There’s an old maxim in journalism: Get it first, but get it right. The best reporters are competitive, energetic, and insistent to the point of being pushy. They must also be accurate, careful, and balanced in their storytelling.
There’s a corollary, however, that is just as important as getting it first and getting it right: Get it out. It does little good to be an eyewitness to history and to quickly and carefully craft a narrative if nobody is reading (or watching or listening).
Over the years, foreign correspondents, in particular, have had to master the art of getting the story out – by carrier pigeon, by dodgy telex machine, by fiddling with a primitive computer, and more recently by rigging a satellite dish.
The instant-access world of today has pretty much eliminated that problem, but it was once such a common concern that it was satirized by Evelyn Waugh in his great novel on foreign correspondency, “Scoop.”
A clueless press lord recalled hearing that a star reporter had somehow used cleft sticks (go figure) to get his dispatches out of Africa. His sage advice to an equally clueless young reporter: “Take plenty.”
This is all by way of introducing “Paper Boy to Pulitzer: A Newsman’s Journey,” memoirs of the long, distinguished career of John Hughes. His résumé alone is worth a column. The highlights: editor of the Monitor, State Department spokesman, publisher of a string of Cape Cod newspapers, head of Voice of America, editor of the Deseret News, journalism professor. One of his most celebrated accomplishments – the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize – involved an ingenious way of getting the story out.
Sent to Indonesia in 1965, Mr. Hughes had gripping stories to tell about an attempted communist coup and a violent purge that followed. The Vietnam War was in full swing. Worries were widespread that other countries would fall like dominoes. Horrendous massacres were under way. But telecommunications were cut off. The story couldn’t be told.
Hughes and his colleagues noticed that foreigners were thronging the airports to escape. They wrote their reports, made multiple copies, and handed them to outbound travelers in the hopes that they would drop them at a Cable and Wireless office when they landed. Most did. The world learned what was really happening in Indonesia.
Hughes’s book is packed with vivid recollections – from the Nazi blitz of Britain he experienced as a child to his first job as a reporter in apartheid-era South Africa, from the chaotic last days of Belgian rule in Congo to Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis.
And that’s not the half of it (besides reading his book, a video of a book reading and conversation with him is posted here). Here is a great editor who clearly relished the drama – and, well, yes, the fun – of covering the world as a reporter. “A good journalist,” he says, “never has a dull day.”
John Hughes got the story, got it right, and got it out. He could probably have made a cleft stick work in a pinch.
John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.