Tea was already ready when I reached Terry Wolkerstorfer’s home in St. Paul on that windy but sunny afternoon. It was a few hours before an awaited match of his favorite football team, the Minnesota United FC, also known as the Loons. On the wall facing us in his living room, a red rug with some Eastern European motifs he bought from a bazar in Beirut, one of the numerous objects he collected from the 75 countries he has visited so far.
Wolkerstorfer, 80, is a retired journalist who had a long career that led him to numerous countries, among them Vietnam where he spent long months and years covering the war. He was one of the first American journalists to report on the beginning stages of the invasion of Cambodia. At first, Wolkerstorfer wanted to be a sports journalist, but the Vietnam War changed everything. In 1966, after taking advice from Bernard Fall, the eminent war correspondent and one of the greatest writers on Indochina, Wolkerstorfer flew to Vietnam to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army.
“Fall told me: ‘It is going to be the biggest story in the world in the next years. If you’ve got some experience there as a soldier you might be able to get back as a journalist,” says Wolkerstorfer.
Indeed, from being a soldier, he went back as a journalist for The Associated Press where he spent months covering the war between 1967 and 1972.
Although he describes the conflict as being stupid and futile, Wolkerstorfer considers the Vietnam War to be a turning point in his career.
“I became aware of larger and global issues,” he says. “That was when I became a real journalist.”
Terry Wolkerstorfer at his home in St. Paul (Photo: Tarek KAI)
During these years, Wolkerstorfer came closer to getting killed more times as a journalist than he ever did as a soldier, even though he was involved in combat operations with the army, he says.
Among the challenges he faced back then was finding and telling the truth about the war. “If your country happens to be one of the participants in that war, it’s even harder because it’s virtually impossible to tell both sides of the story fairly and openly,” explains Wolkerstorfer.
The 1960s and 1970s with the war reporting on Vietnam and the Watergate scandal represented for him the golden age of U.S. journalism.
“Journalists were regarded as the heroes and the truth tellers,” he says. “Journalists do not have that credibility anymore.” Journalism used to be a leader and now journalism is a follower, says Wolkerstorfer, adding that this is largely due to the move from news media being locally owned to corporate and conglomerate owned.
“The structure of journalism in America as it existed 50 years ago was a structure in which good journalism could flourish,” he says. “Now, that structure does not exist anymore. The gigantic corporations that own media outlets today just care about how much money they are making.”
Wolkerstorfer also sees the increasing polarization within the United States as another potential threat to the profession – and the nation.
“We are seeing a swing toward populism, toward right-wing extremism, an erosion of civil liberties… So it’s not just a question of what is going to happen to journalism, it is a question of what is going to happen to our society and those things are inextricably bound up together,” he says.
Still, Wolkerstorfer is confident there are honest, dedicated and courageous journalists who will continue to find the truth and to tell it.
Photo above of Terry Wolkerstorfer and Louis Armstrong when Wolkerstorfer aged 17, interviewed in 1960 the legendary jazz musician in St. Paul. (Photo: Tarek KAI)