They're making it easy for us," says writer David Halberstam of TV journalists. Notes of distaste and exasperation hang in his voice. "They don't do much reporting. With all their resources, you'd think they'd be making it more difficult for us."
The "us" refers to print journalists and authors -- people such as Halberstam, who will talk at Rollins College on Jan. 14. "Television wants stars and celebrities, who will only give you the time if you don't interview anybody else," he explains. "You get this very bland, antiseptic, celebrity-approved journalism. I think it's disgraceful."
Nothing about Halberstam's work is antiseptic. Nothing is trivial, nothing glamorous. He began as a reporter in the South in the late '50s, wrote about Nashville's civil-rights sit-ins during the '60s and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his Vietnam reports. His book "The Fifties" (1993), which was adapted for the History Channel this year, covers the social climate of a pivotal American decade. "The Children" (1998) captures the passion of the young civil-rights fighters. So why is the subject of his next book mega-celebrity Michael Jordan?
"It's a great story, and he's the greatest athlete I've seen," says Halberstam. "When I was young the signature athletes were white baseball players." Jordan and his peers are today's benchmark athletes, thanks in large part to that image-obsessed medium, television. Basketball has nudged its way onto our national-identity platform right next to baseball, which "has had some trouble with the pace and expectations of what an entertainment society can deliver," Halberstam says. But basketball's ascendancy signals other changes. "Michael reflects in this society that there's a new definition of beauty. There used to be the belief on Madison Avenue that [black athletes] could not get endorsements."
McDonald's, Hanes, BallPark Franks and, of course, Nike -- we all know the story with endorsements these days. Even Jordan has been criticized for being too indiscriminant with his image. He is strikingly apolitical, vehemently uncontroversial -- in many ways as antiseptic as the TV journalism that Halberstam decries. When Jordan pulled back a few years ago from funding a black cultural center at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, many were dismayed. Halberstam's take? "Why can't he give his money to whoever he wants?"
For the book, Halberstam countered the players' rehearsed responses by interviewing widely. "If you think any VIP will open the door and give you what you want, you're wrong. That's precisely the surface definition," he concludes, "that makes television reporting so shallow."