David Halberstam – Columbia Journalism Award – May 18, 2005


Columbia Journalism Award recipient David Halberstam delivers the graduation speech to the Journalism class of 2005. (Photo/Yann Nicolas)


Thank you for this award and thank you for letting me share this very special day with you.

Some 50 years ago, give or take a few weeks, I piled my one suitcase and a very simple record player into my 10-year old Chevy and set out from Cambridge, Massachusetts for Jackson, Mississippi for my new job as a star reporter at a new, allegedly liberal, daily newspaper there. I had been hired by its new editor whom I had met when he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during my senior year.

I drove the 1100 or so miles and on the last day got two flats, threw a timing gear, got to Jackson and found that my benefactor was not the editor of the new, liberal Star-Times, but instead, was the assistant to the famously rCUITt editor, Fred Sullens, of the famously rCUITt Jackson Daily News. So after telling all my friends in Cambridge that I was going to be a reporter in Mississippi, I had arrived and had no job.

In a couple of days, I was offered a job on the smallest daily in West Point, Mississippi – a town of 8000 – with a circulation, it was said, of 4000. (Years later, I went back and was told the circulation had doubled. What is it now, I asked. Oh, 4000, they said). I would be paid $45.00 a week plus $1.00 extra to cover the weekly Kiwanis Club luncheon.

I took the job – and had a marvelous year. What I learned there (and this is applicable to you as you start your careers), was this: I learned how to learn. I learned how to talk to people, how to track the politics of the town, and how to find someone on each story who could teach me things.

I had been a very good college journalist, managing editor of what was arguably the best college paper in the country. I had worked two summers for the Hartford Courant and paid a good deal of my college tuition by stringing for the Boston Globe. I’m sure I could have gotten a job with a big time paper – a small time job, surely as a copy boy, which is what a news clerk was called back then.

I didn’t want that: I wanted to report, and I was ready to report, not get coffee for someone else. I was quick, knew what a story was and, more importantly, I knew what I didn’t know and what I needed to learn.

I had as well a relatively shrewd view of this profession: there were not a lot of very good jobs out there (most papers were indifferent) but the good jobs were very good, and I wanted one. I knew that I needed to learn how to talk to people and how to work a story. That is, I needed an apprenticeship. Why not the South? And if the South, why not Mississippi, the most recalcitrant of southern states? It was June, 1955, one year after Brown vs. the Board of Education.

I worked one year in Mississippi before I was fired for being too liberal. The editor called me in one day and told me that it wasn’t working out and he was firing me and he wanted me to clean out my desk by the end of the day.

I went from there to four years on the Nashville Tennessean – probably the best and most aggressive paper in the South in the Civil Rights Days – where I was taught by very good people. (With all due respect to the faculty, in the end, journalists mostly teach each other.) Every night I would go out to dinner with member of a great staff of an embattled newspaper. Each night was like a great seminar in journalism; I could listen to them talk about what they had done that day, how they had put their stories together. I was a human sponge.

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.)

I learned how to work a story, how to talk to ordinary people, and what a joy doing legwork was. I learned the best question of all for any interview: “Who else should I see?” To this day, the back cover of my notebooks is covered with lists of names of people to see.

I learned that the more legwork you do, inevitably the better the writing seems because you have more details, more anecdotes, and more authority. And I learned that the great fun of journalism was talking to people, that it was where you kept learning. What a marvelous way to grow intellectually!

So when The New York Times called in 1960, I was ready. The apprenticeship was over, and six months later, I was in the Congo, which was the big foreign story that year, and a year later in Vietnam, in time to be in on the beginning of that tragic war. I was well-trained – I had made myself into a professional and had done it, in no small part, not so much by trying to reinforce my strengths as most people do, but by trying to eliminate my weaknesses.

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.

Nor for that matter, is it about prizes or awards, although these are very nice. And I am moved by this award, given by colleagues, and by you. Rather, the richness of the profession – and it has been an uncommonly rich life for me – has been in the wonderful collegial friendships I have, many from those Civil Rights and Vietnam Days, right through to the present, the friendship of so many people who care passionately about what kind of a country we are.

When I was young, I wanted to be a witness to important events. That’s one of the reasons I went to the South in the beginning. What I got was a great ticket to sit in on history, far better than I could ever have imagined, and above all, a life where I was never bored.

I have been enhanced by the profession over all these years: it has given me far greater faith in democracy than I had when I began; and faith in the nobility of ordinary people, the belief that in the worst of times, someone will always tell the truth. It has enhanced me in many ways, given me the courage to do things when I worked for the Tennessean and The New York Times, that I might never have done and enjoyed on my own. When I began, I was timid, but working for a paper like the Tennessean or the Times, I had a confidence in my right to stand in harm’s way.

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.

Well, I have spoken long enough. I am delighted to have shared this day with you. I cannot tell you how rich and privileged a life it has been, and I hope you will each have a comparable one.