Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He was interviewed in the HBO documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.” He is co-editor of the book “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns,” a collection of pieces by famous newspaper columnists. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
There’s a brand-new doc that you’ve got to watch if you care about journalism. It’s called “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” and it debuts Monday night on HBO.
It’s a reminder of a great American tradition that’s under attack by know-nothing demagogues and the remorseless economics of the news business. But the reported column, as practiced and perfected by Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, set an example that still can inspire across the decades.
They fought the good fight by telling other people’s stories – afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, as the old saying goes – and not simply serving up hot takes. And in so doing, they remind us that real journalists are the opposite of “the enemy of the people.” At our best, we give voice to the people while holding power to account and always standing up against the mob.
Yesterday’s newspapers were famously used to wrap fish, but it is the writing that makes Breslin and Hamill endure. They wrote literature in real time, on deadline. It’s the highest possible bar, and I’m willing to bet that the best of their work will still read fresh decades from now. Judge for yourself: read Breslin’s “Death in Emergency Room One” or Hamill’s vision of the hell from lower Manhattan on 9/11.
They were creatures of the New York City streets – tireless and brilliant but BS-intolerant. They could make a scene come alive in the mind’s eye of the reader – perhaps reflecting the fact that both studied painting as kids. Both bypassed college or journalism school and exemplified the idea that education is a lousy substitute for experience.
Breslin brought Queens characters like the bookie Fat Thomas or the arsonist Marvin the Torch to life. Hamill had a touch of the Irish poet that illuminated even the darkest days of 1968, as a witness to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the temporary death of hope.
But after the dust cleared on the hurly-burly of the daily newspaper grind, their finest moments were when they refused to pander to fear-fueled public opinion – humanizing AIDS victims during the earliest days of that plague and refusing to glorify the subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz during the bad old days of high crime on the subway.
It’s that aspect of their character that speaks to our times, against the metric-driven drift to feed the outrage of the day. Instead, they stood apart from the crowd and used their influence to try and remind their fellow New Yorkers of the deeper values that can feel briefly expendable when the bile rises in our collective throat.
In fact, when Hamill found himself on Nixon’s enemies list, he recognized it as a badge of honor, surrounded by good company.
So too in the fights with a brash New York real estate developer named Donald Trump, who is seen in “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” denouncing the unjustly accused “Central Park Five” in the 1980s and extolling the virtue of hate: “I hate these people. And let’s all hate these people because maybe hate is what we need if we’re going to get something done.”
Hamill’s pushback in print denounced Trump as “snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtues of stupidity. It was the epitome of blind negation. Hate was just another luxury, and Trump stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who lead well-defended lives.”
Even as memories fade, the words endure and gain new energy. But the vibrant local newspaper culture in New York and around the nation that gave birth to Breslin and Hamill’s talents has been dying for decades, arguably when we need it most. The newsroom of the New York Daily News, which employed them both for a few glory years, has been slashed from 450 to 45 people. Countless other newspapers have ceased to exist entirely, even as new digital news brands unsteadily try to fill the void. The risk is a less robust civic conversation and an invitation to increased corruption.
But the ferocious spirit of a free press won’t be extinguished. As “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” reminds us, the antidote to ignorance is fearlessness in the pursuit of truth.