By: Joe Strupp
I must have called David Halberstam half a dozen times over the past few years for comment, and each time he responded willingly with opinions on any number of topics, from newspaper ethics to the plight of embattled New York Times scribe Judith Miller.
In each case, Halberstam, called at his home office, was thoughtful and insightful. When asked about the Miller case, perhaps knowing his comments about his former employer would hold more weight than some, he added, “I think that’s a pretty good quote, don’t you?”
Then there was the day he came down to the lobby of his apartment building to sign one of his books for my father-in-law — and thanked me for my interest.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and legendary author always answered the phone in his well-known, deep-throated voice, ready to give views on whatever the journalism issue of the day. Even if he was in a rush, usually finishing his latest book, he’d either speak quickly or call back later. One time, his wife, Jean, relayed a message to his cell phone and Halberstam called back within minutes from an airport somewhere, gladly ready to put forth some nugget of journalistic insight.
So when I heard of his tragic death in an auto accident late Monday, one of my first thoughts was not just the loss of a great reporter, writer and news mind, but that I would never again get to speak with someone who had such great views on my profession, as well as being so kind about giving his time.
Among his views to E&P over the years were the following:
— On the lead up to the Iraq War, in January 2003: “It is much tougher these days because the desire to control is greater. I think the press has done well asking questions. But most people who have Vietnam in their bones are uneasy about this war.”
— On reduced reporting of the war, in July 2003: “It’s obviously a shallow outlook, but it has been that way forever. But the serious people with serious reporting come forward at this time.”
— On what question he would ask George Bush or John Kerry prior to a presidential debate in 2004: “Do you think we are impaled on a major guerilla insurgency in Iraq and how do we un-impale ourselves?”
— On the Judith Miller scandal at his old paper, in 2005: “I think the paper has taken a terrible hit. I think it is shocking that this young woman who has been a known identified land mine for a long time seems to have guaranteed loyalty to the office of the Vice President of the United States more than to The New York Times.”
He spoke at the most length about ethics issues raised by the Jayson Blair scandal at the Times:
“The industry as a whole is in trouble because people at the top are taking out too much money and driving the profits up. The perception is that the real customers are not those who read the paper but those who buy the stock. It damages the profession….
“The question on anonymous sources is how responsibly you use them. But don’t be afraid to use them….
“Human nature is such that there will always be problems like these. … I think the fact that so many people are appalled by (the ethical lapses) is a good sign. The people most offended are the journalists themselves.”
Then there was the time in 2004 when he did me a favor. I had just finished his great book, “The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship,” which is about several former teammates of Ted Williams driving to Florida to visit their dying friend.
I had bought a copy for my father-in-law, a longtime baseball fan, as a Father’s Day gift and wanted Halberstam to sign it. I called his home office, just days before Father’s Day, to see when he might be doing a bookstore signing. He informed me that none were set for the next few days, but offered to sign it if I wanted to come up to his apartment building.
Excited not just to get the gift autographed, but also to meet this giant of journalism, I got the address and headed up to his west side Manhattan building. When informed I was there, the doorman called up to Halberstam, who came down in the elevator, penned his name on the book, as well as on two other copies of his works I had brought, then chatted for a few minutes about how much he appreciated MY interest.
“It means a lot,” he said, then shook hands and headed back up to his home.