The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

How Jimmy Breslin changed journalism - Michael's essay

Breslin was the best practitioner of what was called, "The New Journalism," using the techniques of fiction to tell the stories of the poor, the working class and the underclass.
In this Nov. 2, 2004, file photo, author-columnist Jimmy Breslin poses for a photo at his New York apartment. Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of wise guys and underdogs who became the brash embodiment of the old-time, street smart New Yorker, died March 19, 2017. (Jim Cooper/The Associated Press)

It began with a man named Clay Felker. He was the editor of the local section of the old New York Herald Tribune. It was called simply, New York. When it morphed into New York Magazine, he became its editor and began hiring a very different breed of journalist.

Some had a background in sports reporting. Most had covered the cops, the courts and city hall. What made them different was the way they told stories. Instead of a bloodless recitation of cold facts without context or background, they adopted the craft of the novelist, constructing colourful narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end. The technique would become known as The New Journalism.

In some ways, it wasn't all that new. Writers such as H.L. Mencken and Ring Lardner had been using this reporting style for years. The new journalists included Pete Hamill, Tom Wolfe, later, Marshall Frady and Joan Didion. The most famous of all was James Earle Breslin.

Last weekend, Jimmy Breslin died in New York at the age of 88.

Breslin was the avatar of another era of journalism. It was in the days of typewriters, flashbulbs, carbon paper and flush expense accounts. People took in their news from newspapers. Television was still an infant.

I was working for a Thomson weekly, trying desperately to find and polish some kind of reporting style. Like other young reporters, I tried to emulate Breslin, Hamill and the others. I learned from Breslin the importance of talking to ordinary people. People gravitated to him, talked to him, and he listened. He wrote down what they said. He not only made them feel important, perhaps for the first time in their lives, he gave readers insights into a world they would probably never enter.
June 18, 1969: Jimmy Breslin, left, and author Norman Mailer concede defeat in New York City's primary election after Mailer's unsuccessful bid for mayor, with Breslin as his running mate. After their predictable loss, Breslin observed, "I'm mortified to have taken part in a process that has closed the bar for the better part of the day." (The Associated Press)

Breslin used the phone. He walked the streets. He found his sources in bars, cop shops, dingy diners, low rent apartments and homeless shelters. His beat was the poor and the marginalized. And his journalism was marked by, even driven by rage, a refiner's fire that burned into his very soul when he found injustice.

He stayed away from the journalistic herd. Reporters like to travel in packs, like dingos; he did not.

He covered the Dallas assassination of John Kennedy through the eyes of an emergency room doctor at Parkland Memorial. He wrote about JFK's burial at Arlington Cemetery by interviewing the grave digger who was rudely escorted away from the service after he dug the hole.
Nov. 25, 1963: Caroline Kennedy, 5, looks to her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanied by John F. Kennedy, Jr., 3, while leaving St. Matthew's Cathedral after the funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy in Washington. (The Associated Press)

On the Selma march in 1965, most reporters flocked to the front of the crowd to follow Martin Luther King. Breslin interviewed the last man at the back of the march, a black man who paid his taxes and wanted the vote.

He sought out the company of lowlifes and rounders, shady characters like the arsonist Marvin the Torch, the bookie Fat Thomas and Goldstein the process server.

Of Donald Trump, he was not a fan. He especially hated Trump's high-born swagger and tough talk. Years ago he wrote that the developer's tough language "can only come from someone who walks around with bodyguards. He couldn't fight his way out of an empty lot."

The last time I talked to Breslin, he was in high fury over the sexual abuse by priests of the church he and I were raised in. His anger was molten, especially at the Vatican's treatment of women and the poor. (We have posted that conversation on our web site here.)

He gave his readers what they wanted, but also what they needed.

Sometimes journalism, when it is done well, can enlighten and edify and make better citizens of all of us. That's what Jimmy Breslin tried to do. Sometimes he failed, like the rest of us. But in the trying he spoke directly to us about who we are as human beings and what we could be.

In the era of Trump and terror, he will be terribly missed.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now