Distant Wars

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

A legendary reporter who made it through the lethal swamps of Vietnam was killed yesterday in a car crash in Northern California.

The death of David Halberstam, who led an honorable and adventurous career, is a stark reminder of how radically the news business is changing, and how there is less and less room in it for people like him.

We learned yesterday that there are more staff reductions on the way at the Los Angeles Times, that the legal spats at the Santa Barbara News-Press have really turned ugly, and, a week after the grisly shootings at Virginia Tech, that students finally told the hordes of journalists on campus to leave them alone and go home.

This morning, shareholders delivered another rebuke to The New York Times Company, withholding as much as 42 percent of the vote for directors at the company's annual meeting.

The Associated Press said that the vote "reflects growing impatience among investors about the company's lagging stock price."

In that same vein, the L.A. Times announced that it would offer yet another round of voluntary buyouts.

Up to 70 jobs could be cut from the newspaper's news department, reducing it to roughly 850 journalists. There were about 1,200 newsroom employees when the paper was bought by the Tribune Company in 2000.

Its sister paper, the Chicago Tribune, announced yesterday that it will need to reduce staffing by up to 100 employees.

Here at the Sun, which is also owned by Tribune, we're expecting a similiar announcement any minute now.

All this retrenchment must have been very dispiriting to a man like Halberstam. He was a "tireless reporter who produced richly detailed chronicles of some of the great stories in modern American history, from the struggle for civil rights to Vietnam to the decline of the Detroit auto industry, as well as biographies of an array of sports heroes," as my colleague Larry Williams wrote in this morning's paper.

At 73, Halberstam was working as hard as he ever did. He was researching a book about the National Football League's 1958 championship between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.

Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer at the age of 30 for his reporting from Vietnam for the New York Times, wrote 21 books, including 15 best-sellers.

What many consider his greatest book, The Best and the Brightest, came out of his war experiences.

This morning's Harvard Crimson, for which Halberstam, class of '55, served as managing editor, said he never lost his "passion and drive" for news. The paper quoted fellow Pulitzer winner Anthony Lewis as calling Halberstam "probably the greatest journalist of his generation."

"He had a core integrity that gave him credibility and power. Whether he was writing about basketball or Vietnam, it carried an enormous amount of weight," said Lewis, who also worked at the Crimson and the Times.

Lewis said he "just didn't know anybody who is a better representation of journalism."

George Abrams, another former managing editor of the Crimson, said in the paper's obit today that Halberstam's Vietnam coverage angered President John F. Kennedy so much that he "asked the New York Times to change his assignment and move him out of Vietnam."

But the Times stuck with its man.

Some people thought Halberstam and other American journalists were against the war. But Halberstam wasn't, according to William Prochnau, who wrote a book on the reporting of the Vietnam conflict, Once Upon a Distant War.

Today's Times quotes Prochnau as saying it was simply a case of American commanders lying to the press about what was happening in Vietnam. "They were shut out and they were lied to," Prochnau said. And Halberstam "didn't say, ‘You're not telling me the truth.' He said, 'You're lying.' "

Sound familiar?

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan