The Magazine

David Halberstam, Debates, and more.

The media loses another debate.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Romance of Halberstam

The accidental death of David Halberstam, onetime war correspondent and author of The Best and the Brightest (1972), has inspired the sort of mournful, sometimes impassioned, obituary language reserved for deceased journalists. THE SCRAPBOOK, in its wisdom, looks upon this as a form of professional courtesy: Only among journalists, after all, is the death of a journalist a national calamity.

Yet Halberstam's demise has yielded an unexpected chief mourner: Democratic foreign policy guru Richard Holbrooke, who first met Halberstam in 1963 when Holbrooke was a Foreign Service officer in Saigon. Holbrooke wrote an op-ed memoir in the Washington Post about Halberstam's Vietnam reporting ("In long overpowering sentences, he conveyed deep anger and a sense of betrayal") and recounted what he must have assumed was a charming story about Halberstam and fellow journalist Neil Sheehan who, in Holbrooke's word, "despised" the senior U.S. commander in South Vietnam, Gen. Paul Harkins. "After some wine," wrote Holbrooke, "they conducted a mock trial of the four-star general for incompetence and dereliction of duty. In his rumbling, powerful voice, David pronounced Harkins 'guilty' of each charge, after which Neil loudly carried out the 'sentence': execution by imaginary firing squad against the back wall of the restaurant."

Next, Holbrooke turned up in a brief Halberstam essay by George Packer in the New Yorker. Once again, Halberstam's dyspepsia was front and center: He felt a "personal, vengeful rage" against American officialdom in South Vietnam, according to Packer, and at a Fourth of July party at the ambassador's residence in Saigon--THE SCRAPBOOK could see this coming--"refused to shake hands with General Paul Harkins." Then Holbrooke made an interesting observation: "David changed war reporting forever," he said to Packer. "He made it not only possible but even romantic to write that your own side was misleading the public about how the war was going."

From THE SCRAPBOOK's perspective, this was one of those unintentionally revealing moments, for not only did Holbrooke capture the essence of the Halberstam mythology in one sentence, but he diagnosed everything that has gone wrong with American war journalism in the half-century since Halberstam and Neil Sheehan passed through Saigon.

Of course, it was always possible for American journalists to write critically about their "own side" in wartime--even George Washington had his detractors--but until Halberstam (and others) it was not considered "romantic." Now, alas, such pathology in journalism is not just pertinent to careers, but obligatory for success. It certainly explains the determination of the media to concentrate on failure, to marshal its facts in support of ideology, and to regard its "own side" with suspicion and hostility, no matter the circumstances. As legacies go, David Halberstam's is mixed: "Romantic" it may be--but highly destructive, too.

Debating the Moderators

THE SCRAPBOOK can't tell you who won the first Democratic and Republican presidential debates--truth be told, we're not convinced debates matter at all--but we can say who lost: the media. Faced with two 90-minute windows in which to showcase no less than 18 presidential contenders, the producers at MSNBC opted for the most confusing, superficial, and pretentious format possible.

First, to go along with the many candidates, there were needless multiple moderators--two for the Democrats (Brian Williams and David Stanton) and three for the Republicans (Chris Matthews, John Harris, and Jim VandeHei). Then there were the silly "Show of Hands . . ." questions, in which the moderators asked candidates to raise a hand if "you believe there is such a thing as a global war on terror" or do "not agree--believe--in evolution." But the cameras never showed clearly which candidates raised their hands and which did not.

There were the absurd time restrictions, in which candidates had to tell America how they would win--or lose, as the case may be--in Iraq and extend health care insurance to every American, whether they like it or not, in 60 seconds or less. And there were the Trivial Pursuit questions, as in Jim Vandehei's demand that Rudy Giuliani explain "the difference between a Sunni and Shia Muslim"--the complex details of which have about the same importance to U.S. foreign policy as the difference between a Methodist and a Lutheran. Giuliani answered correctly, incidentally--no doubt to the chagrin of everyone who thinks conservatives are the "stupid party." Speaking of which, maybe next time Vandehei can ask Barack Obama who coined that phrase. We won't hold our breath, however.