David Halberstam and The Price of Fame For a Journalist

David Halberstam, RIP, was a great journalist before he became famous and pretty good advocacy journalist after he became famous. And I think he realized that. Glenn Greenwald highlights a few of Halberstam's speeches on the "state of journalism" and a section from this Halberstam speech caught my eye:

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. . . .

(Emphasis supplied.) I think that is a key insight from Halberstam. When you are not famous, your job as a journalist is to learn facts and then tell the public about the facts you have learned. By and large, as a reporter gets famous or even better known, they become advocates for particular narratives. This too is a worthy role so long as we understand that this is what famous journalists are doing.

Let's consider some of the famous icons of the journalism profession. Bob Woodward stopped being a journalist, even an advocacy journalist, some time ago. His agenda is about what he perceives to be power and how the powerful act. It is a sycophantic narrative that Woodward provides and is largely a harmful exercise, almost a contrajournalism.

Consider what Halberstam wrote about "a journalist being loved" by his subject:

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.) . . . . 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.

That the powerful provide a journalist "access" is a blot really on that journalist. If that journalist were doing his job, the powerful would not want to grant him access. Woodward is a classic case in point.

This is not to say that just because the powerful dislike you that a journalist is doing his job in the classic sense. Take Sy Hersh and his work on Iraq and Iran. Sy Hersh is, for all intent and purposes, an advocacy journalist now. But Sy Hersh is true to the facts as he reports them. But that is not the whole story. Hersh also chooses not to seek facts that are contra to his narrative. His Iran scare journalism this year was, imo, not particularly credible, even though Hersh did not report any falsehoods. Hersh was advocating a position, not providing objective reporting on the likelihood of a strike on Iran.

My two favorite reporters working today are Ed Wong, who reports from Iraq for the New York Times, and Dana Priest, who generally covers the intelligence community, though she is likely to win another Pulitzer for her work on the Walter Reed scandal.

I would say that Priest is better known than Wong, but obviously less well known than Woodward, Hersh and Halberstam. She is not bigger than the story.

And at bottom, that seems to me to have been Halberstam's point - when journalists' punditry, predictions, fame, etc. become bigger than the story, then the journalist is no longer a good journalist.

Case in point - the Beltway Media, almost entirely. The McLaughlin Group was the precusrsor to all the bad things that fame can do to reporters. The culmination was Imus.

< 9 U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq Monday | Tuesday Open Thread >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    I knew that you would mention Woodward (5.00 / 4) (#1)
    by andgarden on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 11:56:27 AM EST
    Joan Didion's perspective in "The Deferential Spirit" still stands as one of the best indictments of Woodward and his style of "journalism."

    Thanks for the link (none / 0) (#4)
    by jpete on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 02:26:09 PM EST
    Interesting Didion observation:

    That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. What they have in Mr. Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon, who can be relied upon to present a Washington in which problematic or questionable matters will be definitively resolved by the discovery, or by the demonstration that there has been no discovery, of "the smoking gun," "the evidence." Should such narrowly-defined "evidence" be found, he can then be relied upon to demonstrate, "fairly," that the only fingerprints on the smoking gun are those of the one bad apple in the barrel, the single rogue agent in the tapestry of decent intentions.

    As she says, time and again, he doesn't have to think to turn this stuff out.


    Self interest (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Edger on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 12:08:20 PM EST
    By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are.

    And the more concerned with maintaining that stature? [Because] fame does not last, it seduces?

    Not in the same breath or paragraph! (none / 0) (#3)
    by wwasse on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 01:03:32 PM EST
    Ouch! Hard to see "Halbstam" and "Woodward" in the same paragraph!

    Wishing DH had had another 15 productive years...

    I really like your comment: (none / 0) (#5)
    by jpete on Tue Apr 24, 2007 at 02:49:16 PM EST
    By and large, as a reporter gets famous or even better known, they become advocates for particular narratives. This too is a worthy role so long as we understand that this is what famous journalists are doing.

    I agree that honest advocacy is worthy, but also that we need to recognize it.  If there were more of it, perhaps we'd have something like real political discusssions.  As it is, too many people's political thinking mimics the sound-bite media - or so it seems to me.  Maybe, though, this is due as much to the polarization going on - as though the most important thing one has to say is which side one is on.