(24 March 1930 – 27 March 2004)
Nicholls State University
John Sack's devotion to accuracy and fairness places his writings among the best examples of literary journalism's ability to capture truth. Working within a school of reporting often criticized for its use of literary license, Sack, one of New Journalism's pioneers, has built a career on accuracy. His stories are as vivid and compelling as those of others using that style, and yet, despite the assumptions of some critics, he has made it his practice not to fictionalize. In a half century of writing books and writing for magazines, newspapers, radio and television, often on extremely controversial topics, none of the more than one thousand people that Sack has written about have reported to him a serious error or distortion of fact.
John Sack was born March 24, 1930, in New York, N.Y., to John Jacob and Tracy Rose (Levy) Sack. At fifteen he began reporting as a stringer for the Mamaroneck (N.Y.) Daily Times at the Boy Scouts of America's Camp Siwanoy in New York; Sack eventually would become an Eagle Scout. He was graduated cum laude by Harvard University in 1951 with a B.A. in English.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Sack was an editor of The Harvard Crimson. From 1949 to 1951 he was the Harvard stringer for both the UP and the Boston Globe. In the summer of 1950 he covered a mountain-climbing expedition on Yerupaja, at the time the highest unclimbed mountain in the Americas, as a correspondent in Peru for United Press. This project provided the material for his first book, The Butcher: The Ascent of Yerupaja (1952).
Sack's first full-time reporting job began after he volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1952. Requesting, and receiving, posting to the Far East Command, Sack served as a front-line reporter covering the western front of the Korean War for Stars and Stripes. During that time he also published stories in Harper's and The New Yorker. In 1953 his status as a correspondent ended when he stowed away overnight aboard an American landing ship to interview Chinese prisoners of war and was arrested by the American military police when the ship docked at Pusan, South Korea. As a result, Sack, facing court-martial charges, was reassigned to a mailroom in Tokyo where his job was to hand out postage stamps to Japanese. After a month there, with the Army unable to find a specific violation with which to charge him, Sack was ordered back to Korea as an infantryman. Sack requested a meeting with the Inspector General in Tokyo. Although he received no help from the IG's office, Sack used the one-day delay to find a job with the Voice of the United Nations Command writing radio news for translation into Chinese and Korean. When his Army enlistment expired in 1953, he immediately returned to Korea as a reporter for UP.
His experiences as a Stars and Stripes war correspondent provided material for his second book, From Here to Shimbashi (1955), which recounts his Army life. And it was while serving in Korea that he began to lose faith in traditional reporting methods. Sack recalled covering a press conference in Seoul at which a government official denied rumors of an ammunition shortage. "I was sitting there thinking, 'Bullshit. Of course there's an ammunition shortage. I know there's an ammunition shortage,' " Sack said. A week earlier he had been in a battle during which an American tank crew had run out of shells and was told at the ammunition dump, "Sorry, we're all out; we don't have any more." He had also recently attended a briefing where spotter pilots were told that because of low munitions supplies, there would be no artillery strikes on targets of fewer than fourteen enemy soldiers. Despite his first-hand knowledge, Sack was compelled to print the denial. "I was writing what I knew was a lie. But under the rules of journalism, that was all I could write," he said.
Sack continued reporting for UP in Korea, Japan and Taiwan until 1954. From 1954 to 1955 he was a legislative correspondent for UP covering the New York State Senate. By 1953 he had started writing humor for The New Yorker. Over the next eight years he wrote more satire for the magazine than anyone except S.J. Perelman and James Thurber. In 1959, he published Report from Practically Nowhere, a lighthearted account of his tour through 13 of the world's smallest independent nations, including one, located in the same city as the Vatican, so tiny its borders were encompassed by a building about half the size of a football field. Over time, however, he became frustrated with working for The New Yorker, which would not let him address what he felt were socially significant issues. He left the magazine in 1961, but humor, though sometimes black, can be found in most of his later work.
After leaving The New Yorker, Sack became a writer/producer for CBS News. In his first year at CBS he worked on Eyewitness, a weekly prime-time program, and in the second year moved to Calendar, a daily daytime show. After spending 1963-64 in graduate school as a CBS Fellow at Columbia University, Sack returned to CBS as a writer/producer/special correspondent, and spent the next two years with the network's documentary unit and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and serving as CBS bureau chief in Madrid.
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