How Jimmy Breslin changed journalism - Michael's essay
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.
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.
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.