“Never Let Them Intimidate You”

The prolific journalist David Halberstam, whose 1979 book The Powers That Be remains one of most significant accounts of the world inside the nation's most powerful media companies and who covered everything from the civil-rights movement to the war in Vietnam, was the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's commencement speaker. Below is an excerpt from his address:

One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.)

I learned how to work a story, how to talk to ordinary people, and what a joy doing legwork was. I learned the best question of all for any interview: “Who else should I see?” To this day, the back cover of my notebooks is covered with lists of names of people to see.

I learned that the more legwork you do, inevitably the better the writing seems because you have more details, more anecdotes, and more authority. And I learned that the great fun of journalism was talking to people, that it was where you kept learning. What a marvelous way to grow intellectually!

So when The New York Times called in 1960, I was ready. The “apprenticeship” [at other papers] was over, and six months later, I was in the Congo, which was the big foreign story that year, and a year later in Vietnam in time to be in on the beginning of that tragic war. I was well-trained—I had made myself into a professional and had done it, in no small part, not so much by trying to reinforce my strengths as most people do, but by trying to eliminate my weaknesses.

There are a few things I would like to pass on to you as I come near to the end of my career.

One: It's not about fame. By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are. Besides, fame does not last. At its best, it is about being paid to learn. For 50 years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge. What a rare chance to grow as a person.

Nor for that matter, is it about prizes or awards, although these are very nice. Rather, the richness of the profession—and it has been an uncommonly rich life for me—has been in the wonderful collegial friendships I have.

I have been enhanced by the profession over all these years: It has given me far greater faith in democracy than I had when I began, and faith in the nobility of ordinary people, the belief that, in the worst of times, someone will always tell the truth.

I want to leave you today with one bit of advice: Never, never, never let them intimidate you. People are always going to try in all kinds of ways. Sheriffs, generals, presidents of universities, presidents of countries, secretaries of defense. Don't let them do it.