A couple of months back, when this newspaper published my annual Top 10 Most Irritating Canadians (TV-related) list, an actor on a CBC show took to social media to complain. It’s not that the actor was even mentioned in it. The gist of the complaint was that the piece was “negative” and the paper gave space to a person to write it.
It’s interesting how easily actors, who would consider themselves artists and progressives, take on the Trumpian role of hostility toward the press. It’s dismaying that such people would take the Trump route of inciting their fans and followers to treat the press as the enemy.
In part, the dismaying impulse is there because newspapers are considered weak and vulnerable and easy to bully. We’re not, actually. And there was a time when that wasn’t the perception and newspaper columnists had a heft that is hard to fathom today.
Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (Tuesday, HBO, 7:10 p.m. ET and on-demand on Crave/HBO) presents Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill as heroes, men invulnerable to the complaints and taunts of the powerful. As writers for New York papers at a certain time, they were the voices that mattered.
It’s a wonderful documentary, full of colourful stories and sharp commentary. It paints a vivid picture of newsrooms filled with vibrant characters and, mainly, it celebrates great writing. Breslin and Hamill were newspaper superstars from the 1960s through the ’80s, and not only in and around New York. They were imitated, as the doc makes clear, and every big-city paper had columnists who tried to plow the same ground. None could match either of them for the prose, the work rate and the ability to diminish the powerful and uncover truths.
There is a very powerful sequence at the beginning which chronicles how Breslin deflated the hero-worship bestowed on Bernhard Goetz, the so-called “Subway Vigilante” who in 1984 shot four black youths he said were trying to rob him on the subway. Breslin was outraged by the plaudits and, much against popular feeling in the city, condemned him. There is also an excellent sequence about Breslin’s reporting on the assassination of President John Kennedy, when Breslin simply found the man who would dig Kennedy’s grave and gave him centre stage.
Hamill was always more the poet, a gifted, eloquent writer who could describe working-class life in the city, or the deaths of U.S. solders in Vietnam, with arresting sympathy and persuasiveness. He was on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” and singled out by Vice-President Spiro Agnew as one of those “nattering nabobs of negativism.” While Breslin kept writing columns, Hamill became an editor and famously dated Jackie Onassis, Linda Ronstadt and Shirley MacLaine.
Both are interviewed in the doc, which was made over several years, principally by Jonathan Alter. Breslin died in 2017, aged 88, and Hamill is still alive at 83. The sight of both of them together, frail but feisty as they spin yarns, is beguiling. And the potted history of the decline of big-city papers in the United States is still startling to encounter.
The weaknesses of both men are covered too, but probably not with sufficient vigour. The excessive drinking is mentioned (Hamill wrote a bestselling book about finally being sober) and the occasion on which Breslin used a racial slur against a young staffer of Korean background is covered too. But what’s not really developed is the underlying theme of toxic masculinity that pervaded the newspaper industry in the decades when Breslin and Hamill were stars. It was a very male racket and is the better now for not being so masculine and filled with such aggressive egotism.
That sort of egotism is bandied now by fringe figures in showbiz and politics who can barely compose a tweet let alone a robust column of energy, wit and humanity. And yes, by the way, Donald Trump turns up in the doc. He is seen in 1989 calling for the execution of five youths charged with the rape and beating of the woman known as the Central Park jogger. It was found out later that the five were falsely convicted. The point is to emphasize that Trump and others like him inflamed public opinion while it was the work of people such as Breslin and Hamill to speak truth to power.
No, newspapers aren’t as powerful as they once were. And there is little use in being nostalgic for the period this program covers. There are still people who are annoyed that newspapers even exist and will rail against them. That’s fine. Reports of the death of newspapers are greatly exaggerated, and they can’t be easily bullied.