David Halberstam, one of the most well-respected and influential journalists of the 20th century, died on April 23. He was 73.
Mr. Halberstam was best known for his reporting on the Vietnam War for the New York Times, as well as the extraordinarily well-received books he wrote, including The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be.
Having won the Pulizter Prize at 30 for his coverage of the Vietnam War, Mr. Halberstam solidified his place in the generation of young and talented war correspondents who helped change the public’s perception of American involvement in theconflict.
"He was one of the truly colossal figures of the second half of the 20th century," said Charles Fountain, Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. "His work at the Times set the stage for war coverage, and it changed the entire dynamic of wartime correspondence."
Mr. Halberstam was killed in a car accident in Mountain View, Calif., while on the way to interview former NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle for his book, The Game. He had been in the Bay Area the previous weekend to attend an event at UC Berkeley.
The loss of David Halberstam is a tragedy that has resonated far and wide within the realm of journalism. He has a lasting influence as both a courageous, truth-seeking reporter and as a thoughtful, prolific writer
"He really had two enormous legacies," said Fountain. "If he hadn’t done his work for the New York Times, then he would have been remembered for his books; and if he hadn’t written his books, then he’d have been remembered for his war correspondence."
Halberstam was born on April 10, 1934, in New York City to an Army Surgeon, Charles Halberstam and a schoolteacher, Blanche Levy Halberstam. He spent most of his youth in Westchester County, N.Y., and graduated from Harvard in 1955. While at Harvard, Mr. Halberstam realized his journalistic calling as the Managing Editor of the school newspaper, “The Crimson.”
Upon graduating, he moved to the south, where he began covering the already brewing civil-rights situation for The West Point Daily Times Leader in West Point, Miss., then at The Nashville Tennessean.
He joined the staff of the New York Times in 1960, first at the Washington Bureau, then as a foreign correspondent in the Congo. It wasn’t until his assignment in South Vietnam in 1962, however, when he dropped his marker in the journalistic concrete and put his name on the map.
While in Vietnam, Mr. Halberstam helped to uncover the hidden truths of the ultimately unwinnable war: that the South Vietnamese government was failing, and that U.S. commanders were lying about it. Mr. Halberstam was among the first to publicize the massive missteps of the war, and as a result, President John F. Kennedy himself unsuccessfully asked then-publisher of the “Times,” Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, to fire Halberstam.
After leaving the Times in the late 1960s, Mr. Halberstam moved on to writing books on various topics: war, government, sports and culture. Among his most highly regarded books are The Best and the Brightest, a consideration of the paradox of a highly educated U.S. leadership and its catastrophic mistakes in Vietnam; and The Powers That Be, and in-depth examination of modern journalism’s various institutions and figureheads.
He will most likely be remembered as an unstoppable force of cultural and political criticism, as well as for the arduous work he put into every assignment and book.
"He will absolutely be remembered as one of the giants of journalism," said Dan Kennedy, Visiting Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University, "and he became a giant strictly through hard work."
Because of the amount of books he published , coupled with his naturally persevering work ethic, the real tragedy is in the potential work he could have still accomplished in the years to come, according to Kennedy.
"It’s very sad especially because he was still very much a working journalist," he said. "It’s sad to think about all the work that he will not do."
Mr. Halberstam is survived by his wife, Jean, and his daughter, Julia, both of New York.