Seymour Topping dies at 98; U.S. journalist covered 1949 revolution, headed Tsinghua advisory board

The International Center for Journalists, Tsinghua University and the Global Business Journalism program are mourning the loss of Seymour “Top” Topping, a legendary war reporter and New York Times editor, and longtime member of ICFJ’s advisory board. He passed away Nov. 8 at the age of 98 in White Plains, N.Y. Top was perhaps best known for his brilliant coverage of China’s civil war in the late 1940s and the rise of Mao Zedong and communism in that country. His China expertise proved invaluable to ICFJ as the center launched its groundbreaking Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2007. He served on the international board of directors of that program, which continues to thrive today, having awarded master’s degrees to nearly 450 Chinese and international students.

Seymour Topping is flanked by his wife Audrey and International Center for Journalists president Joyce Barnathan at this ICFJ event.

Chen Changfeng, executive dean of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication, called Topping "a highly respected journalist, a well-established world correspondent, and a cherished old friend of all of us." 

"We appreciate Mr. Topping's indelible contribution to our school over the past decades," she wrote in a letter of condolence to Topping's widow, Audrey. "He played a significant role in our international development and gave us tremendous support, especially when he served as the chairperson of TSJC's International Advisory Board."


Topping played an integral part in the launch of the Global Business Journalism program in 2007 and delivered the keynote address at the first Financial Media Forum held at Tsinghua that year, discussing "Media and Social Development." The program, now called the Tsinghua Business Journalism Forum, is an annual fixture of the Global Business Journalism program, bringing journalists and academics from around the world and across China to the Tsinghua campus.


The man known universally as "Top" delivered video remarks at the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication in 2012. The school created a special “Seymour and Audrey Topping Shelf” in its library in 2016.


"It was truly an honor for us to work with Mr. Topping," said Dean Chen. "Our school has made much progress since his last visit, but we feel regret that he won't be able to see it for himself. We will build on the guidance he has given us, and continue to work towards a better future."

Topping was one of the most important journalists covering the Chinese civil war and the victory of Communist forces over the Nationalist government. In his memoir, “On the Front Lines of the Cold War,” Top recalled being held prisoner in January 1949 in a hut in central China while serving as correspondent for the International News Service. A battle between Nationalists and the People’s Liberation Army raged outside. Soon after being freed, Top would learn that the battle he had witnessed was the one in which Mao and his forces essentially ended the war and took control of China. “Mao’s victory in the Battle of the Huai-Hai marked the onset of an era in which East Asia would be engulfed in war, revolution, and genocide,” he wrote in a his memoir, according to his obituary in The New York Times. “Tens of millions would die in China, Korea, Indochina and Indonesia in wars, political purges and sectarian violence.” Top went on to cover conflicts across Asia, including Vietnam. In 1950, he became the first U.S. correspondent in that country since World War II, covering the war between France and the communists under Ho Chi Minh, according to the Times.  The Times hired him in 1959, and soon made him Moscow bureau chief. He broke the news of the U-2 spy plane incident in 1960 and covered other stories from Soviet space missions to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  He then became Southeast Asia bureau chief in the early years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, then moved to New York to become foreign news editor in 1966. He gradually rose at the Times to become assistant managing editor, deputy managing editor and managing editor. He retired from the paper in 1993 and became a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, awarded by Columbia. Top’s wife, Audrey, a writer and photojournalist whom he met in what is now Nanjing, has also been a great friend to ICFJ. Her photos of China are iconic. She survives him, as do four of their five daughters, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Each of the Toppings helped ICFJ in a variety of ways over the years. Top met with groups of visiting international journalists, regaling them with stories of everything from war reporting to managing the Times’ publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, which led to a Supreme Court ruling that has become essential in guaranteeing freedom of the press in the United States. The Toppings attended ICFJ’s events in New York and Washington, and in 2012, Audrey headlined an event at which she showed photos from remote parts of China at a time when very few Western journalists had access to such places. She helped ICFJ auction the photos to raise funds to support the center’s work. Tsinghua, GBJ and ICFJ extend their condolences to Audrey and the Topping family. 


Note: AP Vice President and Editor at Large for Standards John Daniszewski, also an ICFJ board member, wrote this obituary for the wire service.




TSJC executive dean Chen Changfeng hails "an extraordinary icon, an academic innovator, a beloved mentor"

Here is the full text of Dean Chen's tribute to Seymour Topping:


On behalf of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication (TSJC), I would like to express our deepest condolences to you for the loss of Mr. Seymour Topping, a highly respected journalist, a well-established world correspondent, and a cherished old friend of all of us. 

We appreciate Mr. Topping's indelible contribution to our school over the past decades. He played a significant role in our international development and gave us tremendous support, especially when he served as the chairperson of TSJC's International Advisory Board. 

We cherish the memory of every meeting with Mr. Topping. In 2007, he attended the first Financial Media Forum held at Tsinghua and delivered keynote speech for us on "Media and Social Development."

In 2010, he visited us again and gave us great support in the School’s International Accreditation. As the co-chair of the International Accreditation Committee, he commented highly on our students' professional enthusiasm and sense of responsibility. He also gave us constructive advices and suggestions on international cooperation, experimental teaching, academic innovation, and student development. 

In 2012, even he was not able to attend TSJC 10th anniversary in person, he presented with a video speech in the ceremony. He spoke highly of the School’s progress and marked the GBJ program as a successful paradigm for business journalism education. The memory of his passion and encouragement will remain as inspiration to us all.

We are grateful for the support and concern Mr. Topping and you have given us all the time. In order to pay our tribute to both of you, we set up a special “Seymour and Audrey Topping Shelf” in the library of our school in 2016.


It was truly an honor for us to work with Mr. Topping. Our school has made much progress since his last visit, but we feel regret that he won't be able to see it for himself. We will build on the guidance he has given us, and continue to work towards a better future.

Mr. Topping was an extraordinary icon, an academic innovator, a beloved mentor, an esteemed educator, an inspiration to thousands of former colleagues and students, and a friend to so many people in China, the U.S., and the Columbia University community. He will be greatly missed, and always be remembered among acquaintances and friends.

At this difficult time, please know that we are holding you in our prayers and thoughts. We will always be here to support you. Please accept our heartfelt condolences and please pass the same to your family. 


Mr. Topping will rest in peace and eternity.

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