For the 42nd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Mark J. Prendergast about his reporting on upheavals across Central America in the 1980s, the landfall of Hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico in 1989, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, as well as his role in the declassification of the Pentagon Papers.
Prendergast is a U.S. Army veteran and a seasoned reporter with three decades of experience at publications that include the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
This episode is sponsored by Routledge.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by Routledge, the world’s leading academic publisher in humanities and social sciences. Each year Routledge publishes thousands of books and journals serving scholars, instructors, and professional communities worldwide.
On this podcast you usually hear from authors who research the history of journalism. Today you’ll meet someone who has lived it. Mark J. Prendergast was a reporter and editor for three decades for the likes of the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.
He served in Vietnam alongside a reporter covering the conflict, and he went on to report on many of the defining events of our era: upheavals across Central America in the 1980s, the 1989 landfall of Hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and September 11th. Later, as the ombudsman for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, he wrote columns challenging the Pentagon’s limits on intellectual freedom, which were followed by the declassification of the Pentagon Papers. In this episode we review the career of a journalist who wrote the first draft of history. Mark, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Mark Prendergast: Hey, Nick. Good to be with you.
Nick Hirshon: So before we discuss your career in journalism, let’s just make a quick point of clarification here, and we discussed this before we recorded. Our listeners might be thinking that your name sounds familiar to them because they’re confusing you with two other prominent writers.
One of them is an author who actually has the exact same name as yours, Mark J. Prendergast, and he’s written a few books on Irish rock music. The other is Mark Pendergrast, who like yourself also worked as a journalist before he began writing books full time. Our listeners might know him for his book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It, and that was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. But, as the listeners just heard in the introduction to this episode, today we’re talking to the Mark J. Prendergast who worked for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Daily News, among others. So there’s your clarification on which Mark Prendergast you’re hearing from today. –
Mark Prendergast: I am me. I am me and no one else.
Nick Hirshon: [Laughs] There we go. So now that we’re past that, this is a change of pace for the podcast that I’m pretty excited about. We usually talk to authors who have written books and journal articles about the history of journalism, but we invited you here today to talk about the history that you witnessed as a journalist.
And before we get into your reporting, I want to touch on your interaction with journalism even before you became a journalist. We’re releasing this podcast in 2020, which is the 50th anniversary of the US invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War in 1970, and you served in that war, which was, of course, covered extensively by the news media. First, I understand that a journalist accompanied you on a nighttime ambush patrol at one point. Can you just tell me what you remember about that?
Mark Prendergast: Yeah, sure, and also I could add to the thing about Cambodia is the unit that I served in, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, was actually one of the spearhead units for that invasion, which occurred just about a month before I came home. So it was – it was quite a time. Several months earlier, this was my first, I guess my first-ever encounter with a journalist.
We were getting ready to go out on a nighttime patrol to stake out some trails that we thought were being used by the North Vietnamese Army to infiltrate South Vietnam from Cambodia. And this was a fairly routine type of occurrence. And so about a dozen or so of us were getting ready to head out on foot and suddenly this guy showed up and he was just told to us that this is a reporter and he’s gonna be going along with us. And there wasn’t much time for introduction. The sun was setting. We had to get out and get set up before it got too late. And so he came along with us, but I don’t remember him ever talking to anybody. I mean we weren’t talking out there in the bush. It was total silence, you know, the way we operated. And he stayed with us the night.
And, you know, he didn’t have a problem or anything, and came back, and I guess he probably talked to the officer in charge of the patrol and maybe a senior NCO, but he never talked to any of us and left. And I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about. And years later I was thinking and this is just my surmise that, you know, it might have been one of those sort of toe touch, dateline things where he might have had a larger piece written and, you know, he needed to have some sort of atmospherics or color to go with it and so that’s what we provided. But the night had passed without incident, so he didn’t have any drama to write about.
Nick Hirshon: So you weren’t a journalist then and you didn’t really get to interact with this journalist too much, but you said that Vietnam may have inspired you to become a journalist in some ways. Can you talk about that?
Mark Prendergast: Yeah. I was in a hospital and the guy in the next bed said that he was gonna go down to –
this little photo lab and develop pictures, and I was like what? You develop pictures? No, you have to send them to Hawaii. And he said, “No, no.” He said, “Black and white pictures you can do yourself. They have a little photo lab here.” And so I went down and I was absolutely transfixed to see that blank sheet of white paper in a chemical tray suddenly transform itself into a photo. And at that moment I said, “This is what I want to do.” And I got myself a camera and, when I got to Germany – after Vietnam, I was sent to Germany for a year – and I really went down on photography there, developing, getting, you know, cameras, better cameras to shoot. And when I got out, I found myself in Ohio. I went to Ohio State and they had a photojournalism program there, and I was gonna go into that.
And I just, I had a bad interaction with the director of the program and I decided, no, I’m not gonna do this. So I wound up, you know, gravitating toward the writing side of the business. I still love photography. I worked my way through college. The whole time I was at Ohio State I was working practically full time in a camera store, so I was able to amass equipment, and then I also freelanced for the Associated Press and, and others while I was doing that all through college. But photography, photojournalism, first photography then photojournalism and really is what got me into journalism in the first place. And then, as I said, I just sort of drifted over to the writing side. And no regrets.
Nick Hirshon: Well, now that you’re reflecting on it as someone who saw Vietnam play out firsthand and also studied journalism, what do you make of the news coverage from that time?
Mark Prendergast: Well, –
You know there’s an old saying in the military that generals always fight the last war. And actually I think that applies to many things, not just the military, but in this context it’s that you go into the future based on what you learned in the past. So I think in Vietnam the military still was operating on a kind of World War II mindset that everybody’s in this together. If you remember in World War II, the correspondents actually wore uniforms. They were accorded the same courtesies and privileges of officers. But Vietnam was, was different. Vietnam was, you know, this took place during the ’60s, a time of great cultural upheaval in the United States. My understanding too is that, you know, a lot of the journalists in Vietnam had, –
covered the Civil Rights Movement in the South and had become very distrustful of authority, partly as a result of that experience. So the military was still thinking that the journalists were gonna be on the team, and the journalists were looking at these guys as, you know, sort of suspicious authority figures. So they were given tremendous latitude to move around the country. The military would ferry them everywhere. As I said, this one guy showed up one night with us and it was no big deal. It was like, “Oh, there’s a journalist here. He wants to go on a patrol. You know, he’s going with you.” And the military felt – and I’m not sure that it’s correct – but they felt somewhat betrayed by the nature of the coverage of the war. And 20 years later, I was covering the first Gulf War for the –
Daily News over in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and these were all people who the senior officers there, American officers, were – they’d been junior officers at the time of Vietnam. And I think a lot of them felt that a journalist couldn’t be trusted. Maybe some of them felt a little bit of a sense of payback. I don’t know. But it was a completely different atmosphere over there. You know, they wanted everybody corralled in pools. They had to submit coverage, you know, to be, quote, “reviewed,” which was really a form of censorship, I suppose. And, you know, a lot of that was attributed to the resentment that the military felt toward – the way they believed or a way that it had been passed down through the ranks anyway that of the coverage in Vietnam. And, you know, I think it’s somewhat unfair to have –
to feel that way toward journalists. But, you know, we’re just there basically to bear witness to what we see, and it was a very difficult conflict on all sides, and we saw what it did to the country, domestically.
Nick Hirshon: And lastly on Vietnam, before we move on, how do you think the coverage of that conflict influenced coverage of later ones? We’re gonna talk specifically about some of the ones that you were involved in later on, but just in general how do you think some of that coverage influenced later coverage?
Mark Prendergast: Well, I think, again, I think it’s, you know, everybody’s always looking to the past to figure out the present and the future, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s what history always teaches us. But sometimes we have to realize that, you know, what’s happening now is not a direct or a complete replication of what happened before. We need to be out there as journalists. We need to –
be witnessing these activities that are done more or less on the behalf of the public, and we’re the public’s eyes and ears for that. And there’s always a back and forth, which, you know, people say, “Well, you’re not elected. You know, who appointed you to be the hall monitor?” You know, and so, well, the – we’re in the Constitution and we’re in there for a reason, you know, a free and open, self-governing society needs, you know, comprehensive, authoritative accounts of what’s going on in the world, and certainly nothing’s much more important than war. I mean that’s a nation taking up arms against another sovereign state or a force that seeks to be or – you know, I mean that’s big stuff and journalists need to be there. And we need to be as unrestricted as we can. I mean I get it. Nobody wants to have people –
giving away troop movements and endangering lives and what have you but there’s a big gap between that and bottling people up and, you know, spoon-feeding them press releases.
Nick Hirshon: For sure, and you were there for a lot of these other great moments in journalism history, so let’s fast forward a little bit. After your service in the Army ended in 1971, you became a reporter for the News Herald in Ohio, and then starting in 1978 for the Sun Sentinel in Florida. One of the more memorable stories that you covered there was the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, which killed at least 5,000 people. You told me you recently found a copy of one of the articles online, an article that ran on the front page in late September of 1985, and it has quite the compelling lede to it. Would you mind reading us an excerpt from that lede from that story, and then we’ll talk about it on the other side?
Mark Prendergast: Yeah, sure. Eighteen feet inside the collapsed remains of the Hospital Benito Juarez, Jose Hernandez was spending his –
23rd birthday in the close company of two corpses. Outside, the young intern’s plight became a tense metaphor for the good, the bad and the ugly of the international rescue effort mounted to cope with the aftermath of last week’s twin earthquakes that left thousands dead in some 400 collapsed buildings throughout Mexico’s capital.
“The Mexican army says we are taking too long,” complained French Fire Captain Michel Romieu, one of dozens of foreign rescue specialists rushed here to help search for survivors. “They want to raze the building, and that will kill him.”
Throughout the daylight hours Sunday, while French, Swiss and American rescuers tried to reach Hernandez and keep his spirits up, Mexican military officers issued deadline after deadline to the diggers: Get him out or give it up. This building must be cleared. Each time a deadline approached, rescuers stalled them by saying Hernandez’s extrication was close at hand.
It wasn’t, and the army’s impatience was underscored several times when heavy-equipment operators were ordered to fire up their bulldozers and cranes and move toward the debris that until Thursday morning had been a 14-story hospital wing with 728 patients, doctors, nurses and an unknown number of clerical staff inside.
So this was a situation where I found myself standing in one spot for about nine hours watching this incredible drama pull out, and it was pretty much divided, linearly. On the left, Mexican volunteers mostly were digging through the rubble, and they’d work at a furious pace, and then they’d stop and listen for signs of life. And over on the right-hand side was this international corps of volunteers who’d rushed in –
from all over the globe, and they had a more almost archeological approach, you know, scraping away. And they knew they had one person in there alive, and they wanted to get him out but, you know, the army was – the authorities were arguing, you know, well, we understand that but, you know, there are dozens, or hundreds, maybe thousands of people who are trapped elsewhere, and we need to think about them, you know, as well, and that they’re trapped, and we might be able to save 50, 60 people while you’re here trying to maybe get to one. And there’s no good answer on something like that. And it was very compelling. Tom Brokaw wound up anchoring his newscast that night from a few feet away from me ’cause they were transfixed by it, and the New York Times had, I think, two reporters on the scene. And it was just one of those moments where you know, you –
really, I mean you’re there as a reporter and you’re trying to get the story, but it’s also touching some deep strands of humanity within you as you watch this whole thing play out. This wasn’t a movie or a play. This was real life and death.
Nick Hirshon: So we’re concerned here about the history of journalism, and I’m curious if you can tell me a little bit about these ledes, the way you wrote that story, for example, about the Mexico City earthquake. Have you seen trends or did you see over the course of your career trends in how a story would begin, how it would end, having a snazzy lede for some publications, having maybe a more narrative lede for others?
Mark Prendergast: Well, you know, you’re right. I mean different publications tend to favor different approaches to stories. I was very blessed, at this time in my career to work for a publication that was willing to give me latitude. Narrative journalism was in vogue –
at the time and, you know, you basically had to make a decision sometimes. Is the news nugget the most important thing, or is the story itself the most important thing? Is the event – I guess a better way to put it would be, is the event the most important thing, or is the telling of the event the most important thing? And my editor on this story and I went back and forth. And there was an additional logistical problem, and we could probably talk a little later if you want about logistics of foreign corresponding, but at this time the ability to get a story out of Mexico electronically by telephone or other means was very difficult. Remember this was before email and the internet and all that kind of stuff. So basically what I did for two or three days was –
I’d report as much as I could, and then I’d head to the airport and I’d catch a flight to south Florida, and I would file my story from south Florida, and then fly back to Mexico. And when I filed this story, the editor read through it. Very great guy, loved him, named John Chase. And he read it, but he had misgivings about this narrative approach, and his concern was that we were saving the fact that this young man was indeed saved to the end of the story, and that he wanted it up high. You know, the first, second, third graph, something like that. And I was making the argument that this one individual’s fate wasn’t the story in and of itself. It was the story of how –
he came to be the subject of so much news coverage, and that I thought the story was better told in a narrative form, which was more of a beginning, middle, end chronologically. So we went back and forth on it in this pressure cooker atmosphere of me jumping off a plane, filing the story, and then trying to get on a plane to go back. And he eventually relented and he said, “Okay, we’ll do it. We’ll do it your way.” And I thanked him for it very much, but he did have misgivings. But they put it on the front page. It got very good response both in-house and from people outside the newsroom. And so we talked about it later and he kinda chuckled about it, and I am very grateful to him for being reasonable. You know, I’ve had editors who just decide it’s my way or the highway. And, you know, he was a very reasonable man, John Chase, and I –
appreciated very much that he allowed me to tell the story that way. And I think even 30 years later looking at it, 35 years later, the form of the story, I think, still holds.
Nick Hirshon: Oh, I think the form definitely holds up, and as you were reading some of that it’s suspenseful. I think what’s especially interesting for us as journalism historians, we hear so much about the inverted pyramid style and news stacked in order of descending importance, you give away the most important part of the story in the first sentence and then you go from there as you’re describing maybe this is kind of what your editor was looking for. But that of course detracts from the suspense of the story. Why do you need to read till the end? You already found out what happened in the first sentence, so you can just kinda cut it off after the first few paragraphs, and we’ve seen a lot of people do that, you know, AP wire stories that just cut ’em off, and papers like Metro, AM New York, they used to do that, just have the first few paragraphs. But your story was trying to get that narrative thread, which I thought was, was interesting. You also mentioned here about the technology, so kind of carrying that over –
Around the same time you were covering upheavals across Central America, a US-backed insurgency in Nicaragua, a leftist insurgency in El Salvador. Of course the history of journalism is tied to the history of communication technology, as you were mentioning before, how reporters delivered their stories back to the newsroom, and that can be especially difficult in troubled times, in war. So can you talk about how you communicated with your newsrooms in El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example?
Mark Prendergast: Yeah. It was always a challenge, just trying to get your story back. When I first started covering the region, which was – I think I made my first trip down there in 1983 or ’84. I went to Panama and Grenada a year after the US invasion in the Caribbean there, the island. But I began covering, El Salvador or Central America full time in 1985.
And there were still telex machines that were being used. And I never really used them, never really learned how to use them, but a lot of the correspondents there did, and I had a very primitive computer. It was a Radio Shack computer called a TRS-80. People called them Trash 80s. And you had, I think, a seven-line LCD screen on it and, you know, I would heft this thing around, and then there were big Mickey Mouse ear-type couplers that you could couple to a phone, and it could take, you know, many, many minutes to send a short story, if you could get a line, and then if there was interference on the line the connection would drop. I mean it was just so frustrating to try to file stories, particularly if there was a time element involved –
on this stuff. And I remember in Haiti one time, 1986, it was during the revolution that toppled the Duvalier regime. We had about a – it was like a three-step process. You called from your room to the hotel switchboard to an outside line to an international line and rotary dial phones, and I remember I was dialing with my fingers at first, and then they started to bleed from all that. So then I started using pens and pencils. And it was so difficult because you could get to the hotel operator fairly easily, but then getting to the outside operator was difficult, and then getting to the international was even more difficult. And it was just a nightmare –
to try to just file, just the simple thing of filing a story. Now we just, you know, hit a button, Send, you know, Upload, whatever. People use satellite phones. They’re, you know, doing selfies, live video selfies from battlefields in Afghanistan, and that’s just a world that didn’t exist when I was doing this stuff. But it was, it gave you nightmares just trying to – the saddest story, I think, was in 1989. The Daily News sent me to Puerto Rico in advance of the island being struck by Hurricane Hugo. And a lot of reporters went down in advance, and the storm hit and it was quite a storm. And a few days later I was over at the airport. I was going in with a bunch of people to charter a plane –
to fly to St. Croix, which was in, had also been hit by the storm but was in the throes of civil chaos, looting and people calling on the shortwave, and I think they flew the 82nd Airborne in to restore order. It was crazy. And at the airport there were so many reporters who were griping about how they had gone through this storm. They’d done great reporting. And they were, had been unable to get their stories out on deadline, you know, of the storm, so they weren’t gonna miss this one, you know, the St. Croix one. This was their chance to recover. And it was just so sad that they had done all that work and endured the hardships of the storm and the dangers of the storm and, you know, they were essentially just bystanders because they couldn’t get their story out. And I was very fortunate that the editor of the Daily News had made arrangements in advance for us to be able to use –
a dedicated phone line at a local newspaper that we were fortunate to have access to and I was able to get my story out on deadline. But just the fact that – just trying to file your story in those days was just, could be absolutely nightmarish.
Nick Hirshon: And you’re reminding us that the history of communication, again, is so intricately tied with the history of journalism. A few other points about those stories that you just mentioned. So first you said, 1986, you covered that revolution in Haiti that led to the overthrow of the corrupt president Jean-Claude Duvalier, also known as Baby Doc, and at that time you ran afoul of the law during your reporting. So can you tell us that story, what happened to you in Haiti?
Mark Prendergast: Yeah. I believe it was a Sunday, and it was shortly before he abandoned the country. And martial law, there were uprisings and riots and demonstrations and what have you all over the country. The country was –
up in arms, and it was chaos. And we had heard that there was a town called Les Cayes. It’s about 125 miles west of Port-au-Prince, that was under martial law. And so the press, the assembled press corps there, the international press corps, everybody wanted to get out there because we wanted to see, you know, what was going on. And the government didn’t want us to, and they imposed a travel ban on journalists and no one was allowed to leave the capital. So of course everybody tried anyway, and I was with a great photographer, David Murray from the Sun Sentinel, and myself, and we’d hired a local Haitian guy to guide us around to, you know, neither of us spoke Creole, which was, you know, the predominant popular language of Haiti. And, –
so we set out, and we saw people coming back under military escort, you know, journalists. And so we knew that they were going, that they had been intercepted at these checkpoints that the military had set up all along the roads. So David and I decided to see how far we could get by masquerading as something other than journalists. So we hid all his camera stuff under the rear seat of the car and off we went. And we bluffed our way through a series of checkpoints, passing ourselves – I mean, when you think about it now, it was just so ridiculous, but we said that we were entrepreneurs looking to scout out fishing locations for tourists and commercial interests. And, you know, who would do that in the middle of a revolution? You know, but we did it. We got through several of these checkpoints.
Until we got to Les Cayes, and there they were on edge and we didn’t fool anybody. So we had a tense few hours under arrest and we eventually managed to be set free. And we never broke. We never, [laughs] we never fessed up that we were journalists, but I’m pretty sure the guy figured out who we were or what we were. And it was just more trouble to keep us than to send us on our way back to Port-au-Prince. But we pretty much got what we came for. We didn’t get to do any interviews, of course, but we saw the town and we saw it was under martial law. There wasn’t a soul in the street, people peering out from shutters. And, you know, with signs of, you know, street fires and, you know, burned tires and barricades all around. So, you know, in that sense we got what we came for. But I was recently looking for that story –
because I did write it, and I can’t find it anywhere. And my recollection is that the editors weren’t too wild about it because a lot of it featured us, you know, the two journalists from the paper. And in those days, you know, you did everything you could to not be the story. And they just weren’t that interested in it, and I think it got tacked on at the end of my day story from there and it doesn’t seem to have survived in the archives that I can find, anyway. But not that we didn’t write much about it, but it was – and then it was soon overtaken by events, as I say, with the abdication of Baby Doc Duvalier. But it was, you know, it was certainly a moment, and I really got to appreciate the conditions under which the people were living.
At one point while we were being detained, I saw the Haitian guy that we’d hired, and he slipped one of our guards some money. So I couldn’t talk to him then, and later on, on the way back to Port-au-Prince, I said, “Why did you give the guard money?” And he said, “Well,” he said, “you’re Americans.” He said, “No matter what happened to you, somebody would know. There would be, you know, a record of some kind of somebody would know what happened to the two Americans.” But he said, “Me,” he said, “I would have just disappeared,” and he said, “So I gave the guy money and asked him whatever happened to me,” would he please just let his family back in Port-au-Prince know. And I thought that was very touching and very enlightening.
Nick Hirshon: So many of these untold stories of journalists, about the emotional turmoil that you go through, being detained, you know, the things that you’ve gone through that the common person –
may not ever experience. I also kinda like the fact that maybe the Haitian authorities are listening to the podcast right now and for the first time realizing that you fooled them ’cause you said you never fessed up.
Mark Prendergast: [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: But now you’ve given it away. [Laughs]
Mark Prendergast: I doubt they would care at this stage. There’s been so much else of importance, of significance to go on there.
Nick Hirshon: No, for sure. Well, one of the other stories that you quickly mentioned there, moving along to 1989 when you said the Daily News sent you to Puerto Rico in advance of Hurricane Hugo, and just to give some background there you were one of the few reporters who had access to a phone to file reports of the hurricane’s landfall and immediate aftermath. The hurricane caused thirty-four fatalities in the Caribbean, left nearly 100,000 people homeless, resulted in almost $9.5 billion in damage, one of the most damaging hurricanes ever recorded at that time, and you had an interesting lede on this story. So I’m wondering if you can read us the lead that you wrote about Hurricane Hugo and kind of the story about how’d you come up with that lead?
Mark Prendergast: Sure.
Well, the lede on the first day big story was, “What Victor Hugo wrote, Hurricane Hugo wrought, Les Misérables, the miserable ones. The most powerful Atlantic storm of the decade battered Puerto Rico yesterday, killing at least four people here after taking at least thirteen lives on other Caribbean islands.” So you and I were talking before all this about the Daily News, and there’s a kinda Daily News lede, at least there used to be, and the second paragraph that I read you here was, you know, the most powerful Atlantic storm of the decade battered Puerto Rico yesterday, et cetera, et cetera. That’s your summary news lede. That’s your here’s what happened, told as concisely and clearly as possible, efficiently as possible. But on big stories, or even lesser stories, the Daily News, a tabloid –
had that kind of, you know, swagger and panache, and they wanted a little flair. And we used to compete even with the copy desk sometimes. One of the biggest compliments you could get would be for a copy editor to tell you that you had stolen his headline with your lede, you know, and so now he had to come up with something else. So a story like that I pretty much wrote as a straight news story, but I needed something to make it stand out, to make it Daily News. And I racked my brain and I was feeling a tremendous amount of pressure, and then I came up with that. And, you know, Les Misérables was a fairly new production on Broadway at the time. And I just drew upon that. It just came to me, a bolt out of the blue and, and that was it. And they really liked it. [Laughs]
Nick Hirshon: It is sort of a classic Daily News lede, for sure. It has that punch to it, like you say, it could have been a headline. So I think that that’s a nice story about, a little insight into the New York Daily News, also my former employer. I worked there years after you, from 2005 to 2011.
Mark Prendergast: At the Times we used to have what we called the Times graph, and sometimes little irreverently we called it the cosmic graph, but it’s what, you know, as a journalism teacher, and you do this as well as I – we call the nut graph. It’s what is this story about and what does it mean? And at the Times it had to be up there pretty high to the top, pretty close to the top. You know, if it wasn’t a straight summary news lede, you had to get that Times graph in there pretty fast. And it was in a way the antithesis of the Daily News lede. The Daily News lede was supposed to be a kinda hey, Mabel, look at this or, or –
can you believe they wrote that, or something like that, or this is funny, or this is brilliant, or this is sad. Whereas at the Times it was this is what the story is and what it means and why it’s important and why you should be reading it. And it did take a little bit of time for a lot of the new writers coming in to grasp that, and it was frequently written by editors in the interim.
Nick Hirshon: Yes, it’s one of the fascinating parts of tabloid journalism, trying to figure out how to get that punchy lede and avoiding the dreaded lead that begins with “talk about.” For example, the Daily News had a story in 2014 about a barber stabbing a customer in the chest, and the lede was, “Talk about a close shave,” these sorts of groan-inducing ledes that weren’t very creative. And around Christmastime the Daily News used to love those ledes that began “’tis the season for” such-and-such thing. They usually had nothing to do with Christmas at all. ‘Tis the season for allergies.
‘Tis the season for parking problems in Forest Hills. I remember once there were two “’tis the season” ledes on the very same page, and we were joking about it in the Daily News office.
Mark Prendergast: [Laughs] At the Times we used to get seasonal warnings against the ’tis the season ledes, and some of – and headlines in particular and some other clichés. They were very mindful of that. I think they had that on like a “save/get key,” we used to call them, you know. [Note to readers: Prendergast explained after recording that a save/get key was a feature on Atex system keyboards that allowed users to save a frequently used word, phrase, or computer routine and retrieve it with a single keystroke.] When it got to be around November it was like, oh, by the way, don’t use these clichés.
Nick Hirshon: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty funny looking back at it how those sorts of things were covered or what we always returned to with the cliché. Well, fast forwarding then to 1991, you were the national editor of the New York Daily News at that time, and you were dispatched to cover the Persian Gulf War right before the brief ground war phase began. To provide context again, the Gulf War was waged by coalition forces from thirty-five nations led by the United States against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
And this war was obviously a big moment in journalism history. It’s been referred to as the video game war because of the daily broadcast of images from cameras on board US bombers during Operation Desert Storm. You had mentioned to me the journalists in Vietnam roamed pretty much at will with the logistical assistance of the military, but that changed in the Gulf War. How so?
Mark Prendergast: Well, they came up with this idea – and this was done in concert with Pentagon reporters and editors of major news outlets – the military just basically decided you’re not gonna get to re-fight the Vietnam War. You’re not gonna be able to roam around at will. We’re not gonna be your taxicab logistical service. We’re also very worried because of the unique conditions here that you’re going to blab, and what we didn’t know at the time was that they had amassed this incredible army out in the desert, and they were developing this whole –
notion of making Saddam think that the bulk of the invasion was going to come, you know, directly into Kuwait, to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and meanwhile they’re building this huge army out in the desert. So they didn’t want people going out there and finding this thing and reporting on it. And we didn’t know that at the time. But that was part of the reason. The other part was, as I said earlier, I think some of it was just payback for what they perceived to have been the news industry’s, news media’s lack of support for the war effort in Vietnam, which again I don’t know that that’s the right way to characterize it at all, but it, I mean they – it certainly wasn’t a cheerleading effort in Vietnam, and nor should it be. I mean it’s difficult to strike –
the balance, I think, sometimes between sorta the loyal opposition of what the press should be in a democratic society and being, you know, a counterforce on one hand, or cheerleaders on the other. You know, and you’re always trying to find that happy medium where you’re serving, you know, you’re serving the truth. You’re searching for truth, serving the truth, and serving the interests of the public and trying in the process to do the least amount of damage along the way, much as the SPJ code of ethics outlines. So, you know, this is an art. It’s not a science. And covering the Gulf War was difficult. I was the only one from the Daily News there, and I resisted going into any pools because I didn’t want to get, as the only person –
there from the News I didn’t want to get stuck in a situation where news would be happening over there, but I’m corralled in a pool over here. So I kinda stayed on my own. I rented a car and got around, tried to find whatever I could, and I got there very shortly before the ground war started. So the Daily News was in some financial straits at the time, and the way they decided to handle it, the editors, was we were going to use wires and freelancers and things like that for the most part, until it became evident that there was gonna be a ground war, and then I was going, and that’s what happened. And so I got there and it was only a day or two went by, I think, before the ground war started, and then everybody of course –
wanted to get in on it and get to Kuwait. And the people who were in the pools with the units out in the desert, they got to see, you know, the actual invasion, but the rest of us were back trying to figure out what’s going on, until they said, “Okay, you can go.” So there were three other reporters, all of whom I met there. They piled into my car and off we went. , it was really bizarre. We drove through the burning oil fields there, and the smoke was so thick from the fires that it was like a hellscape, an orange glow, the low, black clouds, and the sun in the middle of the day in the Saudi desert there, you looked up and it looked like the moon. You could barely see the disc of the sun shining through. And we got to Kuwait and we did our reporting –
and we didn’t have a way to file the story. And none of us had a satellite phone, nor did we know where we could get one, and we had this big argument about should we stay or should we go. And I eventually came to the conclusion, I’m driving back to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to file my story because that’s the only way I know I’m going to get the story out. And the others reluctantly decided to come with me. So we all rode back through the burning oil fields again, this time at night, through the desert, and we got back to Dhahran and were able to file our stories. But we missed a huge story as a result, which was the so-called Highway of Death, the Iraqi army fleeing back toward Baghdad, and they’d been intercepted by American air power, and it was horrific carnage along the road, and most of the other reporters there –
who had a better logistical presence than I did were able to get that story, and I didn’t. So that was a big regret. But I did file the story that I had and that to me was my priority for that day.
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. So much we talked at the Daily News as, when I reported there, about the story of the day and just kind of living to see another day. As long as you beat the competition on that day, we weren’t doing a lot of long-term investigations. You weren’t thinking so much about the long-term impact of our story, at least in my time, as like did we get the best story we could that day? Get the best front page, and then we’ll see what happens tomorrow. I guess that mentality was in place then. A few years after you were covering the war, while you were still the national editor of the Daily News, you covered an attack much closer to the newsroom, the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993. A truck bomb detonated below the North Tower, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand.
Can you describe your role in that coverage?
Mark Prendergast: Yeah, and it wasn’t a very important role. This is one of those cases of we used to call it “all-hands news story,” where you have an enormous story happen and everything else pretty much gets thrown to the wayside and all hands pitch in and do what they can. As you said, I was on the national desk. I was the national editor at the time. And this was of course a metro story so, you know, I and a couple of people who worked with me, we all just pitched in. I don’t remember particularly what I did. I mean, phone calls, taking notes and quotes, you know, from reporters calling in from the street, from the scene. Big news organizations generally have a method for doing this, and the Daily News was one of them. New York Times was even more organized and sophisticated in these big moments, –
as to how to approach them. And basically what you do is everybody pitches in. There’s no pride of authorship here. You just, you do whatever you can, whether it’s watching television, sticking your head out the window, calling, you know, Aunt Nellie who lives three blocks away, you know, whatever it takes, you do it. And so that’s what we did that day. And on a personal note, though, it was, , intriguing. A cousin of mine from Vermont had come down to visit, and he was very much, he thought he wanted to go into the – he was a young guy, late teens, early twenties, and he wanted to go into the financial business, so he wanted to see Wall Street. So the night before all this, we went down in the afternoon actually to Wall Street and we walked around, and just as it was getting dark, we went up in the World Trade Center to the observatory, went all the way to the top.
And so we stood around, looked out the window. You know, he was very impressed with the scenery. We stayed there for a while, and then we took the elevator back down, and went a few blocks away and had dinner and went back to my place. Next morning, he went back down to Wall Street and I went to work. And he was right near the Stock Exchange, New York Stock Exchange when he started hearing all the commotion. I was terrified that he was, you know, gonna be a victim of this somehow. But he called me and he assured me he was okay, and told me what he saw and heard, and I relayed that, you know, to the people who were putting the story together and all that. But it was so strange to think that I was in that building – I’ve only been in that building maybe six times in my life, and one of them was the night before this attack, and there’s a very good chance the bomb was actually in the basement at the time we were there. I think they put it in there in advance.
But there was a discussion in the newsroom about the whole thing after, you know, days later, and I remember arguing that I think they were trying to knock the building down, and everybody thought I was crazy, but that’s in fact what they were trying to do, and that’s what spawned 9/11. They came back and decided on a more catastrophic way to attack the buildings. But they really wanted to knock them down. And it just seemed at the time almost incomprehensible. These structures were so imposing and so huge, and two of them side by side, and to think that somebody actually believed they could knock that building down, and with all the surrounding population and – it just seemed incomprehensible. But turned out that was indeed what they were trying to do.
Nick Hirshon: Well, and as you say, eight years after that bombing you were working on the news desk now of the New York Times during the September 11 attacks, obviously again –
about the World Trade Center. Can you take us through that day? What were you doing? How’d you get to the newsroom?
Mark Prendergast: Well, I was at home in the morning and my wife was going to college, and she called me and said, “Put on the news. Something’s happening.” And she had been at Queensborough Community College, and they could see the city from a bluff up there, and they didn’t quite know what was going on but they knew something was happening. And so she was on her way home and called me. So I put it on, and it – I first thought it was just, you know, it looked like a Cessna, you know, the outline of the plane that first hit the North Tower. But then I was looking at it and I said, “Wait, that’s way too big a hole for a Cessna.” And I just – but, again, you know, you just can’t seem to – you know, when you’re faced with these things it’s very hard to get your brain wrapped around and believe what it is. And then the second plane hit the South Tower, and I thought it was an explosion from inside the building
when I saw it happen, but then they said, “No, we think there’s a plane,” and then you see the second plane. So now we knew that this was, you know, this was no accident. This was a horrific, monstrous attack. And then we started hearing about the Pentagon and everything. So I knew, being a native New Yorker, that it was gonna be hell to move around that city, particularly trying to get into the city. So I called the office and I said, “I don’t think I can get in over the East River.” I was working on the news desk at the time. I said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to get across the East River for a while, but I’m gonna make every effort to get in.” And they said, “Okay, you know, get here when you get here.” So I waited until early afternoon and I was a big bicyclist in those days, so I put a bicycle in the back of my SUV. My wife got in with me. We went and got her sister so she’d have company on the way back.
And we drove down to around Long Island City, and I got out and got on the bike and started riding. I got down to the 59th Street bridge, and the cops weren’t letting anybody go into the city, but I said, “Look, you know, I work at the Times.” I showed ’em my ID. I’m just one guy on a bicycle. You know, I’m not a terrorist. So eventually they said, “All right, go ahead.” And it was really surreal because I was riding my bike up the 59th Street bridge through this mass of people who were coming toward me. And the, it wasn’t dead silence because there were vehicles moving into the city, emergency vehicles. There was construction, like bulldozers and things like that. So they were moving in, but in the interludes between those vehicles it was deathly quiet and all you could hear was the footsteps. People really weren’t talking. And they had this kind of –
stricken look on their face. And I’m riding my bike up the hill through the crowd. And I mean, that’s a memory you don’t forget. So I got to work and, and again it was an all hands kind of thing and everybody just pitched in. I was working on the news desk at the time. And I think I moved off the news desk and went and did some editing on another desk, and it was while I was doing that I got a phone call from my family asking about if I could find out what happened to my cousin. And the sad thing was, he was twenty-five years old. He was working in the South Tower, and he had called his father to say that, you know, a plane had hit the North Tower but that he was okay. And that was the last anybody ever heard from him. And he never turned up in any of the casualty lists or anything. The only thing that was recovered was his ID card was found a few years later in a landfill, but his remains –
have never been found. And he was right above the strike zone for the South Tower. So, that was how my day ended. And that night, I decided, they had started running the Long Island Rail Road again, and my wife was home alone, so I figured, all right, let me get home to her. So one other guy and I went down and we got on the Long Island Rail Road, and we were the only two people on the train. [Laughs] And the conductor just came and sat with us, and it was like the three of us were just sitting there, just talking. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but it was that sort of people who’d just been through this trauma and everyone, and so it was an odd ride home. It was about a twenty, thirty-minute train ride out to Queens, on the Long Island Rail Road. And we were the only –
Guy never asked even to see our tickets. You know, it was just the conductor sat with us and that was it. But it was a remarkable day of course, and also very personally sad because the cousin who died was just the light of everybody’s life, Jim Reilly. And it, you know, it just seemed so tragic what happened. I’ve tried to reconstitute, you know, what might have happened to him, but it’s been very difficult because of, you know, the lack of survivors.
Nick Hirshon: Of course. Well, to that point, how do you handle your emotions when you’re covering these kinds of stories? When you’re sent to a war zone, I guess you anticipate some of that, and it’s a distant location. When you’re covering something like the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 or certainly September 11, this is right where you live. You’re seeing the impact of it in your community, people who you knew, like your cousin, unfortunately, but so many probably former co-workers.
You’re having to deal with the logistical problem of these streets that you used to traverse every day to bike to work or take the subway or – all of these things are now problematic. So how do you just handle the kind of emotion of that and separate it from your reporting, or can you?
Mark Prendergast: Well, I think as a reporter the most important thing to do in order to function properly in the moment is you have to compartmentalize that emotion. I think I’ve told you a story before. I was one of the media witnesses for a couple of executions in Florida in the early ’80s in the electric chair at the Florida State Prison at Starke. And the first one was, it was the first execution in a while and it was a real sort of international event. And the way this worked was, –
everybody gathered in this cow pasture across the street from the prison, and then the media pool was transported from there into the prison, and you had to go through all these security checks, and you couldn’t even bring like paper and pen with you. They gave it to you when you were in there. And then the very first thing you do when you go into the witness chamber for the execution, and the condemned is not there yet, is you sit down and you start writing feverishly on this pad that you’ve been given about all the details. You know, what’s the color of the walls, what do the chairs look like, how many rows are there, how many people, you know, all that kinda stuff that you do to draw upon later when you’re gonna be writing your story, the details. So I was lost in that, and then the moment came. They bring the guy in. It was very sad. He was very upset. He was crying. He was reading a final statement.
And then the execution was carried out and they closed the curtains and then we were escorted out. And on this bus ride back to the pasture, this woman, young woman sitting next to me starts asking questions about, you know, the color of the walls and, [laughs] you know, how many chairs and all this kinda stuff. And a friend of mine, very good friend of mine, Brian Crowley, was sitting on my right. And, you know, so we’re trying to help her and answer her questions, because when we get back to that cow pasture we have to stand up and say what we saw. We’re a pool and that’s what pool reporters do is, you know, they’re there as the representatives for other reporters to share with them what the story was, and then the other reporters can write their story based on our account. And so at one point we said to her, “Excuse me, you were in the chamber. Why are you asking us these questions?” And she said, “Because I couldn’t look up.”
And later that night, Brian and I were having a beer back in Tallahassee, which is where we were based, and we were discussing the events of the day, and he was racked by the fact that, you know, we had been media witnesses and he was concerned that we had been enablers of some form of the execution. And my point to him was we’re there as the eyes and ears of the public. We’re not there as individuals. So that’s first and foremost. So in that sense you have to shelve your emotions. You have to shelve some of your humanity, because if you don’t, you can’t function. You can’t do your job to be the eyes and ears, to bear witness to the events that take place before you. And, –
the second thing was I said, “Look, the execution would have taken place whether we were there or not, so we were not enablers. We were not facilitators. We were there to perform a function.” And he did it beautifully, and I functioned okay. I got through my – wrote my story and did the briefing for the other reporters. And that’s what we were there to do. And I think that’s what we always have to remember in these situations where, you know, you’re witnessing trauma whether it’s war, whether it’s natural disaster, whether it’s tragedy of poverty, of disease. The reason we’re there is to be the eyes and ears for others, and if we allow our very commendable and intrinsic humanity to overcome us, then we’re not doing the thing that we’re there for, and then the people who depend on us to bear witness for them –
they don’t know what happened. So I don’t know if that’s a good way to explain it or not, but your first job is to do your job, and then deal kind of later with the emotions.
Nick Hirshon: It’s certainly the same message that I tell students today. I never experienced some of the traumatic events that you did as a reporter, but any reporter for the Daily News or anywhere else, you’re gonna have times where you see dead bodies, where you speak to relatives who have just lost a loved one, and you’re their shoulder to cry on. Sometimes you receive the hostility that they’re feeling from being so angry over something they’ve just gone through, or that you would dare to ask them questions so soon after something had happened. And like you say, you have to kinda have that idea of the mission of a journalist. Why is this important to bring this back to the public, even if some of the people around you immediately don’t quite understand that.
Mark Prendergast: Let me just add one point to what you’re saying. –
Frequently when I’m discussing this with students or others I allude to the television show called M*A*S*H, and they had these, doctors in a military hospital during the Korean War who were operating on these horribly wounded young men, and blood is shooting all over the place and everything, and they’re cracking jokes. And, you know, when you first see something like that, it seems heartless. It seems cold. But then when you think about it, you say, well, if they allowed their emotions to take over and to grieve at the sadness and the pain and the agony and the death and the loss that’s taking place before them, they wouldn’t be able to save the lives that they might otherwise be able to save. I call that the M*A*S*H mentality and it’s something that journalists need to adopt.
That, you know, you have to be able to set your normal human feelings aside and do the job first. And it doesn’t have to be something dramatic. It can just be whether it’s something as tedious, whether it’s boring, you know, I remember being early in my career covering a bond revenue explanatory hearing at a city council in Ohio, and it was late in the day. I’d been working since before dawn and now it’s almost midnight, and this county engineer is droning on about sewerage, and I’m bored to tears. And then suddenly it hit me. If I don’t master this, all the readers of the local newspaper, they won’t know how to vote. They won’t be able to make up their minds. And I had to focus at that moment and say, okay, this is – you’ve got to learn this –
and you can’t give in to being tired or bored or annoyed or anything else. You have to focus on sewerage, and that’s what I did. And so it, you know, it runs the range from the quintessentially mundane to the horrific. But you’re there, you always have to remember that you’re there as a witness, and your job is to bear witness to what you saw and what you learned to the best of your ability.
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. Well said. Well, let’s transition to one of your most recent jobs in journalism as the ombudsman for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. You worked there from 2009 to 2012, and your tenure overlapped with the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that published what the Department of Defense called the largest leak of classified documents in its history. To put together the timeline here, in the spring of 2010, not long after you started at Stars and Stripes, WikiLeaks posted a classified –
military video that showed a US Apache helicopter firing on and killing journalists and Iraqi civilians, and then a few months later they published hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the aftermath the government made new efforts to tighten data security by issuing restrictions on the handling of classified information, and as you put it in one of your columns for Stars and Stripes, the Department of Defense effectively threatened punitive action against anyone who is in or aspires to be in federal service and lacks clearance to access to classified information, even if it was already in the public domain. And one of those classified documents was the Pentagon Papers, the official history of the Vietnam War that was leaked to the press in 1971. Any of our listeners who recently saw the movie The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks know well the story of the Pentagon Papers. So can you tell us, why did you decide to make this push to declassify the Pentagon Papers so long after they were already in the public domain?
Mark Prendergast: Well, it wasn’t –
that I was trying to get the Pentagon Papers declassified. It was that I was trying to point out the ridiculousness of the system of classification in the government. And, you know, look, everybody acknowledges that there are needs for state secrets. I mean, we were alluding before to, you know, troop movements and things like that. You don’t want people to get killed. But so much of classified information is just, you know, some sort of bureaucratic whim, that somebody doesn’t know what to do so they, well, the safest thing to do is classify it. And so you have a raft of this stuff, and we also have a legal system in which the precedent has been set. The law says that the only agency that can declassify classified information is the agency that originally classified it. Well, the Pentagon Papers were classified by –
The Defense Department. You know, this was a secret study of the war. But Senator Mike Gravel had read them into the congressional record, and I had my intern call all the service academy libraries and see if they were on the shelves, and they were. And I talked to the head of the ROTC command and he reluctantly said that if anyone, an ROTC cadet, read the Pentagon Papers without clearance, that would be a violation. So you had this crazy situation where you could order the Pentagon Papers from Amazon. You could walk into your local library and fetch them off the shelf. You could read them in the congressional record, the service academies, the Library of Congress. But to do so would be a violation of law because you weren’t entitled. Now, in and of itself –
that’s not my fight. My fight was, as the ombudsman of Stars and Stripes, the government responding to WikiLeaks, which you very, excellently outlined the situation, they basically said anyone in federal service or who aspires to federal service who views these WikiLeak documents is de facto committing a security violation. Now, if you want to make that, that’s a legitimate argument, and I’m not gonna do that because I don’t think it is, but if you want to make a legitimate argument that somebody who wants to go into public service should from the get-go, you know, be immaculate in terms of these sorts of things, fine. Make that case. But the people at Stars and Stripes were legitimate journalists and they were –
working under the promise by Pentagon regulation that they – and congressional mandate – that they be afforded First Amendment protections. And journalists everywhere, at the Times, at the Washington Post, the Daily News, the Willoughby News-Herald, they could all log on and read the WikiLeaks documents if they were writing about something that they related to. The journalists at Stars and Stripes were told they couldn’t. Now, some of them obviously did because they ran a link to the WikiLeaks video that you, , discussed. , so, you know, it, it wasn’t that they weren’t accessing this information. It was that, the fact that they were might conceivably carry consequences for ’em and they shouldn’t have to operate under that – they shouldn’t have to make that kinda choice. Do my job as a journalist,
or be punished for accessing classified information as a government employee. And so my argument was, this whole classification system, particularly as it involves Stars and Stripes, is ridiculous. If this stuff is in the public domain, and it is, you know, Osama bin Laden could log on and read the WikiLeak papers, but you’re saying that a reporter at Stars and Stripes cannot. That’s ridiculous. And the WikiLeaks policy was following in the same track as the Pentagon Papers. They were saying, you know, that this information is classified, therefore you can’t look at it, even though it may be in the public domain. So my argument was, well, you guys apparently – and, and they didn’t even know it at first, when I first approached ’em on this. They didn’t know that the papers – they didn’t realize they were still classified because they, the Pentagon press office told me, “Oh, we don’t deal in past history. You need to go talk to the, the archivist,” when I said, “Isn’t it true
that they’re still classified?” They actually didn’t know. And so eventually they decided, apparently, that they didn’t want that line of argument used against them, and so they wound up declassifying the Pentagon Papers shortly after I was asking and pressing them about it. And they stuck the knife in a little bit because I was, I had a column all ready to go and they kept stalling me. And I said, “Well, I just want a comment, whatever it is,” you know, and they stalled me, stalled me, stalled me. And then when they finally got around to getting – and I kept pestering them. They finally said, “Well, we still don’t have the comment, but go check this link.” And it was a link to an AP story that the Pentagon Papers were being declassified. And that was strictly to, you know, tweak my nose there for having pressed them on the issue. The upshot of the deal was they wound up withdrawing the WikiLeaks policy
initially, after my initial assailing of it, but then they re-imposed a different policy, which I thought was at least as bad, and that one was – I couldn’t get redone. And I had a big meeting with the Assistant Secretary of Defense. We got a number of prominent journalists and First Amendment people to join us. And we made a full-court press on it, but by the time – it was near the end of my term. I had a three-year term, and by the end of my term we hadn’t been able to get the second policy reversed. So technically speaking, you know, here you have journalists at the Stars and Stripes who are promised First Amendment freedoms and protections, and at the same time they’re being treated as any other government employee, which is thou shalt not look. But the classification process is bizarre. You can have, as we’ve seen
with some of the stuff from Hillary Clinton’s email, you have retro classification and sometimes – I’ve interviewed historians. They will have had historical stuff from like the Korean War declassified, and then at some point somebody decides, no, it really should be classified again, so years later they will reclassify the information. So stuff that was in the public domain is now, you know, they make believe it was never in the public domain. Valerie Plame had a very odd situation where after she was outed and her whole life story was pretty much fodder for every news page. She decided to write a biography, an autobiography, a memoir. And she had a tremendous trouble with the CIA and getting clearance to do that because they said, “Well, you’re giving up, you know, you’re admitting you were an agent,” and all this sort of stuff, and –
she said, “Yeah, but everybody knows that,” and indeed somebody had done what Mike Gravel had done and had read some of this stuff into the congressional record. But the courts came back and said, you know, that this policy is that the only people who can declassify information is the original classifying authority. So the fact that a congressman or a senator reads something, classified document into the public record is by no means to be construed as declassification. And so it was a real morass, and there was a lot of back and forth between me and the Pentagon, me and the masthead in the newspaper. It was a very trying time.
Nick Hirshon: Mm, for sure. Well, thank you for telling us about that, even though it’s sort of difficult maybe to relive some of it. And you’ve had an incredible career in journalism. We were only able to touch on a portion of it here, but we thank you for coming on the podcast. One final question before we go. We ask everybody,
and usually this is for journalism historians, but we’ll ask you as a journalist who has witnessed history – why does journalism history matter? Why does it matter to study this? Why does it matter to people who are listening to this podcast?
Mark Prendergast: Well, I think, I don’t even just think about journalism history. I just think history in general, you know, and I’ve had students ask me when I’m teaching journalism history as a component of a course, and they say, “Well, why do we have to learn history?” And I say, “Well, you know, I don’t know how you’re gonna figure out where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” It’s, you know, everything is a process and everything is an evolution. We tend to think as human beings that whatever we’re, whatever moment or condition we’re born into, that’s the norm. But it’s always changing. Journalism changes. One of the things about journalism history I think that makes it important is that journalism is not a regulated
profession like law or medicine or engineering. You know, we don’t have a board of standards and reviews and what have you. It is the practices, the standards, the ethics are generally done by consensus, a kind of informal consensus. You know, if you look back to the Watergate era you saw the rise of the anonymous source, and then that became sort of a cliché almost. Almost every story for twenty years or so had to have anonymous sources in it. It made it seem more authentic, more impactful, and what have you. And then we saw the abuses that came in with the overuse of anonymous sources and, and editors not even knowing sometimes who the sources are. Ben Bradlee famously said he didn’t learn who Deep Throat was until well after the whole Watergate thing had quieted down.
Nowadays I think any responsible editor is going to insist on knowing who these sources are that the reporters are using. It’s not that we don’t trust the reporters, but we’ve had enough situations – Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, others – , where, you know, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our colleagues, and we owe it most importantly to our audiences to say we’ve taken every step we can to verify that the information we’re presenting you is, you know, full, fair, and accurate. And when we’re dealing with anonymous sources it has to be information, not opinion. It needs to be significant and there shouldn’t really be any other way we could have gotten this information. And if you don’t go back and look at the history of the evolution of something like anonymous sources,
you won’t be able to understand it. You won’t be able to function properly in the moment. Likewise, we spent a lot of time here talking about coverage of conflicts and wars and things. I think it’s very important to go back and look at press-military relations, for example. You know, you take the American Civil War, which began not long after the invention of the telegraph, and the telegraph was probably one of the most – at least now in the twenty-first century it’s one of the most underappreciated [laughs] inventions of humanity because, for the first time in human history, information did not have to be conveyed physically, either by a person traveling, telling another person who then traveled, or through writing or a letter or something like that. You could now have virtual transmission of information.
Somebody a hundred miles away hands a telegraph operator a news dispatch, and that person types it in and, you know, a hundred miles away it’s received instantly. That revolutionized the world, and particularly news coverage. And, you know, when reporters began covering the Civil War, as I understand it – I wasn’t there. I’m old but I’m not that old, you know, the generals were all expecting that they would just be given accounts of the battle and write up what the, you know, like stenographers, write up what the generals said. And instead reporters were out there in the battlefield watching themselves, were challenging the generals’ accounts of these battles and of the campaigns, and then they were, circumventing so-called official channels of communication and, you know, finding telegraph offices and sending the dispatches off on their own, and that
raised a whole new issue of the timeliness. You know, that if news reports of a military nature are being disseminated very close to real time, you know, what impact does that have? If you recall the story about the Chicago – I think it was the Tribune, had a story that seemed to break the Japanese, to reveal that the Americans had broken the Japanese naval code, and it actually started to go out. And the government panicked, because if the Japanese found out that we could decipher their communications, then they would change the code and we’d be back in the dark. So they actually managed to stifle dissemination of that news in wartime. So, you know, you have all this kinda stuff, and then you fast forward to Vietnam and then you get to Grenada and Panama and the first Gulf War, and then the Iraq War with the, you know, the embedding of troops, and if you don’t know where things were,
how are you gonna figure out what they are now and what they should be now, and where they’re going to go next?
Nick Hirshon: Certainly. That’s the reason why we do this podcast and that’s why we’re so grateful for you coming on this podcast and reviewing just a portion of your incredible career in journalism. Thank you again, Mark, for coming on the Journalism History podcast.
Mark Prendergast: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”