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Journalism's Greatest Generation

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Two weeks ago, when Gay Talese was visiting the writing class I teach at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California, I said that he and Tom Wolfe and David Halberstam were the greatest reporters of their generation.

He corrected me. "That's sweet of you to say," said Talese, whose elegant writing in The New York Times and Esquire magazine changed the way other reporters, including Wolfe, thought about their craft. "But David was the best reporter."

So he was. I should have said that they were the three most influential reporters. As a reporter, Halberstam was the best of them, far more important, though he could not write nearly as well as Talese or Wolfe. His subjects, particularly civil rights and Vietnam, were heavier, of more consequence -- although, God knows, he could be ponderous on the printed page.

Less than a week after Talese talked of his friend, David was dead, killed in a tragic accident near San Francisco. I am sure there are many who think newspapers and television news are ever self-indulgent about their own and are making too much of the death of one 73-year-old man. But this time, we are not exaggerating our own importance. Halberstam's work and life are symbolic of a golden age of reporting, a time when journalism was much more than just another entertainment, a time when energetic young men and women made a difference, made this a better country.

Halberstam led the way, literally. There was something of Paul Revere and Thomas Paine in his journey from Harvard to becoming the only reporter on the smallest newspaper in Mississippi -- because he thought race and civil rights was the biggest (and untold) story in the country. Others came with typewriters and cameras and their hearts in their throats to make Americans confront this stain on the flag.

"We," covering the hundreds of thousands of brave "Negroes" (the word then), challenged the government and changed the country. He went to Vietnam, not because he was anti-war -- his father was a U.S. Army doctor -- and, more than anyone else, made Americans confront the reality of what our government was doing there. Then others, younger men, particularly Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, showed that the leaders of the U.S. government were literally mounting a coup against country and Constitution.

Is that mythology? Yes. But it was not a myth. Halberstam, not an easy man to ignore, was at the center of it. His 1972 book "The Best and the Brightest" has become an American classic not because it eviscerated the American government but because it was so American, so idealistic in its belief that America was better than what America was doing.

It was a book so well done -- if a bit wordy -- that it seemed too good to be true. Could anyone get quotes and facts that good? Yes, Halberstam could. Fifteen years later, when I was working on my book "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," I made up a list of the people I needed to talk to, putting the oldest of them at the top for obvious reasons. But it was the youngest on the list, Michael Forrestal, who died first, at the age of 61.

I mentioned that to David at lunch one day, and he offered to show me the notes of his interviews with Forrestal when he represented Kennedy in Vietnam. I was astounded by what he gave me: more than a dozen interviews, page after page, with questions and answers spelled out, some of which appeared word-for-word in his book, some of which appeared between the lines as context and understanding.

My business, "We," lost its way after the working days and nights that shined light on the truth of civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate. We became overconfident and self-righteous, casting ourselves as the moral arbiters of all things American. We were in over our heads, and Americans made it clear they did not need our sermons and lectures. They and we turned to more entertaining stuff, beginning with the business of entertainment itself, covering red carpets instead of tissues of lies.

We lost our way, and now we have lost a man who helped us find a better way. For my part, I covet the compliment a jailed Southern politician gave Bill Kovach, a Nashville Tennessean reporter, who later became a New York Times editor: "You've sent me to jail, but you never told no lies about me. ... You're just like that damned Slobberstream or whatever his name was."

His name was Halberstam.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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