By: Greg Mitchell
David Halberstam, who died in a car accident on Monday, was a towering figure to many — but who in journalism did he most admire or learn from?
My first editing work for E&P came in the fall of 1999 when, as a freelancer, I put together a special supplement on The 25 Most Influential Newspaper People of the 20th Century. My editors wanted some big-name writers to profile journalistic legends, but number one on their list as potential contributor was David Halberstam. I managed to nail down Garry Wills, Jim Squires, and Tom Wicker, among others, for modest pay, but since Halberstam had been out of the newspaper racket for a long time, and was one of the bestselling authors in America, he seemed like a longshot.
When I managed to get Halberstam I mentioned most of the names on the Top 25 list. He immediately, and with no hint of humor, implored: “What, no Reston?” It was true, James B. “Scotty” Reston, longtime reporter, bureau chief and columnist for The New York Times back in the day, had narrowly missed our cut. Then Halberstam, indignant, declared: “How seriously can I take what you are doing if you don’t have Reston on your list?”
Well, I tried to explain, there are only 25, they cover all areas of newspapering (including production, editorial cartooning, and the comics), and it’s for an entire century, but he would have none of it. Reston was a giant and that was that.
When I talked to my editors, I mentioned what Halberstam had said and wondered if their list was, shall we say, flexible. They pondered it — for about 10 seconds — and then started deciding who could get bumped to make room for Reston (the name now escapes me). It wasn’t that big of a deal: Reston was merely being elevated by four or five slots.
When I informed Halberstam that he had a chance to write a tribute to Scotty, after all, he agreed to do it, after a little more arm twisting.
And here is what he wrote.
James Barrett (Scotty) Reston was probably the most influential American journalist of the postwar era ? a period in the ’50s and ’60s that saw a dramatic rise in the level of professionalism among the nation’s elite newspapers. Reston helped define and set those new standards of excellence ? most particularly in the kind of reporter he hired ? not merely for his own paper, The New York Times, which he served as Washington bureau chief, but in time for other competing national newspapers, such as The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as the newsmagazines, and many other non-national newspapers, who were determined to match what the Times was doing.
Reston was an immensely talented man, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, who did not think of himself as being particularly cerebral ? he depended on his close friend Walter Lippmann for help with larger conceptual formulations ? but he knew he was a shrewd and skilled political reporter, and, in addition, he wrote exceptionally well. He understood the great privilege of being a reporter in Washington in that era, a moment when the city had replaced London as the political capital of the Western world, and America was just coming of age as a superpower. It was, he was fond of saying, a great time to be a reporter. The 19th century had been the age of the novelist, but the 20th, he liked to say, because of the flood of dramatic events and the improvement in print technology, was the age of the journalist.
That meant that he presided as the Times’ bureau chief as the featured journalist of the most powerful paper in the world at a time when television’s power was just ascending, in the political capital of the world. America was becoming a truly international power for the first time because of the pressure first of World War II and then of the Cold War. That, plus the need to write for readers who were better educated and more internationalist in their outlook, meant he had to hire reporters worthy of the paper’s readers.
He sensed intuitively that newspapering had to become a profession, and he worked to improve the standards from within. He hired better-educated reporters, some of whom (Anthony Lewis covering the Supreme Court, John Finney covering science, John Pomfret covering labor, for example) were specialists. Others he hired simply because he thought they were the best reporters in the country and they wrote particularly well. Among the people he hired, either directly or indirectly, were Russell Baker, Tom Wicker, Allen Drury, Anthony Lukas, Neil Sheehan, and Charles Mohr. His bureau in the ’60s was something of a “Who’s Who” of talented reporters.
“All the best reporters in the country want to come to Washington,” he once said, “and the best of them want to work for the Times, so it’s easy for me to hire the best people in the country.”
Because he wrote extremely well, because well ahead of most other editors he understood that print was in a lethal competition with television and that well-written stories were a significant plus for readers, he pushed his peers at the traditionally gray Times to open up the paper to better writing and more thoughtful, reflective reporting.
“We know how to cover revolution but not evolution,” he liked to say.
That meant allowing reporters to be more subjective in their reporting than they had been in the previous era. He gloried in the fact that he was so skilled an ivory hunter in signing up talent for the Times. Of one Times contemporary, he said, “He’s very insecure ? and because of that he hires second-raters, because he thinks it will make him look better. I hire the most talented people I can because I know they will make me look better.” In his heyday, an age of print when America was the most powerful nation in the world and Washington was the center of international political influence, and newspapers, particularly the Times, were at their apex of power, no journalist understood that equation so well nor wielded a paper’s influence with as much intuitive skill, and with as much benefit to a larger profession in the standards he set, than Scotty Reston.