John Martin, Distinguished Alumnus
John Martin was born in New York City and grew up in San Diego. He majored in journalism at San Diego State University where he worked as a reporter and managing editor for The Aztec, later working as a reporter and copy editor for The San Diego Union Tribune. In 1962, Martin was drafted, but continued working on various publications in different positions while in the army, including The Augusta Chronicle in Georgia, and the Army weekly The Jayhawk. During this time he also reported on the Kennedy assassination.
Following the completion of his military service, Martin worked as an editor for The New York Times International Edition in Paris, wrote a travel guide in Spain, and returned to the United States in 1966 to work as a correspondent for NBC affiliate KCRA TV in Sacramento. In 1975, he became a national correspondent for ABC News. Based in New York and Washington, Martin covered events in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, China, Central and South America, and South Africa. In 1983 he uncovered the story of Nazi fugitive Klaus Barbie. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Washington Monthly.
After retiring from reporting in 2002, Martin taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism until 2010, and is now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center where his research focuses on the role of television contributing to the public’s understanding of key issues. He is also the editor and photographer of his magazine The World Tennis Gazette.
Download the PDF transcript of the complete interview.
Jane Meyers introduces John Martin with a brief overview of his life and career. Martin begins the story of his life with the immigration of his grandparents from Europe to the United States, the careers of his parents, and the events leading up to his family’s move to San Diego. He grew up in Pacific Beach playing sports, most importantly, tennis. Martin decided to attend San Diego State University as a journalism major, and was made the on campus correspondent for The Evening Tribune by his tennis coach who was also an editor for the paper.
In 1962 Martin was drafted into the Army, and in 1963, after writing to a San Diego Congressman, received orders to go to Germany. He worked on various publications while serving, including The Augusta Chronicle and The Jayhawk. Martin details the circumstances leading to his presence at John F. Kennedy’s assassination the same year, and his involvement in covering the story. After completing his service, Martin moved to Paris with his wife where he edited for The New York Times International Edition, then moved to Majorca for a year to ghost write a travel guide for Temple Fielding, before moving back to the United States.
Martin recounts his time working at NBC affiliate KCRA TV in Sacramento and the stories he covered for them in East Africa and the Middle East, including his unsuccessful attempt to interview the new president of Uganda, Idi Amin, in 1971. He discusses the introduction of “eyewitness news” to television journalism and the concerns it raised for reporters, and recounts the last story he covered for KCRA, a case of indecent exposure, before leaving as a response to the changes made to the station. Martin then became ABC News’ ‘Mideast fireman,’ a role which sent him to the Middle East to cover major events such as the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon, and ‘the incubator atrocity hoax’ in Kuwait during the Gulf War. To illustrate the lessons he learned as a correspondent, Martin tells the story of his search for notorious Nazi war criminal, Joseph Mengele.
Martin addresses the changes implemented by ABC president Roone Arledge, including his focus on ratings and decision to hire Geraldo Rivera and Cassie Mackin. He talks about working as a field correspondent for David Brinkley on “This Week with David Brinkley,” and the work of fellow reporter Jim Wooten, who covered the OPEC meeting in Vienna during the oil embargo crisis to exact revenge on the producers. Martin also worked as a correspondent for “Nightline” with Ted Koppel, a job which he found both exciting and exhausting. To illustrate the difference between covering the evening news and working as a correspondent, he describes covering a story for “Nightline” about torture in Brazil in the 1960s and ‘70s. He circles back to his time reporting and editing for The Aztec which was disowned by the Journalism Department and taught him the importance of the individual making editorial decisions. As a correspondent for ABC News, Martin covered a story in South Africa during apartheid in the 1970s, visited China in 1984, and uncovered the story of Klaus Barbie, a Nazi war criminal who escaped to South America with the aid of American Counterintelligence. He also details the most extensive string of traveling he did while working on a story for “Nightline.”
The conversation shifts to tennis, the influence it has had on Martin’s life, and the different stories and publications he has written on the subject. He goes on to discuss the highlights of teaching journalism at Columbia University, including a visit from former Attorney General Janet Reno. He explores how journalism is struggling as a field, returning to his interest in tennis as an example of how stretched journalists are by the number of platforms today, then goes on to discuss his magazine The World Tennis Gazette and writing for The New York Times. Moving on to his current work at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Martin explains the 1949 Fairness Doctrine. He continues with an overview of his family and friends, and what he does for fun, particularly his interest in photography, which began at SDSU. He looks back on JFK’s commencement speech at SDSU, and ends the interview discussing his opinion of the university and reveals the truth about his degree.
Interview conducted and digitally recorded by Jane Meyers on September 26, 2017
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