Halberstam, Journalism's 'Best and Brightest'

David Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for New York Times articles that took an early, critical view of American involvement in Vietnam. He later wrote penetrating works about U.S. institutions, from JFK's White House to the media.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. Journalist David Halberstam was killed yesterday in a car crash in Northern California. Halberstam was incredibly passionate about his work. He was determined to find the truth and share it with the world. NPR's David Folkenflik has this tribute.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Nearly half of his many books were on sports, but David Halberstam will be forever linked to his coverage of the Vietnam War and the book that ensued. As a reporter for the New York Times, he was one of the earliest to show the war would be much tougher to win than claimed. As Halberstam told NPR back in 2004, that earned him some unwanted attention.

Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM (Journalist): President Kennedy asked the publisher to transfer me, and Lyndon Johnson later, taking time from his other serious duties to be minister of truth, referred to my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and me as traitors to our country. It was - it got very ugly very early on.

FOLKENFLIK: Halberstam became very close with Malcolm Browne, then the Saigon bureau chief for the Associate Press. Browne says Halberstam was a tall, confident and quite angry young reporter.

Mr. MALCOLM BROWNE (Former A.P. Saigon Bureau Chief): To know and to realize that every word that's spoken to you is probably a lie sort of puts your teeth on edge, and that was certainly the case with David.

FOLKENFLIK: Halberstam shared a Pulitzer for his reporting on Vietnam, and his skepticism led to a landmark book on how the U.S. slid into war under the leadership of Ivy Leaguers in senior positions. It carried the bitterly ironic title "The Best and the Brightest."

In a more innocent age, he might have claimed that mantle for himself. David Halberstam was the son of a military surgeon and a schoolteacher but found his own calling in college at the Harvard Crimson, where he was a reporter and rose to lead the paper.

After graduation, Halberstam was hired by a small daily in the deep South. He once told NPR he started writing about the nascent civil rights movement in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board school desegregation case in 1954.

Mr. HALBERSTAM: Within a year, you have the Emmett Till case - I was a young reporter in Mississippi - a young black man, boy, accused of whistling at a white woman and is murdered, and suddenly you have the coming of a new, modern American press corps.

FOLKENFLIK: Halberstam soon went to the Nashville Tennessean. Sidney Schanberg was a colleague of Halberstam at the New York Times during the 1960s. He calls Halberstam a lion of his generation and says his clear-eyed reporting on the civil rights movement and the segregationists who opposed it helped prepare Americans for needed change.

Mr. SIDNEY SCHANBERG (Reporter): He saw evil, and he saw what people in an evil state will do, and fought against it.

FOLKENFLIK: Halberstam turned his critical eye on his own profession in his magisterial book "The Powers That Be," revealing the shortcomings, successes and struggles at CBS, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine. Halberstam believed the press had failed in the early coverage of Vietnam and told friends he felt the same way in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He told NPR just a few days after the invasion that he heard echoes of Vietnam in President Bush's decision.

Mr. HALBERSTAM: I really do have a feeling that we have ended up politically punching our hand into the largest hornets nest in the world. I mean, the military part will probably go relatively well, but it is the long-range consequences, the sense that we are going to be the lightning for all the grief and misery in the Middle East, not very much of which is of our causing.

FOLKENFLIK: As ever, David Halberstam was working on a book at the time of his death. He is survived by his wife and daughter. He was 73 years old. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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