David Halberstam (1934-2007).

Media criticism.
April 24 2007 6:50 PM

David Halberstam (1934-2007)

Portrait of the prize-winning reporter as an engorged ego.

David Halberstam. Click image to expand.
David Halberstam

"I've just won the Pulitzer and you're sending me to Buffalo?" David Halberstam said in 1964 to Arthur Gelb, his editor at the New York Times.

Halberstam also crumpled and handed back to Gelb the assignment sheet containing the details for the overnight trip he had written. Only 30 years old, Halberstam found the idea of covering a state Democratic Party "showdown" as beneath him, Gelb writes in his memoir, City Room.

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The arrogant reporter made the trip and apologized, but only after Gelb went to his boss, Abe Rosenthal, then the Times' metropolitan editor, and threatened to quit. Gelb blamed Rosenthal for Halberstam's insubordination, saying he'd given the young reporter "the impression he can get away with being a prima donna. Everyone will soon know he's turned down my assignment."

Halberstam didn't need Rosenthal's praise or his Pulitzer Prize in international reporting to goose his ego. (See this Times page for a taste of the Vietnam reporting.) By the time he went to Vietnam, Halberstam had already covered the civil rights movement for Nashville's Tennessean and revolution in the Congo for the Times in 1961.

In his 1975 Daedalus essay, "Writing News and Telling Stories," former New York Times reporter Robert Darnton describes the acculturation process of new reporters at the Times that obviously didn't sit well with a brat like Halberstam. Reporters were taught that the highest privilege in journalism was to work at the Times, and learning how to negotiate its rigid "status system" was their most important assignment. Halberstam enjoyed pissing down the hierarchy as well as pissing up. R.W. "Johnny" Apple was a rising young reporter at the Times in 1964. Halberstam, who had never met Apple, watched him one afternoon "walking around the city room as if he owned it," as Timothy Crouse writes in The Boys on the Bus. Apple approached Halberstam's desk and nonchalantly informed him of the nice things the publisher's cousins and a company vice president had had to say about him at a social event the previous evening.

Said Halberstam to Apple: "Fuck off, kid!"

When the Times sent Halberstam overseas again, he suffered from his own kind of post-Vietnam syndrome. None of his assignments matched Vietnam for excitement and satisfaction. In his book Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times, Joseph C. Goulden reprints a portion of a letter Halberstam, stationed in Warsaw, wrote to his friend and fellow Times foreign correspondent J. Anthony Lukas. The Times mother ship had distributed a memo directing correspondents to, when in doubt, file stories exactly 600 words long. Struggling to find a way out of the Times straitjacket, Halberstam wrote Lukas:

There are only two kinds of stories in the world: those about which I do not care to write as many as 600 words, and those about which I would like to write many more than 600 words. But there is nothing about which I would like to write exactly 600 words.

Next came the Times bureau in Paris, which might as well have been Buffalo. He was so bored that he spent much of his time writing a novel, writes Gay Talese in The Kingdom and the Power. * In a letter to friends in New York, Halberstam complained of his inability to find a place in the paper.

I kept telling [Times editor Charlotte Curtis] that The Times simply is not in a position to let me write what I want to write and that as for magazine writing, if it comes to that, I will work for a magazine I like and not one that I don't even read, TheTimes's own [weekly].