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If you like David Halberstam's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Nicholas Kristof,
David McCullough,
Ralph Nader,
Colin Powell,
Dan Rather,
Norman Schwarzkopf,
Neil Sheehan,
James Stockdale,
Michael Thornton
and Bob Woodward

David Halberstam's recommended reading: The Reason Why

David Halberstam also appears in the video:
Risk-Taking: An Ingredient for Success

Related Links:
Harvard Crimson
PBS: Reporting America at War
The New Yorker

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David Halberstam
David Halberstam
Profile of David Halberstam Biography of David Halberstam Interview with David Halberstam David Halberstam Photo Gallery

David Halberstam Interview (page: 4 / 5)

Pulitzer Prize for Journalism

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  David Halberstam

If young people reading this interview want to be journalists, what would you tell them are the most important characteristics for success in this field?

David Halberstam: I think, in any profession, you start out with character, critically. Which translates to being an honorable person, an ethical person.

I remember very early on in Vietnam, it's a small thing, but we all wore fatigues. Therefore, we would get on a helicopter and go out, and I wanted it very clear, if someone saw me on a helicopter in fatigues, I wanted them to know damn well that I was a reporter. I didn't want someone talking to me -- "My God, I didn't know I was talking to a reporter!" So I went and had made up a strip of names -- and all the others finally followed -- that said "Halberstam, New York Times." They knew they were talking to a reporter.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

David Halberstam Interview Photo
So I think you start out with a sense of ethics. I think you have to be curious about what is going on around you. I think you have to have an analytical mind. I think you have to hunger for things. You have to be willing to pay a price. I had been managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. When I graduated from college, the conventional thing for me to do -- it would have been easy -- would have been to get a job on The New York Times or The Washington Post, but as a copy boy or a menial job. And I said I want to really do it. I knew I needed to be better. I didn't want to just be a reporter. I wanted to be a great reporter. I knew I could be better. I needed to learn how to talk to people, to interview people, to get a feel of the story. I knew that I could write quickly, and I knew I could define a story, and I knew I had other qualities, but I knew I had to expand my ability to work a story, to talk to people. So...

Instead of going to New York or Washington or something like that, the gilded path -- and I was credentialed -- I went and worked on the smallest daily in Mississippi. It's a year after Brown v. Board of Education. I thought if you are going to do an apprenticeship, do it in the South, that's where the story is. And I worked with great reporters on a very important story, and I learned how to cover it, how to put yourself at risk, what the ethics were. I sat there, and I absorbed. If I had been a young reporter going to New York, I would have been one of 30 guys out of an Ivy League school going to a paper where all the senior reporters didn't have time to talk to you. By being the one guy like me going to Mississippi and then to Nashville, that was a great graduate school! I was working on a paper in Nashville that had more good reporters, more tough-minded people, and I was the only guy who, every night at dinner, when we would go out to dinner, just inhaled everything, made them go through what they'd done each day. It was a great, great graduate school for me.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

But in doing that, I gave up my life for four or five years. In other words, I didn't go where my friends went. I didn't go on a fellowship. I didn't go to New York or Washington or Boston.

I went where I knew no one, and I put myself at risk in that sense. I gave up the pleasures of my life for four or five years, knowing that I wanted to have this apprenticeship. And it worked very well for me, because in 1960, November, when I joined The New York Times -- five and a half years after graduation from college -- when I joined the Times, I was really a good reporter. I not only was a good reporter. I had utter confidence in my ability. I had done it. I had been in the toughest story in America, the civil rights story. I had been out in dangerous things, and I'd covered it, and I had an inner toughness of mind that I knew worked for me. So I was absolutely sure of my abilities, and when the Times very quickly sent me overseas, first to the Congo and Vietnam, I did not doubt my ability. I was really trained. I was young, but I was a very professional, skilled, experienced young reporter.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

So I think one of the things you have to ask yourself is, "How badly do you want it? What price are you willing to pay? How do you complete your education?" All of these. My career is a very nice one, because it is a stair step: Harvard Crimson, small paper in Mississippi for a year, four years on a good paper in Nashville, then The New York Times, and then overseas. And at every increment, I am very well prepared and very confident and very independent. If someone tries to bully me either from within the paper or a news source, I am immune to bullying.

Is that important?

David Halberstam: I think so.

I went out and I tried to have this career where I would learn how to do the apprenticeship, to be better, to figure out what my weaknesses as a journalist were, doing legwork or whatever, make myself better, bring that up to speed. I did that very deliberately, and then once I had done that, I really was confident, and I was always willing to bet on myself. I had an inner confidence which I would want anybody young going in to have. Don't go out there soft. Don't go out there unsure. Before you take on a really good assignment, go out and do a real apprenticeship and know that this is what you want. I mean, it is not for everyone. It is a very tough profession. It's demanding. You have to give up a normality of existence. I mean, you work weird hours, but it's very rewarding because you're paid to learn. I have been out of college almost 40 years, and even now when I do a book, each book is a university. I end up, intellectually, being able to grow constantly.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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