Remembering William Worthy

1957 Nieman Fellow defied government travel restrictions to report on revolutions in China and Cuba

William Worthy at the U.S. Passport Agency in 1957. His renewal was denied after he visited China, leading to the first of several legal battles he had with government during his lifetime. Photo by Jacob Harris/Associated Press

William Worthy, who fought with the government over reporting trips to China, Cuba and Iran, died at a nursing home in Massachusetts on May 4. He was 92. It was during his Nieman Fellowship in 1956-1957 that Worthy, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American and correspondent for CBS News, first defied the State Department’s travel restrictions by flying to China during winter break to report for CBS. The government refused to renew Worthy’s passport after the trip, so in 1964 he went to Cuba without one. On his return he was convicted of entering the country illegally. He successfully appealed, and a federal court declared the law unconstitutional. His case inspired folk singer Phil Ochs to record “The Ballad of William Worthy” in 1964.

Worthy won the 2008 Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism

Read Worthy’s obituary in The Boston Globe

Worthy's past work in Nieman Reports:

Bill Worthy Reports on China” - Summer 1957
In this excerpt from a talk given after his trip to China, Worthy describes some of the institutions he visited, from a university where “all the intellectuals had been scared stiff, and no one was doing any work for fear of getting into ideological trouble” to a department store where the products “retain their capitalistic names although manufactured now in the state-owned factories of the People’s Republic of China.”

The Iran Papers Case” - Spring 1983
After Worthy returned from Iran in 1983, the FBI confiscated 11 books containing reprints of documents seized from the U.S. Embassy during the revolution. Worthy writes about the case and the Justice Department’s argument that, even though the books were printed in Iran and freely available to purchase there, they were the property of the U.S. government.

Prolonged Surrender to Reality: U.S. Media Coverage of Revolutions” - Fall 1985
After his Iran trip, Worthy gave a presentation at Harvard’s Kennedy School about the state of the country, along with a history of how newspapers have covered past revolutions. Going back to the Bolsheviks in Russia, he says, journalists have regularly overstated the chaos after revolutions and erroneously foretold their imminent failures.

2 Comments on Remembering William Worthy
Danny Schechter'78 says:
May 20, 2014 at 10:08am
Bill was a lion in a field of lambs, a beacon of integrity and energy, I knew him in my years in Boston, and reported the story of what happened at Logan airport when he returned from Iran with copies of reconstructed CIA documents seized in the Embassy in the pre-Snowden/Wikileaks era. They were seized again in Boston, well most of them. That didn't stop Bill from writing and talking about his trip there but always in a quiet and professional way. We need to honor his memory and emulate his courage.
Lionel Morrison says:
May 13, 2014 at 1:03pm
I met Bill Worthy in Djakarta,Indonesia,1963 when I was working for the Afro-Asian Journalists Association. We both interviewed President Sukarno and later when Chou-en -Lai from China
visited Indonesia. Bill was anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist,hated inequalities and one of the best investigative journalist I got to know.Like him I also did not have a passport from my home country South Africa who refused me one because of my opposition to Apartheid.He was sharp, clear and was a popular guest lecturer at our training courses for young Afro-Asian journalists, who we trained. I welcomed his experience and help with the monthly Afro-Asian Journalist, which I edited.I am sad that we did not keep in touch after the coup took place in Indonesia.
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