Authentic Heroes

David Halberstam

     ... is one of America's preeminent journalist. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his early reports from Vietnam, written for The New York Times. His book, The Best and the Brightest, was the first of 10 successive best-sellers. A graduate of Harvard, Mr. Halberstam's first big story was about the great citizen revolution, America's Civil Rights Movement, which he covered for The Nashville Tennessean. He and his family lived in New York City until his untimely death in April, 2007.


We've become an entertainment society, David Halberstam believes. That makes the difference between what's authentic and phony more important than the difference between liberal and conservative in today's world. Halberstam's confident that the common sense and good judgment of ordinary Americans will outlast the celebrity and hype which have invaded our media and threaten our journalism.

David Halberstam remains authentic in the face of his own considerable celebrity. The Best and The Brightest was the first of his ten best-selling books over more than 30 years. Mr. Halberstam's first big prize was the Pulitzer in 1964, which he earned for stories he wrote about Vietnam for The New York Times. But his first big story was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 60's, which he covered as a young reporter for The Nashville Tennessean. Halberstam tells the stories of the young Nashville students who were The Movement's infantry in his book, The Children. He presents authentic American heroes and heroines, young people who changed America.

David Halberstam believes it was a community of conscience that ended the last vestiges of legal feudalism in this society. Young John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel, together with their teacher, Rev. Jim Lawson and others, secret heroes, did not wait for a charismatic leader, though they welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he appeared. They followed their own urgent need to right the wrongs of segregation, their passionate desire for justice and their own deep, abiding religious faith. The result was a shining moment for democracy.

Halberstam is confident we'll solve our many, very real problems, including erosion of the integrity of our media and the unfinished business which slavery engendered. Our society begets itself, according to him. His most powerful example is those frail young people in Nashville. With their allies and colleagues, these students lured the beast of segregation out of it's lair, repeatedly risking their lives to make America better. And they triumphed.

Halberstam does not condone the excesses he sees in America today. He reminds us we still have a dark scar left from slavery. He criticizes the media for walking away from their obligation to balance what people want to know with what we need to know, in favor of rating points. But Halberstam's own faith remains unshaken -- the truth will out, ordinary people's common sense will moderate us, we'll chose the authentic when a choice is required. He's reported on real Americans doing just that for over 40 years. Turns out, democracy is still quite a revolutionary idea.

[This Program was recorded April 2, 1998 in Atlanta, Georgia,]

Conversation 1

David Halberstam tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how he started out as a political reporter, then became more interested in the many other forces shaping America. He describes his interest in the rise of our entertainment society, particularly as it is driven by television. He explains why the worst thing he can imagine is covering a contemporary political campaign, using Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton as examples.



Conversation 2

Halberstam compares the Calvinist America in which he grew up to the current society, driven by a monstrously powerful amplifier of material wishes -- television. He characterizes how we now connect entertainment and journalism, which he believes now is driven by ratings. He laments the loss of a sense of obligation to balance what people want to know with what they need to know. He gives examples of why he thinks this is a melancholy time in the media.


Conversation 3

Mr. Halberstam says why he finds most celebrities and the people interviewing them "inauthentic." He gives a number of examples of such individuals. He descries the real issues of today's society and people he believes are authentic, many of whom appear in his book about America's Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Halberstam describes his idea of real heroism, using (Congressman) John Lewis as an exemplar. Halberstam suggests we look at America's young people to see who among them will also be heroic. He describes our current materialist culture and relates it to the rootlessness and emptiness from which many Americans seem to be suffering.


Conversation 4

Halberstam describes The Movement's "community of conscience." He explains why a young minister named Jim Lawson was The Movement's secret hero and describes the powerful religious faith that drove them all. Halberstam tells why the bloody march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, was the Movement's Gettysburg. He tries to imagine how today's media would cover the great stories of the 50s and 60s. Halberstam recalls offering offering a way to significantly improve TV news magazines to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes. Halberstam moves on to explain why The Civil Rights Movement was a great citizen revolution, a luminescent moment in democracy. He describes his own role both in The Movement and in telling it's story.


Conversation 5

Ordinary people led this revolution, David Halberstam tells us. Then he describes some of the individuals and their heroic actions. He credits Jim Bevel's brilliant strategy by which to lure the beast of segregation to the surface in the face of grave personal dangers. Halberstam pays tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but what brought The Movement together was not a charismatic leader. It was an urgent societal need and an abiding faith. He suggests how this insight should guide us now.After recounting the great events in America since the 1930's, Halberstam tells us why he continues to have faith in America.


Conversation 6

Halberstam believes this society begets itself and gives examples of how that happened during the Civil Rights Movement, one person at a time. He expresses his faith in the democratic process, in common sense, and in ordinary fellow citizens, in spite of the excesses he's seen in his 40-plus years as a reporter. The truth gets out, he believes, affirming ordinary people's common sense which Halberstam believes moderates us. He describes how distinctions between liberal and conservative have been replaced by the distinction between authentic and inauthentic. He reaffirms both his concerns and his essential optimism.



David Halberstam stands as an icon for what journalism should and must be in a democracy. A consummate journalist, professional and honest reporter, Mr. Halberstam had an unwavering commitment to freedom, democracy and the role the media should play in defending both.

He uncovered the truth when politicians hid it, spoke out against oppression when the status quo defended it, championed the best in all of us when we have been tempted by the lesser gods of mediocrity and half-truths. Mr. Halberstam personified what journalism is supposed to be.

David Halberstam embodied the critical voice America's media has all but lost, to its shame and our peril. It was painfully too soon that he left it to us to pick up the burden he carried so valiantly. We are honored to have been in his presence, reminded by his death of the duty every one of us in a democracy has to speak up and speak out, especially when those who would rule us object. Rest in Peace, David. You were what the Best and the Brightest are supposed to be.

We recorded our conversation in the Library of The Commerce Club in Atlanta. We appreciate their unwavering high standard of service.

Related Links:

David Halberstam's The Children is published by Random House.

We shared our immediate response to Mr. Halberstams death, and our respects, in two posts to The Huffington Post: "Beacon in a Dark Domain" and "Where did the News Go?"

Neal Gabler has written extensively, thoughtfully and imaginatively on America's "entertainment culture."

Bonnie Anderson describes the effects of money and an entertainment mindset on television news as "infotainment."  She does not mean that as a compliment.

As the Annals of Media editor for The New Yorker, Ken Auletta over the years has written with thoughtfulness and insight about American media.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gay Talese said of Mr. Halberstam "If Halberstam reported something, you could believe it. There was never any doubt in a serious reader's mind."  Amen.

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