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October 4, 1973

Authors and journalists David Halberstam and Frances Fitzgerald spoke on a panel about “Vietnam in Retrospect: What Lessons for Journalism?” Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) and Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake (1972)—winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—were among the earliest and most critical studies of the war in Vietnam.

Speaking under the auspices of the Poynter Committee of the Changing American Culture Program, both writers expressed concern about the function and future of the press. “A reporter,” said Halberstam, who reported on the Vietnam war for The New York Times, “cannot be better than the community in which he performs…he is linked to his paper and must obey the paper’s dictums.” He was, he said, frequently on the verge of being withdrawn from Vietnam for “overstepping his rights as a reporter. A journalist easily becomes the defender of his material.”

Ms. Fitzgerald, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Revew of Books, said that both press and television—the first such of an American war—were managed to avoid both grisly scenes and the portrayal of Vietnamese civilians. “An axiom,” she said, “of American journalism is that the question produces the answer, and reporters, in some sense, find only what they want to find. The indiviual reporter defines th importance of an event, having the power of selection.”

The sponsors of the Poynter Program were Marion Knauss Poynter ’46 and her husband, Nelson Poynter, the publisher of The St. Petersburg Times and co-founder of The Congressional Quarterly. In 1975 they founded the Modern Media Institute, a school and center for the study of journalism in St. Petersburg. The institute became The Poynter Institute of Media Studies in 1984.

The Years