An appreciation of former Monitor Editor John Hughes

John Hughes interviews two Vietnamese villagers during the height of the war in South Vietnam. During his career at The Christian Science Monitor he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Indonesia, and went on to become the paper's editor.

John Hughes, a journalistic force of nature who loved the Monitor deeply and served it with distinction both as a foreign correspondent and as editor, died on Wednesday.

Beyond the Monitor, Mr. Hughes is known for his accomplishments and for the breadth of his remarkable career. He won the Pulitzer Prize, worked as editor of the Deseret News, and took up a prominent role in the Reagan administration, serving as assistant secretary of state for public affairs under George Shultz, as well as the director of Voice of America.

Within the Monitor, he is remembered as one of its most influential and respected editors – a man of decency, hard work, and a deep commitment to the principles upon which the Monitor was founded.

Why We Wrote This

Former Monitor Editor John Hughes lived principles upon which the Monitor was founded – a love for the world he reported on, and a conviction of its enduring hope and humanity.

“He’s loved the world he’s covered … engaged, expectant of progress, and understanding of human challenges though never discouraged by them,” said John Yemma, a former Monitor editor, introducing Mr. Hughes at an event for the Mary Baker Eddy Library in 2014. 

Mr. Hughes won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting on the attempted Communist coup in Indonesia in 1965 and the purge that followed. Cut off from the outside world, he delivered his stories to his editors by giving copies to strangers at the airport, asking them to take the dispatch to a wire office after they landed. “Human pigeons,” he called them. Through them, at least one copy of each report made it to Boston.

He served six years as the Monitor’s Africa correspondent in Johannesburg and another six years as Far Eastern correspondent based in Hong Kong. These tours included more than 20 reporting trips to Vietnam during the war as well as coverage of the bloody collapse of the Belgian Congo.

Danger was a constant in his reporting. After one interview with the president of Congo, Mr. Hughes remarked to an aide that there was a wet spot on the carpet. The aide responded that the president had shot and killed a man and the aides had just finished cleaning up. In Indonesia, he was once set upon by a mob led by someone shouting, “There’s an American. Let’s kill him.”

As editor from 1970 to 1979, Mr. Hughes was an imposing newsroom presence. Early every morning he would stride through the newsroom, clad as always in an impeccable blue suit, carrying a briefcase rumored to be made out of elephant hide.

Peter Grier, a junior staffer at the time, notes that at a time when all men at the Monitor wore suits, “his seemed just a shade darker.” Late delivery of the editor’s morning newspaper would come with “just enough of a trickle of ice to ruin your day.”

By the time most staff members arrived at their desks, Mr. Hughes had already devoured the paper. If a reporter was fortunate, he would find a page from that day’s paper on his desk with the editor’s praise scrawled in red china marker. Mr. Hughes also communicated with bracing clarity in a monthly staff newsletter with praise for what staff members had done well and very pointed comments about where coverage of a staffer’s beat had fallen short.

“What I saw was a man who held nothing back and said what he thought,” says Robert Hey, a senior editor at the Monitor near the end of Mr. Hughes’ stint as editor.

Longtime Monitor production manager David Stormont told of once upbraiding Mr. Hughes for not being very nice in some editorial encounter. Legend has it that Mr. Hughes responded, “being nice is Earl’s job,” referring to managing editor Earl Foell, widely loved for being the newsroom’s dispenser of balm.

But Mr. Hughes also had a gregarious and sometimes playful side. An avid dog lover, he would sometimes chat with Mr. Foell about what breed individual staffers resembled. Young staffers who behaved like golden retrievers were favored.

“We would often hear great laughter coming from the editor-in-chief’s office,” says Mr. Hey.

He recalls the time that Mr. Hughes encountered a frantic staffer on his hands and knees in the editor’s office, desperately trying to get out a stain he had made on the editor’s Oriental carpet.

“He laughed and laughed,” Mr. Hey says. “Lots of people would have been annoyed. John was far from annoyed.”

A brilliant Welshman who later became an American citizen, Mr. Hughes was elected president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors during his time as editor. He oversaw eventful times in the news and in the newspaper industry. On June 29, 1971, the Monitor followed The New York Times and The Washington Post in printing portions of the Pentagon Papers, a hitherto top-secret study of United States policy in Vietnam.

Securing those documents was very much in keeping with his view that the Monitor should consider larger papers in New York and Washington as peers with which the staff should compete. Asked by the Justice Department not to publish, Mr. Hughes told officials that he “declined to accede” to the request.

Beginning in July 1976, Mr. Hughes also served as manager of The Christian Science Publishing Society, in effect having responsibility for both the Monitor’s content and its business operations. He left the posts in 1979 to head his own newspaper company in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.

Mr. Hughes went on to a distinguished career in public service. He and Secretary of State Shultz were a perfect match, says Mr. Grier, now a senior Washington writer for the Monitor.

“He would not say a word more than needed to be said, and he could convey a sense of seriousness by just sitting still,” he says. 

Mr. Hughes later taught at Brigham Young University and served as editor of the Deseret News, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But his love of the Monitor was palpable, and he stayed connected to it. For many years he wrote a column for the Monitor’s editorial page and for a period after his State Department service ran the Monitor’s radio activities.

“He believed in a combination of hard work and deriving pleasure from it,” says Mr. Hey.

“I’ve always really admired the arc of his career,” says Mr. Yemma. “He did the job and got the story, then went on from strength to strength.”

“He was a strong individual with integrity,” he adds. “And he stayed with that his whole life.”

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