by Mark Brown
“It was great fun.”
Not normally what people say when recalling a near death experience, but that’s how 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner John Hughes described just such a day. Hughes crouched behind cars in a narrow alley in the light and smoke of the burning American library in Indonesia as a mob debated whether or not to kill him. A translator relayed the fateful debate among leaders in the crowd to Hughes at the time.
“There’s an American. Let’s kill him.”
“No, he might be a Russian.”
And so, John Hughes lived to cover the story that won him a Pulitzer. This was the attempted Communist coup in Indonesia in 1965 and the violence that followed it that occurred at the same time that the United States was increasing its commitment to the war in nearby Vietnam.
Each day in Indonesia, Hughes would investigate opposing crowds of Communist and government supporters. Violence was common, and Indonesian authorities did nothing to protect Hughes or the two other Western journalists, a reporter from The Times of London and a Canadian photographer. Hughes had to navigate the divisions between these two groups. As he said, “It was like moving through hot water and cold water.”
The incident near the burning American library wasn’t Hughes’s only near death experience. While covering another day of unrest, a protester grabbed Hughes and demanded, “Are you an American?!”
“Now, you’re not going to be proud of me,” said Hughes, “but I said, ‘No, I’m not an American. I’m a Canadian.’”
Hughes’s one-time-assailant hoped to study abroad in Canada and asked about the Canadian university system. Despite never having been to Canada, Hughes promptly invented answers to the young man’s questions.
Negotiating the troubled waters of insurrection was not enough, however. Hughes could write the story, but he could not file it with his paper, The Christian Science Monitor. At the time, Indonesia was “absolutely closed. Nobody could get in,” and Hughes said the telecommunications system was “absolutely locked down.”
The solution? Strangers. Hughes and his colleagues would ride to the airport in the “back of De Soto cabs typing our stories,” two copies of each story. Once at the airport, Hughes would look for a traveler leaving the country and ask them to take one copy to a news office when they arrived. If they agreed, Hughes wondered, “Maybe you’re going to do that. Maybe not,” so he would give the second copy to another traveler. With both copies delivered, Hughes “never knew where the two copies were received,” but one always made it to publication.
Born in Wales in 1930, Hughes lived in London during World War II while his father served in the British military in North Africa. On a ship around the coast of South Africa, German U-boats made the Straits of Gibralter unsafe for British ships, Hughes’s father made connections in South Africa. He moved the family there after the war.
Hughes’s Pulitzer-winning story on unrest Indonesia was not his only big story. Hughes’s first reporting job was with the Natal Mercury in Durban, South Africa. There, he covered the beginning of Apartheid in the late 1940s when the country’s all-white government enforced, often violently, racial segregation.
“It was beginning to get nasty,” he said by the time he left South Africa, and “I’d never seen people treated like that.”
Hughes then moved to London. After a few years writing articles for the daily papers there, Hughes moved to Boston to work for the Christian Science Monitor. It was in this capacity that he covered the violence in Indonesia. Later, Hughes became editor of the Christian Science Monitor during the Watergate investigation that eventually resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“I thought we were covering everything straight,” said Hughes, but some readers disagreed. He kept two piles of paper on his desk at the time. One calling him “a rotten rascal” and one saying, “Good job.” Hughes even got feedback from one of the key figures in the Watergate investigation.
H.R. Haldeman was President Nixon’s Chief of Staff. Haldeman would later serve 18 months in prison on charges related to the Watergate investigation. During the investigation, Haldeman confronted Hughes about the Christian Science Monitor’s coverage of the controversy.
“I’ve given up on the Monitor,” Haldeman said, “I never read it.” Nonetheless, Hughes remembers Haldeman repeatedly reaching into his coat pocket to retrieve clips of the paper. Over and again, Haldeman complained about articles in a paper he swore he did not read.
After his time at the Christian Science Monitor, Hughes purchased the Cape Cod Oracle in Orleans, MA. Eventually, he published a series of five papers on the Cape. He also served as the president of the American Society of News Editors from 1978 to 1979. Hughes was pulled from this relative quiet by George Schultz, an advisor to then President-Elect Ronald Reagan. Hughes worked as the director of the Voice of America then became the State Department’s spokesman and the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs while serving in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1985. Hughes later worked with the United Nations during its fiftieth anniversary celebrations.
After all of this experience, Hughes worries about journalism today.
“The problem,” he said, is that “anybody can get published” and one must ask, “Who wrote what?”
Hughes worries about a world in which anyone with a cell phone can post a picture or video with a provocative caption that can then go viral and change national and even international news coverage. A reader today has “got to find sources,” said Hughes, “that he or she trusts, that prove responsible,” and, in this world of decreasing revenue for print news sources, “that are still alive.”
In a world of uncertain authors, Hughes seeks reliable sources like “the New York Times, Wall Street Journal,” and of course, his former employer, “the [Christian Science] Monitor.”
Despite all these concerns about contemporary news coverage, Hughes wants young writers to remember one thing about a career in journalism.
“It’s a fantastic life.”