Bob Herbert has often been called "the conscience of the New York Times." As an op-ed columnist for the nation's most celebrated newspaper since 1993, Herbert has repeatedly called attention to matters of race, social injustice, and the widening gap between rich and poor. An unapologetic liberal, Herbert has been one of the sharpest and most consistent critics of President George W. Bush and his policies, including the war in Iraq. Over the past two decades, he has been one of the most prominent black journalists in America.
Bob Herbert was born on March 7, 1945, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the New York suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. His parents owned a couple of upholstery shops, and during his youth, Herbert felt destined to go into the family business. At the same time, the Herbert household was politically engaged, and the hot issues of the day were a regular topic of conversation around the family dinner table. A voracious reader from an early age, Herbert was reading newspapers by the time he was five years old. He also liked the classics. He was smitten by Dickens at an age when most kids are just dipping their toes into comic books. He read Oliver Twist when he was nine.
During the buildup to the Vietnam War, Herbert was drafted into the armed forces and sent to Korea. Returning home from the War, Herbert decided that he wanted to pursue a career as a writer, though he was not certain about what kind of writer he wanted to be. He contacted the Newark Star-Ledger, and to his surprised he was offered a job as a reporter in 1970. He gladly accepted the offer, which he called "a gift from the gods" in a New York Times "Meet the Columnist" video interview years later.
Herbert instantly fell in love with his new journalism career. At the Star-Ledger, he had the opportunity to cover a number of big stories, which caught the attention of editors at the New York Daily News. He was offered a job there in 1976, bringing him into the nation's most important media market. Herbert arrived at the Daily News during an exciting time in local politics—and in political journalism in general, with Watergate still fresh in the public's memory—and he quickly earned a strong reputation for his reporting on issues playing out at City Hall. In 1981 he was promoted to City Hall bureau chief, and two years later he was named city editor. Herbert became a columnist, as well as a member of the editorial board, at the Daily News in 1985, the job for which he first gained national attention. That attention eventually led to a series of television jobs. In 1990 Herbert became a founding panelist on Sunday Edition, a talk show on New York's CBS affiliate WCBS. He also became a host of the weekly New York public television talk show Hotline around that time.
Meanwhile, Herbert found time to complete his education. While covering important stories and issues, he took classes at Empire State College—part of the State University of New York system—graduating with a journalism degree in 1988. Since then, he has put in time on the other side of the lectern, teaching journalism classes at Brooklyn College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Herbert reached a national market in the early 1990s. His success in the nation's largest local broadcast market led to a three-year stint as a national television correspondent at NBC news, beginning in 1991. This job included, among other spots, regular appearances on the Today Show and NBC Nightly News. All the while, he continued writing his Daily News column. Ultimately, Herbert's national television exposure resulted in an offer to become an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, one of the most sought-after positions for a political journalist in the English-speaking world. He accepted the job, becoming the first African American op-ed columnist in the history of the Times in 1993. That year, Herbert chaired the Pulitzer Prize jury for spot news reporting.
Since 1993, Herbert's column, covering politics, urban affairs and social trends, has appeared in the Times twice a week. He continues to make frequent guest television appearances on national issues shows. In 2005, Henry Holt and Co. published a collection of Herbert's columns. The book, titled Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream, touches on many of Herbert's favorite themes from his two decades as a noted columnist, including racism, poverty, criminal justice, and the foibles of the Bush administration. However, he balances his criticism with portraits of ordinary Americans accomplishing great things, and retaining hope for the future of their country. In her commentary on the book, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, wrote that Herbert's voice "consistently reminds America of where we still fall short of the ideals of the nation we want to be and can become."
Herbert gets his column ideas from a variety of sources. Perhaps the biggest is from the newspaper. He reads several papers every day. Other ideas come from a broad range of contacts developed over the years, from government bureaucrats to educators to military officials. In addition, tips arrived from every corner of society. In recent years, much of Herbert's prose has been harsh criticism of President George W. Bush and his administration. Herbert has been a leading critic of the conduct of and justification for the war in Iraq. He has also voiced loud displeasure regarding Bush's fiscal and economic policies, particularly tax cuts which Herbert says disproportionately benefit the wealthy, and the administration's perceived failure to address issues that affect the poor, such as access to health care.
While Herbert's reputation has to some degree been built on a willingness to be critical, and not just of conservatives but of individuals of all political stripes when he senses hypocrisy, his writing reflects a surprising optimism about Americans and their collective future. As he said in a 2005 interview with the Progressive magazine, "It is easy, as a journalist, to be enclosed in an ivory tower and to look down at the masses. It is also easy in this business to become cynical. But when I go out into the streets and neighborhoods and speak to people, I am overwhelmed by what they have to say. The more you talk to ordinary men and women and kids, the less cynical you become because they are speaking with a sense of openness and honesty. They still have a sense of optimism and a sense of hope about their lives."
Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream, Henry Holt and Co., 2005.
At a Glance …
Born on March 7, 1945, in Brooklyn, NY; married Suzanne. Education: Empire State College, BS, Journalism, 1988.
Career: Newark Star-Ledger, reporter, 1970-73, night city editor, 1973-73; New York Daily News, reporter, 1976-81, city hall bureau chief, 1981-83, city editor, 1983-85, columnist, 1985-93; WNYC-TV, New York, host of Hotlines public issues show, 1990-91; WCBSTV, New York, panelist on Sunday Edition talk show, 1990-91; NBC News, national correspondent, 1991-93; New York Times, columnist, 1993-.
Memberships: New York Daily News editorial board, 1985-93; Pulitzer Prize jury for spot news reporting, 1993.
Awards: Meyer Berger Award; American Society of Newspaper Editors Award.
Addresses: Office—New York Times, 229 W 43rd St, New York, NY 10036-3959.
Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream, Henry Holt and Co., 2005.
Progressive, August 1995, p. 36.
"Columnist Biography: Bob Herbert," New York Times,www.nytimes.com/ref/opinion/HERBERTBIO.html (July 1, 2007).
"Columnist Bob Herbert Views the American Dream: But Can It Still Be Found?" BuzzFlash,www.buzzflash.com/interviews/05/05/int05018.html (July 1, 2007).
"Meet the Columnists: Bob Herbert," TimesSelect,http://select.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2005/09/19/opinion/20050919_HERBERT_FEATURE.html (July 1, 2007).
"Poynter Fellowship Biographies, 2006-07," Yale University,www.yale.edu/opa/campus/poynter/2006_2007.html (July 1, 2007).
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