Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: We won't see their likes again
Letter From New York
NEW YORK — It's a bad time for newspapers in this country. In recent years the number of papers slated for closure, bankruptcy or severe cutbacks has continued to rise. The industry has shed a fifth of its journalists since 2001, much of it caused by competition from the internet media, which has put the squeeze on older print publishers. Between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue fell from about $60 billion to $20 billion. The newspapers also didn't do themselves favors by giving away their content for free online — a policy that they have begun to change.
In the 1960s I remember subway riders intently reading newspapers (especially the tabloids' sports pages) rather than compulsively looking at and texting on their I-phones. New York City then had seven daily papers, instead of the three that are publishing today. And each had a constituency. For example, the Post — liberal Jews; the Herald Tribune— WASPS; and the Daily Mirror and News — Italians and Irish. The papers also had columnists like the Pulitzer-prize winning Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill — bigger than life, hard-drinking, Irish working class guys from the boroughs— who wrote stories about ordinary New Yorkers with colloquial verve and panache.
Breslin and Hamill are depicted in a new HBO documentary, "Deadline Artists," a film that touches on hagiography, especially when we hear about the two of them from fellow city journalists like Nick Pilaggi, Mike Lupica and Gay Talese. However, it also deals in a penetrating fashion with the nature of their writing and their unique characters.
The two were friends, but had very different personalities. Breslin was self-confident, bombastic, impulsive, and never hesitant to rage at people that irritated or criticized him.
The more reflective Hamill didn't swagger, was not abrasive, and was admired by his colleagues for his integrity and his commitment to print journalism. He was a writer whose sensitivity and street poetry were at odds with the hard-boiled persona that street columnists often adopted. Both were part of the "new journalist" movement; columnists who used the techniques of fiction (e.g., storytelling) to deal with factual subjects.
The cigar-smoking, overweight Breslin was the louder and the more famous of the two. He wrote columns defending underdogs and about Runyonesque working class characters and criminals like Marvin the Torch. And he wrote indelibly about the burial of JFK from the point of view of a black gravedigger.
He ran for City Council president with the even more outrageous Norman Mailer for mayor in 1969, on a platform calling for the city to become the 51st state and for banning all autos from Manhattan. He covered sensational stories like the Son of Sam, where he corresponded personally with the killer and egocentrically became part of the story itself. But he also wrote movingly about the AIDS crisis, turning dire statistics into human stories. He was probably one of the few journalists who ever appeared on TV spieling for beer and Grape-Nuts — a crude embrace of his celebrity.
Breslin's macho posturing and bluster often hid his vulnerability. When his first wife and mother of his six children died of cancer, he was emotionally shattered, but refused to cry and went on to work the next day. In Hamill's perceptive words, he never mistook "the masks Breslin wore for the complicated person he was."
The ruggedly handsome Hamill, who never lost his Brooklyn persona, moved for a while in glamorous circles, becoming friends with Robert Kennedy, dating Jackie Onassis, and living with Shirley Maclaine. He was a writer that I had great affection and admiration for since I began reading his evocative descriptions of East Harlem's street life in the Post in 1960.
When I was teaching white ethnic college students from Brooklyn and Staten Island (including Hamill's two brothers) during the roiling late '60s and early '70s, he wrote essays that were more incisive and empathetic than anybody else about the racial resentment and growing alienation of the Nixon- and Wallace-supporting, white working-class. Hamill saw "the working-class white man as someone in revolt against taxes, joyless work, and what he considered the debasement of the American dream." For Hamill, that man may have made wrongheaded political commitments, including embracing a right wing agenda, but his underlying rage was grounded in his sense of facing a life that was genuinely inequitable.
The film includes Hamill's lyrical, affecting writing on 9/11 and the city he loves. He writes of the "pale gray wilderness" where dust coats everybody, making them look like an "assembly of ghosts." Breslin died in 2017 at 88, while a fragile looking Hamill can still be seen in a wheelchair in Prospect Park.
Both were major talents who represented an era of virile, hard living journalism that will not be resurrected in this time dominated by social media. Still, many journalists continue to engage in significant work in the Trump era, doing revelatory investigative reporting, and refusing to be cowed by the lying authoritarian in the White House.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com
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