David Halberstam on today's American press

Though U.S. media stars will undoubtedly rush to heap praise on Halberstam, his views on the proper role of journalism could not be any farther from what they do.

Published April 24, 2007 12:25PM (EDT)

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 several of the posts below, I have posted just a few excerpts from what I think are among the best essays and interviews from Halberstam over the past several years. But let us begin with his understanding of the intended role of political journalism and contrast that with how our current press functions:

On the adversarial relationship between journalists and political officials

David Halberstam, Speech to the Columbia School of Journalism, May 18, 2005:

One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.) . . . .

There are a few things I would like to pass on to you as I come near to the end of my career.

One: It's not about fame. By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are. Besides, fame does not last. At its best, it is about being paid to learn. For fifty years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge. What a rare chance to grow as a person. . . .

I want to leave you today with one bit of advice: never, never, never, let them intimidate you. People are always going to try in all kinds of ways. Sheriffs, generals, presidents of universities, presidents of countries, secretaries of defense. Don't let them do it. . . .

Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon -- we had enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war. In particular, my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and I were considered the enemy. The president of the United States, JFK, had already asked the publisher to pull me.

On day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV -- the American military command -- tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there -- calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins. With no luck, of course.

In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a Captain, called the Five O'clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.

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.

Elizabeth Bumiller of The New York Times, on the press' coverage of President George W. Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq:

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.

Tim Russert, at the Lewis Libby Trial, February, 2007 (recounted by The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin)

If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?

Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. . .

When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.

And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling.

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable. . .

For Russert, yesterday's testimony was the second source of trial-related embarrassment in less than two weeks. The first came when Cathie Martin, Cheney's former communications director, testified that the vice president's office saw going on Russert's "Meet the Press" as a way to go public but "control [the] message."

In other words: Sure, there might be a tough question or two, but Russert could be counted on not to knock the veep off his talking points -- and, in that way, give him just the sort of platform he was looking for.

Russert's description of how he does business with government officials came when prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald asked him whether there were "any explicit ground rules" for his conversation with Libby.

According to someone taking meticulous notes at the courthouse yesterday, Russert replied: "Specifically, no. But when I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission."

On the collapse of the American press

David Halberstam -- November 7, 1999:

I thought that with the end of the century approaching, it might be a good time to take stock of where this profession is. Obviously, it should be a brilliant moment in American journalism, a time of a genuine flowering of a journalistic culture . . .

But the reverse is true. Those to whom the most is given, the executives of our three networks, have steadily moved away from their greatest responsibilities, which is using their news departments to tell the American people complicated truths, not only about their own country, but about the world around us. . . .

What I think is happening is something extremely serious,nothing less than a change in the value system in a very important part of the news business.

At the core of the old value system was a belief on the part of the men and women who worked in journalism that this was an uncommonly privileged life, that we did not do this for the money -- almost all of us could have made a great deal more money in some other field, but we were uncommonly privileged, free men and free women working for a free press in a free society, beneficiaries of exalted constitutional freedoms, willing, if need be on occasion, to report to the nation things which it did not necessarily want to hear.

What has changed is not the talent and idealism and passion of the journalists out there, but the value system which governs the way they work, and finally what gets in the paper or on the air. . . .

A number of things stand out in the change of values which has come about in the last decade or so. Because of its growing power and influence and because of the ever-greater competition, not just network against network, but network against cable show, the television executive producers have redefined what constitutes news -- often going for stories that television likes to cover, stories which are telegenic, because they have action or are sexy or are tabloid- or scandal-driven.

We have morphed in the larger culture from a somewhat Calvinist society to an entertainment society, and that is reflected in the new norms of television journalism -- where the greatest sin is not to be wrong but to be boring. Because boring means low ratings. And so altogether too many people at the top in the television newsrooms have accepted the new, frillier dictates of the men and women above them in the corporations.

But the quantum change had come with the coming of cable, and the fierce new competition generated by cable news shows, which were primarily about sex, scandal and celebrity. Or celebrity, sex and scandal. Soon, we began to see a willingness on the part of the networks -- their own audience fragmenting, their ratings down -- to embrace, particularly in their magazines, these tabloid values as their own.

Magazines which were essentially tabloid were inexpensive to produce, more so than sitcoms, seemed to have acceptable ratings, and so they proliferated under the guise of being news. And a great many of our colleagues went along with it -- for immense salaries and a great deal of air time, of course. . . .

Somewhere in there, gradually, but systematically, there has been an abdication of responsibility within the profession, most particularly in the networks.

Television's gatekeepers, at a time when a fragmenting audience threatens the singular profits of the past, stopped being gatekeepers and began to look the other way on moral and ethical and journalistic issues. Less and less did they accept the old-fashioned charge for what they owed the country.

The viewpoint seemed to be -- from their testing and polling -- that the American people did not want to know what was going on, so why bother them with unwanted facts too soon? So, if we look at the media today, we ought to be aware not just of what we are getting, but what we are not getting; the difference between what is authentic and what is inauthentic in contemporary American life and in the world, with a warning that in this celebrity culture, the forces of the inauthentic are becoming more powerful all the time.

John Harris and Mark Halperin on their world of current political journalism:

And there has been no more effective venue for promoting the Freak Show agenda in presidential politics than the website run out of the Miami apartment of Matt Drudge, the impresario of the attacked-based personality-obsessed politics that is the Freak Show's signature.

According to Nielsen Net Ratings, the Drudge Report website receives between 180 and 200 million page views a month, along with around 3 million unique visitors. Drudge's readers count on him to be a clearinghouse for the latest bizarre, or inflammatory, or salacious stories moving in the world of news or popular culture, and especially in politics. Among those who regularly click on the page is Karl Rove.

Members of the Gang of 500 -- which, according to the New Yorker, includes "the campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters, pundits, and journalists who make up the modern- day political establishment" -- all read the Drudge Report. If the greatest challenge of any person seeking the presidency is keeping control of his or her public image, and the great obstacle to this control is the Freak Show, then Matt Drudge is the gatekeeper. In this sense, he is the Walter Cronkite of his era.

Matt Drudge rules our world . . .

The Politico, yesterday:

DC Elite Angle for Best After-Parties

The White House Correspondents' Association Dinner has become the party that defines Washington. . . .

The VF party was the evening's most sought after ticket, precisely because it was billed as so exclusive. Heavy-hitting journo names filled the guest list, whereas Bloomberg and Capitol File mixed beltway insiders with people outside the political tent.

In our informal poll before the dinner, taken while attending "Hardball with Chris Matthews" Executive Producer Tammy Haddadb

But the Vanity Fair party "was the best party" we were told. About 150 of the city's top journalists and bold-faced names turned out for the event, which was described as "clogged with smoke . . . smoke, smoke, smoke."

Newsweek's "Senior White House Correspondent" Richard Wolffe, chatting with Tony Snow and other White House journalists:

The press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general.

Contrary to what national journalists self-defensively and self-justifyingly tell themselves in response to criticisms they hear, the predominant criticism of our media is not based on a desire that they act more like partisans than journalists. It is based on the fact that they do not act like journalists at all.

By Glenn Greenwald

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