David Halberstam, a great reporter and a great author, died in a car crash yesterday. After graduating from Harvard in 1955, he came South to cover the growing civil rights movement in Mississippi. That job didn’t work out, so he came to Tennessee. Here is his version of the story, given in a speech in 2005 upon receiving the Columbia Journalism Award:
“I went from there to four years on the Nashville Tennessean – probably the best and most aggressive paper in the South in the Civil Rights Days – where I was taught by very good people. (With all due respect to the faculty, in the end, journalists mostly teach each other.) Every night I would go out to dinner with member of a great staff of an embattled newspaper. Each night was like a great seminar in journalism; I could listen to them talk about what they had done that day, how they had put their stories together. I was a human sponge.
“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.)
“I learned how to work a story, how to talk to ordinary people, and what a joy doing legwork was. I learned the best question of all for any interview: “Who else should I see?” To this day, the back cover of my notebooks is covered with lists of names of people to see.
“I learned that the more legwork you do, inevitably the better the writing seems because you have more details, more anecdotes, and more authority. And I learned that the great fun of journalism was talking to people, that it was where you kept learning. What a marvelous way to grow intellectually!
“So when The New York Times called in 1960, I was ready.”
That’s an understatement. Here is the Tennessean’s piece on him.
Photo by Yann Nicolas