Thursday, September 3, 2020

This Day in Media History (Marguerite Higgins, First Woman to Win Pulitzer for International Reporting, Born)

Sept. 3, 1920—Marguerite Higgins, who overcame the rampant sexism of her time and profession to become the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, was born in Hong Kong, in the Asia-Pacific Rim where she would establish much of her reputation.

In the Library of America anthology Reporting World War II, Higgins was the last by birth among the approximately 80 writers represented. A day shy of 25 when Japan formally surrendered, she reported on some of the major stories coming out of the latest six months of the European conflict: the refugee crisis and the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps.

These would have been great scoops for any reporter. They were extraordinary for a recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a woman in an unrelieved, unapologetic masculine environment.

But it was in Asia—specifically, in Korea and Vietnam—where Higgins advanced closer to achieving her stated post-collegiate goal of becoming more famous than Dorothy Thompson, perhaps the most influential female journalist of the day. How she moved towards her goal has made her the subject of speculation and even controversy ever since.

Stationed in Tokyo as the New York Herald Tribune’s Bureau Chief, Higgins was ideally situated to cover the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950. Despite her credentials as a war correspondent in WWII, she was initially ordered out of the country by Gen. Walton Walker.

Only a direct appeal to Douglas MacArthur, who had become Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command in Korea, enabled her to report on the conflict. She joined MacArthur's troops on the daring invasion at Inchon that, for a time, changed the direction of the war. In fact, she was the only female reporter to land on Red Beach (“a rough, vertical pile of stones”) with the men.

The Pulitzer Prize committee cited Higgins’ "enterprise and courage" in her coverage of the campaign, noting that she deserved "special consideration by reason of being a woman." But even as she was winning a new level of renown, she was stirring animosity among the largely male cadre of war correspondents that would dog her even beyond her early death.

Thousands of readers were amazed at how Higgins smashed through conventions that restricted women’s chances for achievement; a smaller cadre of colleagues were disgruntled at how they believed she ignored traditional ethical codes in pursuit of her laurels. It is still not easy sorting through these issues more than a half-century after her death.

While displaying outward bravado, Higgins was inwardly driven by an insecurity so unrelenting that it manifested itself as bravery so extreme that some males believe it shaded into foolhardiness. (Among them was Herald Tribune colleague Homer Bigart, who, like Gen. Walker, wanted her out of the country--leading not just to heightened competition between the two journalists but also to a closely watched feud between the two.) 

Such aggressiveness might be taken for granted among male reporters but were eyed critically when exhibited by females—and led to speculation that Higgins was not above stealing colleagues’ scoops.

Another serious charge against her arose from her good looks. Anyone glimpsing the stunning blonde in the attached photo might be forgiven for thinking that Betty Grable or even Marilyn Monroe had suddenly morphed into a top-flight journalist.

Those same people were often convinced that someone that glamorous could not have succeeded through her own efforts, but by sleeping with important men to further her career. 

In the process, these critics ignored factors that facilitated her work—knowledge of French and Chinese; extraordinary sympathy and compassion for young soldiers that sealed their bond with her; and willingness to endure extreme discomfort and danger.

(Ironically, when particularly obsessed with a story, Higgins was so oblivious to how she looked that she neglected to clean her face.)

Opinion remains divided to what extent those charges were true. But, if ruthlessness in pursuing scoops and straying outside traditional sexual norms are to be assessed, many if not most of Higgins’ male rivals would be as guilty as she.

A third charge against Higgins is more troubling: that, through personal associations and ideological preconceptions, she abandoned objectivity in her reporting on the early days of the Vietnam War. 

In 1963, younger reporters such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan were making plain in their dispatches that South Vietnamese forces were collapsing in the Mekong Delta. Based on her high-ranking military sources, Higgins disagreed strongly, airing their view that the Viet Cong were being progressively crushed. Any problem in Southeast Asia had resulted from journalists accepting at face value the notion that Buddhists in Vietnam were being oppressed by President Ngo Dinh Diem's "Catholic-dominated government":

"In the fall of 1963 Washington went into the business of hiring and firing governments,” Higgins charged in Our Vietnam Nightmare. “We not only forgot the one overriding priority, the war effort, but also, for the first time in history, conspired in the ouster of an ally in the middle of a common war against the Communist enemy, thus plunging the country and the war effort into a steep spiral of decline."

Higgins was ill-prepared to examine the reality of Vietnam dispassionately. In 1947, she had witnessed how Communists employed deception in taking over Poland. Friendly with both Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, she had adopted their view of the need to counter Soviet aggression. And, in 1952, she had married William Evens Hall, an Air Force Lt. General.

Vietnam undermined the credibility of a fellow journalist who accepted the government line, columnist Joe Alsop. Long before that happened, a tropical disease contracted in that country led to Higgins’ death in 1966 at age 45. She is one of a handful of war correspondents buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

During her lifetime, Americans became very familiar with the sight of Higgins—in well-attended lectures, her book covers (War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent and News is a Singular Thing), and TV appearances (in 1956, the quiz show What’s My Line?). 

Though her celebrity has faded, her face and story have still attracted enough posthumous attention to land her on a postage stamp (in 2002) and have made her the best-known character in a little-noticed film about the early days of the Korean War last year, The Battle of Jangsari.

I have not yet seen that movie, but in a sense its most famous cast member, Megan Fox, should be able to identify intensely with Higgins. In both women’s cases, men were so besotted by their looks that they sometimes had a difficult time taking their drive and work seriously. Time will tell how well Fox counteracts that perception.

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