Obituary: Harrison Salisbury

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The Independent Online
Harrison Evans Salisbury, journalist and writer: born Minneapolis 14 November 1908; journalist, United Press (now United Press International) 1930-48, Foreign Editor 1944-48; journalist, New York Times 1949-73, Moscow correspondent 1949-54, Assistant Managing Editor 1964-72, Op-Ed page editor 1970- 73, Associate Editor 1972-73; married 1933 Mary Hollis (two sons; marriage dissolved 1950), 1964 Charlotte Rand; died Providence, Rhode Island 5 July 1993.

HARRISON SALISBURY, one of the most noteworthy American journalists of the century, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his 14-part New York Times series on the fear and terror in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Salisbury was considered a giant in American journalism because he was an indefatigable reporter who wrote groundbreaking articles on some of the most important, and inaccessible, stories of his time. But he was also seen as a visionary editor and a skilled and prolific author of important books. He wrote 29 books, of which two - The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad and Black Night, White Snow - were bestsellers on Russian history.

About a half-dozen of his books were on China, including Tiananmen Diary: thirteen days in June (1989). Salisbury was in China making a television documentary when the government undertook its bloody crackdown on dissident students in Tiananmen Square. The book is a collection of much of his reportage on those events.

'If he had just been a book writer, he would have been one of the most important non-fiction writers of his time,' said Eugene L. Roberts Jnr, the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was recruited to the New York Times as a reporter by Salisbury. 'If he'd just been judged as a reporter, he would've been one of the top reporters of his time,' Roberts continued. 'If he'd just been judged as an editor, in my opinion he would've been one of the most innovative editors of his time. So, he was all three.'

Salisbury, a reporter and editor at the New York Times for 24 years, wrote his Pulitzer-winning series on the Soviet Union, uncensored, after he returned to New York from a five-year tour as Moscow bureau chief. Written at the height of the Cold War, the series won acclaim, though some on the political right complained that it, like some of his censored reports from Moscow, was too sympathetic to the Communists.

Reporting local news upon his return from abroad, Salisbury continued to build a reputation for extraordinary energy and enterprise. He turned a routine assignment about dirty New York streets into a three- part Page One series that revealed the number of tons of trash - 16,402 - collected by city cleaners on a given day. In 1960 Salisbury's unflinching coverage of racial repression by officials in the South - 'Fear and Hatred in Birmingham' was the front- page headline for one article out of Alabama - precipitated libel charges that in turn led to a far-reaching US Court of Appeals ruling that Salisbury and the New York Times had 'exhibited a high standard of reporting practices'.

The author and former New York Times reporter David Halberstam described Salisbury as a courageous role model for a generation of idealistic young reporters. He said he was struck by Salisbury's intensity the very first time he laid eyes on him, in 1960 when both were covering civil rights sit-ins in the South, Salisbury for the New York Times, Halberstam for the Nashville Tennessean.

'I've never seen anybody work that hard in my life,' Halberstam said. 'The drive, the energy, the ferocity - you could feel the drive to report.' By 1962 Salisbury was chief of the New York Times national correspondents, and in that role directed the paper's coverage of J. F. Kennedy's assassination. He moved through the editing ranks and in 1970 become the first editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page, the collection of opinion and commentary opposite the editorials. The page Salisbury pioneered, featuring a variety of contributors with different political views, is widely imitated in American newspapers.

Salisbury achieved one of his most dramatic and important reporting coups in 1966 when he managed against all odds to gain entry to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. He revealed in his dispatches that US bombing strikes described by the Government as 'surgical' were killing many civilians. Salisbury incurred the wrath of the Johnson administration, but he was later proved right.

'He loved catching people in power who were lying or doing something wrong and demonstrating it in print,' the former New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan said.

'He had a great sense of the scoop.'