BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Back in the day the stereotype for a reporter was ink-stained wretch. No fancy pedigree, no pretensions just a nosy ruffian and scuffing shoe leather in pursuit of a good yarn. Then came the professionalization of the industry–all J school and good manners. And then came the industry's financial collapse and a whole breed of journalism has all but vanished. There are no pixels stained wretches. It's almost hard to imagine that, only a few years ago, the likes of Pete Hamill And Jimmy Breslin were the beating heart of New York City reporting.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: These guys were like superstars.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They were everywhere.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: People saw it as the voice of true New Yorkers. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: That from the trailer of the HBO documentary Deadline Artists Breslin and Hamill. Tabloid columnists, who for decades, were the scribes of and for working class New York. Breslin died in 2017. Hamill is still writing but the newspaper world they populated is all but vanished. Journalist and author Jonathan Alter co directed and co-produced the documentary with Steve McCarthy and John Block. John Alter, welcome to On The Media.
JONATHAN ALTER: Thanks Bob, good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Breslin and Hamill were giants, but they were giants mainly of the last century and mainly of New York City. For the benefit of younger generations and those of our listeners beyond the five boroughs, who were these guys?
JONATHAN ALTER: Every community in the United States had a local newspaper columnist who was basically a Jimmy Breslin wannabe. That's how big Breslin was. Pete Hamill was not as famous as Jimmy Breslin but he was a sort of dashing figure. He was dating the most famous woman in the world, Jacqueline Onassis, and a top movie star Shirley MacLaine–at the same time. Neither of these guys finished college. They both came from the streets and they reported on the streets.
BOB GARFIELD: What's remarkable about these two, and I guess you know this better than anybody, is that there were larger than life at almost exactly the same way. They were pugnacious creatures of the street pounding out columns for the tabloids. In fact, here's one of the star journalists you interviewed for the film.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, in the early gritty days of journalism, you didn't have an Ivy League degree and you never made a particularly good salary. You were much more, naturally, of the street than you were when the whole thing became a profession.
BOB GARFIELD: That voice sounds familiar. Here's how Pete Hamill expressed a similar thought.
PETE HAMILL: Once there was another city here and now it is gone. There were almost no traces of it anymore but millions of us know it existed because we lived in. The lost city of New York. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Your film traces their careers, sometimes in parallel and sometimes intersecting, as they cover some of the big stories of the last 50 years–The Kennedy assassination, Son of Sam, 9/11. Someone in the film points out that there were like Zellick or Forrest Gump wherever history happened, there they were. They were both in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 with Bobby Kennedy when he was shot.
PETE HAMILL: And there was Sirhan with his arm out like this. And a long group of us, leaped on him.
JIMMY BRESLIN: What's his name, Sirhan, I'm on his feet, I sat on him. [END CLIP]
JONATHAN ALTER: Pete Hamill grabbed Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin, and then Jimmy Breslin sat on Sirhan Sirhan's feet until the cops got there. And then Jimmy rode with Bobby Kennedy to the hospital and Pete Hamill went into a tailspin after Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
PETE HAMILL: We knew that America had struck again. And this slimy little indoor rally in the back of a gaudy ballroom. I saw a Kennedy lurch against the ice machine and then sag. And I know that he was dead. [END CLIP]
JONATHAN ALTER: He had, as he confesses in the film, gotten too close to Kennedy as a reporter. And it was a mistake he never made again. He had actually written him a letter urging him to run for president. And then Kennedy sent him a letter back saying I'm taking your advice I'm running and I need your help. And Pete later reflected that that's not what you should do when you're a journalist. And he never did it again.
BOB GARFIELD: So that was in L.A. but they ply their trade mainly in New York covering the arrest, for example, of the so-called central park five boys from the projects who were rounded up after the rape and beating of a jogger in the 80s.
PETE HAMILL: He was just another luxury. And Trump stood naked revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who lead well defended lives. Forget poverty and its causes, forget the degradation and squalor of millions, fry them into passivity.
BOB GARFIELD: That was Pete Hamill writing, after more than a decade in prison, the guys were freed when another man confessed to the crime and the DNA matched. Breslin took up the cause for someone else who came unjustly in the glare of publicity and rushed to judgment. A rookie NYPD cop named Cibella Borges. Tell me that story.
JONATHAN ALTER: A woman cop named Cibella Borges is fired from the New York Police Department because before she was a cop she had posed nude for a magazine called Beaver, which as Jimmy later wrote in a magazine, 'men read with one hand.' So she was fired and she was just pilloried in the press. And Jimmy took up her cause and said, you know, 'why should she be fired for something that she did before she was on the force? And why isn't the police union representing her?' That's what they're supposed to do.
JIMMY BRESLIN: The police department should have been proud of the pictures. It says, 'they pulled that at least one member of the force has a marvelous physical condition.' [END CLIP]
JONATHAN ALTER: The police union then takes out full page ads attacking Jimmy Breslin. But eventually his columns are so persuasive that a court reinstates her and they saw their job as sticking up for the ordinary guy and woman who is often neglected by the news media. And so even though they were these larger than life characters and they certainly knew every celebrity in the world and they covered big stories with major historical figures, their bread and butter was more writing about people who just needed a hand.
BOB GARFIELD: We talked about them being a breed apart. What that meant, literally, was that they typically did not follow the herd of other journalists? Their prose was spectacular but the angles they came up with were equally profound. When JFK was shot, Breslin followed the story to Dallas– ike hundreds of other reporters. But he came up with an angle that makes your heart skip a beat. It covered the assassination through the eyes of the ER doctor. And then a few days later he covers the Arlington cemetery burial of the dead president. From the perspective of the grave digger.
JIMMY BRESLIN: Pollard could you please be by 11 o'clock this morning' Kawalchik asked. 'I guess, you know, what it's for.' Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. [END CLIP]
JONATHAN ALTER: This became one of the most famous newspaper columns ever written by an American. It's taught in many journalism schools. And the reason is because it contains the most important lesson for a reporter on a story. Get away from the pack. Find a fresh angle. Use your wits to bring something new and different to the reader. And if you do that, you can distinguish yourself in the business.
BOB GARFIELD: New York tabloid journalism was sort of the canary in the coal mine for the collapse of the daily newspaper economy in this country. And one of the great moments of foreshadowing was when a developer, I think was, named Abe Hirschfeld bought The New York Post. And the first thing he did was fire his editor and chief, Pete Hamill.
JONATHAN ALTER: This was in the 1990s when newspapers were kind of hemorrhagingcash and were changing hands a lot. But this was a sort of a symbol of taking somebody who was absolutely beloved in New York journalism, Pete Hamill, and throwing him out on his ear and then lying about it and claiming that he didn't.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This is what happened when Hirschfeld told workers he didn't fire Hamill.
[CLIP OF PEOPLE SHOUTING]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Hirschfeld shot back today by firing 71 employees and threatening to fold the paper if it doesn't publish tomorrow. [END CLIP]
JONATHAN ALTER: And there was a period where the inmates took over the asylum. They put out the newspaper from a coffee shop on the ground floor because Pete was barred from the building. And, you know, they ran headlines like Who is This Nut, referring to their owner. So it was just a raucous and fun, if ultimately doomed, rebellion in New York journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: As you survey the landscape of what's left of Metro columning, is there anybody who is the heir to the Breslin Hamill legacy?
JONATHAN ALTER: I don't think there's anybody who is doing exactly what they did. But I think Dan Barry and Jim Dwyer are terrific. You know, there's--there's great work now but we're not going to see another print journalist who hosts Saturday Night Live. That's not going to happen.
BOB GARFIELD: John, thank you very much.
JONATHAN ALTER: Thanks so much Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Alter with Steve McCarthy and John Block was director producer of the new HBO documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess. Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturverdi. We've had more help from Xandra Ellin. And our show was edited this week by our executive producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Monsen. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. On The Media's Production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.