Steven Erlanger’s enduring newspaper career is rich with vignettes of a nomadic life of war zones, far-flung capitals, and contrasting cultures. As the The New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, Erlanger has also served as bureau chief in London, Paris, Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Moscow, and Bangkok. Taft recognizes him with the school’s highest alumni honor.
Burma banished him. Then there was a scolding by Slobodan Milošević, the former Yugoslav president tried for war crimes.
And as if that wasn’t enough of a journalism crucible, Steven Erlanger would be remiss if he didn’t mention the time he was mugged and shot in Ottawa while he was writing for The Boston Globe. “He had a gun in his windbreaker, which I never saw,” Erlanger says of his attacker, who pushed him down as he was, ironically, reaching to pick up a newspaper. A Reuters journalist came to his aid and called for help. Erlanger, now The New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, wrote a magazine piece about his scare called “Getting Shot.” “I felt like now I could go anywhere without getting hurt,” he says.
Erlanger’s enduring newspaper career is rich with vignettes of a nomadic life of warzones, far-flung capitals, language immersion programs, and contrasting cultures. It’s spanned more than 40 years, from the Iranian Revolution starting in 1978 to the breakup of the Soviet Union and now Brexit. It has been filled with a disparate cast of world leaders, cabinet ministers, despots, revolutionaries, and, naturally, memorable editors.
Since 2017, Erlanger has been based in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union. He has traveled to more than 120 countries during his odyssey. “Some of them of course have disappeared since then,” he says. Case in point: Burma is now Myanmar.
Erlanger has been The Times’ envoy to the world, having served as bureau chief in London, Paris, Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Moscow, and Bangkok. “I said to them, ‘I’m going abroad. You’re hiring me to go abroad,’” says Erlanger, who joined The Times in 1987 after 11 years at The Globe.
The Gray Lady upheld her end of the bargain, but first Erlanger had to pay his dues for a year on the Metro desk, where he says The Times gave him high-profile assignments. One of them captured the mood in the Bronx over “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the Tom Wolfe satire that depicted the borough in a most unflattering light. He interviewed the radical civil rights lawyer William M. Kunstler over a tongue sandwich in the Court Deli near the Bronx courthouse. The story’s headline was: “Bonfire in Bronx!!! Wolfe Catches Flak!!!”
“I think it still has a record for having more exclamation points in a Times headline ever,” says Erlanger, who grew up in Waterbury and graduated from Harvard.
A year from the day that Erlanger joined The Times, he was off to Bangkok, where the “bureau” was a bedroom in a house. There was a secretary who was a translator, plus a gardener, a cook, and a driver.
The world was less connected. The internet hadn’t germinated. Twitter was decades away.
Erlanger delivered scoops nevertheless from Southeast Asia, including from Vietnam and Cambodia after the war— even when Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was under a curfew. “I stayed up all night because there was no time when Phnom Penh wasn’t under a curfew and The New York Times was awake,” he says.
Erlanger went to a post office to use the telephone to call The Times and dictate a story. The call got bounced from Moscow to Cuba to New York. “The cost, by the time I finished dictating, was $300,” Erlanger says.
Nowadays, WhatsApp, the popular Facebook-owned calling and messaging app, makes Erlanger, who is married and whose wife has accompanied him on much of his journey, sound like he’s in the next room.
Erlanger reported on the war in Kosovo, which he considers to be some of his strongest work. In 1986, he covered the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. When the authoritarian Communist regime put Poland under martial law, Erlanger was there. He’s bounced around to Turkey, Northern Ireland, Australia, Indonesia, and China.
“You really have to care about the world,” Erlanger advises young journalists. “I think it helps to be a little bit angry about something, not to be complacent with the world as it is. You have to be driven to journalism. You have to be interested in people. Learning when to shut up is really important.”
Erlanger’s voice has earned him substantial clout in the journalism world.
In 1982, he was the inaugural recipient of the Robert Livingston Award for international reporting for a series of stories he wrote on Eastern Europe. Twice, Erlanger has shared the Pulitzer Prize with his colleagues at The Times, first in 2002 for explanatory reporting for his coverage of Al-Qaeda, and again in 2017 for international reporting for a series about Russia. In 2013, the French government made him a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur for his contributions to journalism.
Erlanger says paying it forward to up-and-coming journalists is “what we do.” One piece of wisdom he shares: Study economics and learn one or two foreign languages. “You think differently in a different language,” he says.
—Neil Vigdor ’95
“I have long admired Steve Erlanger’s career. It is extraordinary, our school motto writ large, and across so many years and so many places. Steve has been one of the world’s great journalists and correspondents, a writer of impeccable quality, clarity, and courage. It is impossible to overstate how important he has been for millions of readers in telling and making sense of some of the most important stories of the past 40 years.”—Headmaster Willy MacMullen ’78
“As one of our most distinguished alumni, Steven Erlanger has excelled in an outstanding career in journalism at The New York Times and is an exceptional recipient of this year’s Horace Dutton Taft Alumni Medal. Honored twice with a Pulitzer Prize, he has served as The Times’ bureau chief in several locations around the world before becoming chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe. It is an honor to bestow Steven with this well-deserved award.”—Wink McKinnon ’60, chair of Horace Dutton Taft Alumni Medal Committee