columnists such as Joseph Alsop to accuse Halberstam and the other “young crusaders” of being soft on Communism, and therefore disloyal to the American cause.

A half century has passed, and, on the day of Halberstam’s death, we find ourselves in a similar position: On whether or not to believe government and military claims of progress in Iraq; on whether the press corps has ignored the “good things” that have come out of this conflict; on whether journalists place their career ambitions above the good of the country and the safety of soldiers who fight on its behalf.

In “The Making of a Quagmire,” Halberstam includes a profile of John Paul Vann, a high-ranking army officer who also became famous for speaking truth to power:

“The remarkable thing about Vann, and a few others of his caliber who were fully aware of the shortcomings of the war, was that they still believed that under certain circumstances the war could be pursued successfully. This was the best kind of optimism; it was not the automatic we-are-winning push-button chant of Saigon, but a careful analysis of all the problems on both sides, and a hope that there were still time and human resources enough to change the tide.

“In part, the reporters believe this too; though we were frequently criticized for being too pessimistic, I believe that a more valid criticism would have been that we were too optimistic. This is debatable, of course, but I think that anyone watching so much bravery squandered during those months could not have helped wondering what would happen if that talent were properly employed.”

Halberstam’s range of interests extended well beyond the battlefield, and he spent the rest of his journalism career writing books about American culture, the news media, and the sports scene. But he is likely to be most remembered for an unquenchable desire to describe what he saw in war. May he rest in peace.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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