Harding changes Halberstam's course

April 12, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

David Halberstam had been planning to speak about the 1950s for the Frank R. Kent Memorial Lecture at Johns Hopkins University tonight. But Tonya Harding changed his mind.

Rather, it was the media's overheated coverage of the Olympic skater's trials and tribulations that got him concerned -- along with what he sees as the increasing tendency of the press to concentrate on the trivial at the expense of the important.

So he's shelved his original topic, "The Fifties -- Then and Now," in favor of a speech that will pointedly criticize much of modern journalism, he said in a phone conversation from his New York home.

"Look at the Tonya Harding situation," said Mr. Halberstam, 60, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times who went on to write several best-selling nonfiction books, including last year's "The Fifties." "[NBC news anchor] Connie Chung spent 10 days with her in Portland. Ten days! Could you imagine Edward R. Murrow, or Walter Cronkite, or Huntley and Brinkley doing that?"

The incredulity was apparent in his voice; the seasoned former war correspondent and civil rights reporter in Mississippi and Tennessee could not fathom why his chosen profession had gone bonkers over a figure skater.

"It's a rather melancholy thing when I think about it," he conceded. "Journalism is becoming less about what people need to know and more about what people want to know."

The problem, as he sees it, is television today, with its emphasis on fluff and snazz. "The values of print journalism have not held," Mr. Halberstam lamented. "They've become less and less important. Print stories aren't as volatile; they're more substantive. Print knows how to cover, for instance, the economic rise of Japan. Television doesn't."

Halberstam is also concerned that journalists aren't acting very nice these days. As an example, he pointed out the recent confrontation between Jim Rome, an ESPN2 talk-show host, and former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jim Everett. Mr. Rome questioned the quarterback's toughness on the air by calling him "Chris" -- as in women's tennis star Chris Evert -- and Mr. Everett responded by shoving him to the floor.

Mr. Halberstam was known as a blunt, aggressive reporter during his days with the Times in the 1960s; President Kennedy even asked the paper to remove him from his Vietnam assignment because of his reporting.

"Of course we were combative," Mr. Halberstam said last year in an interview with The Sun, referring to himself, Peter Arnett and other reporters who got into trouble for writing Vietnam stories that questioned American goals and accomplishments.

But, he added last week, "We never sat there and tried to make fun of officials publicly. That sort of taunting, like the fellow on ESPN did, is completely unacceptable. It makes those of us in Vietnam look like models of civility."

HALBERSTAM LECTURE

What: David Halberstam will deliver the annual Frank R. Kent Memorial Lecture.

When: Tonight at 7:30.

Where: Shriver Hall, Homewood Campus, Johns Hopkins University. Admission is free.

Information: (410) 516-7157

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