by CCJ Staff
David Halberstam, whose reporting helped define journalism in the public interest for his generation, was killed in a car accident in California yesterday. His death came shortly after he delivered a talk to journalism students at the University of California at Berkeley about what it means to turn journalism into a work of history. It was a
subject he knew well having produced from his journalism some of the best contemporary history books of the past four decades including, The Best and the Brightest, The Children, The Fifties, The Powers That Be, and The Reckoning. He had just completed another history on the Korean War earlier this month. David was one of the founding members of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and one of its most loyal supporters. CCJ's founding chairman, Bill Kovach, was a colleague of Halberstam's at The Tennessean in Nashville, where both started to establish themselves in journalism while covering the civil rights movement.
"[Halberstam] decided that was going to be the next important story in America: how we handled race," Kovach told The Tennessean. "He wasn't going to stay in the North, he was going to go down South."
Halberstam was born in New York City and graduated from Harvard University, where he served as editor of the Harvard Crimson. His first job in journalism took him to the Daily Times Leader in West Point, Miss. According to The Tennessean, Halberstam hitchhiked up to Nashville and applied at that paper after the editor in West Point refused to let him cover racial issues.
Halberstam left Nashville and The Tennessean for The New York Times in 1960. He covered Congo as a foreign correspondent and in 1962 was assigned to cover South Vietnam. Although Halberstam had initially supported the war in Vietnam, he soon saw that the American-backed government in Saigon was corrupt and failing. Rather than convince himself otherwise or act as a mouthpiece for American military leaders, he pointed out the contradictions and lies. The New York Times reported that Halberstam's dispatches "infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground." His reporting caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who reportedly suggested to Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger that he be replaced. Sulzberger held firm and Halberstam went on to share the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with Malcolm W. Browne of the AP for their coverage of the war and the overthrow of the Saigon regime.
Halberstam left daily journalism in 1967 and wrote 21 books on topics ranging from foreign policy and civil rights to the automobile industry and a baseball pennant race.
Perhaps his best-known book is The Best and the Brightest. Published in 1972, the book chronicled how "able and dedicated men propelled the United States into a war later deemed unwinnable" (The New York Times). "I think the work he was proudest of was his trilogy on war,” his wife, Jean Halberstam, told The Times. Besides The Best and the Brightest, she was referring to a study of United States policies in the 1990s called War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals and the Korean War book, The Coldest Winter. Halberstam was a generous friend to young journalists. Indeed, at the time he was killed he was traveling with a UC Berkeley journalism student who had jumped at the chance to spend some time talking journalism with Halberstam on their way to Halberstam's next appointment - an interview with former NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle for his next book. Halberstam contributed two articles to the CCJ website on writing which can be found in the links below.
Books by David Halberstam: The Noblest Roman (1961) The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy (1965) The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era (1965) One Very Hot Day (1967) Ho (1971) The Best and the Brightest (1972) The Powers That Be (1979) The Breaks of the Game (1981) The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal (1985) The Reckoning (1986) Summer of '49 (1989) The Next Century (1991) The Fifties (1993) October 1964 (1994) The Children (1999) Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (1999) War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (2001) Firehouse (2002) The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship (2003) Bill Belichick: The Education of a Coach (2005) The Coldest Winter (due in fall 2007) Source: Associated Press