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Journalist and author Haynes Johnson dies at 81

Haynes Johnson, a pioneering Washington journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil rights movement and migrated from newspapers to television, books and teaching, died Friday. He was 81.

world Updated: May 26, 2013 00:02 IST

Haynes Johnson, a pioneering Washington journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil rights movement and migrated from newspapers to television, books and teaching, died Friday. He was 81.

Johnson, a pioneering Washington journalist and author who helped redefine political reporting in addition to appearing on the Public Broadcasting Service and teaching journalism at the University of Maryland, died Friday at a Washington-area hospital after suffering a heart attack. He had just attended the journalism school's graduation days earlier.

Johnson was awarded a Pulitzer in 1966 for national reporting on the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, while with The Evening Star in Washington. He spent about 12 years at the Star before joining its chief rival, The Washington Post, in 1969. Johnson was a columnist for the Post from 1977 to 1994.

Dan Balz, the Post's senior political reporter, said Johnson was already a legend before they worked together at the newspaper.

"I don't say this lightly. He was a great journalist," Balz said Friday. "He had everything a good reporter should have, which was a love of going to find the story, a commitment to thorough reporting and then kind of an understanding of history and the importance of giving every story kind of the broadest possible sweep and context."

Former Post executive editor Leonard Downie told the newspaper, "Haynes was a pioneer in looking at the mood of the country to understand a political race. Haynes was going around the country talking to people, doing portraits and finding out what was on people's minds. He was a kind of profiler of the country."

The author, co-author or editor of 18 books, Johnson also appeared regularly on the Public Broadcasting Service programs "Washington Week in Review" and "The NewsHour." He was a member of the "NewsHour" historians panel from 1994 to 2004.

"I knew I wanted to write about America, our times, both in journalism and I also wanted to do books," he told C-SPAN in 1991. "I wanted to try to see if I could combine what I do as a newspaper person as well as step back a little bit and write about American life, and I was lucky enough to be able to do that."

Johnson had taught at the University of Maryland since 1998.

Johnson also had teaching stints at George Washington University, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania.

He was born in New York City on July 9, 1931. His mother, Emmie, was a pianist and his father, Malcolm Johnson, a newspaperman. The elder Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Sun in 1949 for his reporting on the city's dockyards, and his series suggested the story told in the Oscar-winning film "On the Waterfront" starring Marlon Brando.

Johnson studied journalism and history at the University of Missouri, graduating in 1952. After serving three years in the Army during the Korean War, he earned a master's degree in American history from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.

Johnson resisted working in New York journalism to avoid being compared to his father. He worked for nearly a year at the Wilmington (Delaware) News-Journal before joining the Star as a reporter.

He received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the struggles of blacks in Selma, Alabama, where hundreds of marchers bound for the state capital of Montgomery were brutally beaten in March 1965 by state and local law officers. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to the city, and after a federal judge found that the demonstrators had a right to march, they completed their journey later that month.

Returning to Selma after the crisis had ended, Johnson wrote of finding "no discernible change in the racial climate of the city." He wrote that blacks had made no major advances in the areas of employment, housing and education, according to an excerpt from a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles, "National Reporting, 1941-1986."

But he wrote later, "Above all is a historical fact: As a result of what the Selma Negroes and their white friends did last spring, the Deep South will never be the same. The demonstrations and the march lifted the spirits of Negroes everywhere."

Johnson and his father are the only father and son to win Pulitzer Prizes for reporting.

It wasn't long before Ben Bradlee, the newly appointed executive editor of The Washington Post, came calling. As Bradlee was seeking to elevate the newspaper, he recruited both Johnson and The New York Times' David S. Broder to strengthen the paper's political reporting.

Johnson's books include "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election," (2009) with Balz; "The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years" (2001); and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point" (1996) with Broder, who died two years ago.

Johnson and Broder helped redefine Washington reporting, getting outside the capital to talk with voters about candidates and issues, rather than letting politicians dictate coverage. Both wove that reporting into broader articles that examined the mood of the country and the workings of government.

"Hayes was a giant," journalism professor and author Carl Sessions Stepp commented on the University of Maryland's website. "He had the mind of a scholar and the soul of a regular citizen, and nobody has ever better combined insider digging and outside-the-Beltway pulse-taking."

According to a written statement released by the University of Maryland's Merrill College of Journalism, Johnson had begun work on a 19th book, looking at the speed with which breaking news was covered in the social media era. On Thursday night, Johnson phoned his teaching assistant from the hospital to say he was bored and to ask for some reading material so he could work on the book, the university reported.

Johnson's first marriage, to Julia Ann Erwin, ended in divorce. They had three daughters and two sons. Johnson and Oberly, an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, married in 2002.

First Published: May 26, 2013 00:01 IST