Five years ago this week, the world lost a magnificent journalist, storyteller, and historian named David Halberstam. He died as a passenger in a fluke auto accident in northern California. Fittingly, the consummate journalist was on his way to do an interview for a book.
In journalism annals, Halberstam, who was born in 1934 in New York City, was a giant. He covered the burgeoning Civil Rights movement for the smallest newspaper in Mississippi and moved on, with distinction, to The New York Times.
He always craved a chance to cover the biggest story of the day. In the early '60s, that meant going to Vietnam, which he did when John Kennedy was the United States president.
Halberstam often infuriated the Kennedy administration by writing what he saw as the truth about the early stages of the Vietnam War. In Halberstam’s view, the U.S. struggle to bring democracy to the region was not working and looked to be doomed to failure.
In those days, a reporter didn’t lightly take on the full force of the president, but Halberstam never wavered. For this accomplishment alone, Halberstam should forever be admired by journalists. He exemplified courage, which is any reporter’s greatest quality.
I was fortunate enough to have met Halberstam and interview him on several occasions, whenever one of his brilliant books about sports or culture or how we lived our lives came out. Each time, it was a thrill for me.
I marveled at Halberstam’s ability to extract the perfect anecdote out of his subject. It came as naturally to him as hitting a baseball was for Willie Mays. I often asked Halberstam to explain his process to me but he couldn’t adequately. He just did it.
Halberstam was cheerful and fun to be around. He used to greet me by saying, “How you doing, pal,” accompanied by a big smile. Halberstam never bragged about his writing or reporting accomplishments. He never had to, to impress anyone. He knew how good he was. He understood his place in media history and was comfortable with himself.
Above all, he loved a good story. When he came out with his remarkable book about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, entitled “Playing for Keeps,” he smiled and said, “Not bad for a guy my age, eh?”
Halberstam was the best, at any age. I miss him.
Jon Friedman writes the Media Web column for MarketWatch.com. Click here to read his latest column. (Friedman is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution," which Penguin will publish in August.) Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.
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