When New York Times columnist Bob Herbert started at The New York Daily News in 1976, he said, no one at the mostly white, mostly male office would assign him stories.
“The women who were there could only cover ‘women’s stories,’” he told the more than 60 people crammed into every available space in Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway’s living room. “During elections, women covered candidates’ wives. I was black, so I covered nothing.”
From describing the newsrooms of yore to discussing his views on the war in Iraq, Herbert was nothing if not to the point at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea on Monday afternoon. During his talk, Herbert, who writes about politic, urban affairs and American culture for the Times, explained how he has approached writing about recent controversies and spoke about the media’s uneven record covering easily sensationalized issues such as race.
Herbert said several times that the United States should never have begun the Iraq war, much less continue in it now. Because of the lack of a draft or fiscal ramifications for those on the home front, Herbert said, most Americans have no conception of the true horrors of the war.
“We’re putting the war on a credit card,” Herbert said. “There’s all this talk about families, but we’re laying a huge unwarranted burden on the next generation and the generation after that.”
Another topic Herbert said has come up frequently in his columns is society’s willingness to tolerate a fairly high level of racism and sexism before finally responding with outrage.
This could be seen, he said, in the recent uproar over Don Imus’s comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team and over the Duke lacrosse incident. Herbert said race and sex are often used in stories as a source of shock value, which makes it more difficult to understand the real forces shaping a situation.
Herbert said that unlike many other journalists, he has tried not to get caught up in the sensational aspects of stories like the 1987 Tawana Brawley rape accusation and the Duke lacrosse case. That some reporters have been unwilling to scrutinize these sorts of situations closely enough has become a serious problem with journalism, he said.
“The quality of journalism is much better today,” he said. “But I don’t think we put [information] in the proper context always, and I don’t think we asked enough questions. … What I’m hoping is that the next generation can build on the base that we created and will raise the quality of journalism to a degree beyond what we have now.”
Taylor LaFlam ’09 said he appreciated the look into the thought process of an investigative columnist.
“I think the talk was all the more powerful because Herbert discussed the broader role of the columnist and the need to simultaneously investigate carefully in order to get to the truth, but at the same time emphasize what you think is important in the situation,” he said.
Jessica Becker ’09 said that she was also impressed by Herbert’s tempered approach to his analysis, but that she was slightly disheartened to hear him discourage would-be activists from counting on the media to accomplish their goals.
“It’s kind of disappointing that it isn’t so easy to translate words into action,” she said.
Herbert’s journalistic career began in 1970 at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Following his time at The Daily News, he worked as a national correspondent for NBC from 1991 to 1993, at which point he came to The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist.