Wednesday, April 25, 2007

David Halberstam, 1934-2007

David Halberstam was a brilliant reporter, of course, the author of the vitally important history of the Vietnam War The Best and the Brightest, but he was also an illustration of what I think is an important principle about journalism that most people don't reckon with: Journalism is composed of two related but distinct skills, reporting (and within reporting there is not only the collection of facts but the selection of the most telling of the facts once they have been collected) and writing, and there are very few journalists who are excellent at both. Of the two, it is far more important to have superior reporting skills, because if you don't have anything to say, it won't much matter how well you say it.

That's why Halberstam, who was an A-plus reporter but a C-minus writer, could still come off as a top-level journalist. The Powers That Be, his somewhat ungainly epic on the development of the Washington Post, Time magazine, CBS News, and the Los Angeles Times, had more run-on sentences in each of its paragraphs than this blog has had in its entire history, and I go out of my way to write the longest possible sentences I can until they collapse of their own weight; the difference is that I know when one tips into the realm of the run-on sentence, and Halberstam clearly did not.

To be fair, I skipped over the chapters of the book on the Los Angeles Times, because who cares about the Los Angeles Times? Maybe those chapters were more briskly written.


Anonymous said...

If Halberstam was a C-minus writer you are an A-plus blowhard. What a goon, even comparing yourself to the author of a dozen best-sellers.

Wayne Savage said...

You don't have to be a world-class journalist to realize that Halberstam's writing suffered from a perplexing and pervasive glut of run-on sentences. I'm immersed in The Powers That Be right now, and the many run-on sentences are a huge distraction from what he had to say. Where was his editor?!!!