Once upon a time, people actually read newspapers. Not the online editions of the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, but real print versions that used ink that would rub off on your fingers and, if you weren’t careful, on your tan summer suit, while you sweated on the subway in a typically un-air conditioned car. Every city that counted and many that didn’t had more than one and often a morning and evening edition of the same paper. In those pre-internet days, you could pick up the afternoon Daily News on your way home to check out the first two and a half innings of the Yankees box score for a game still being played, before TV co-opted the idea that you could skip out of work for a ball game played under actual sunlight (“God’s light,” as Ernie Banks called it).
Of course, New York City was the king of the newspaper hill, with the Times, the Herald Tribune and the Journal-American leading the field and the apotheoses of the tabloids, the Daily News or its then notoriously liberal cousin, the New York Post, was under every working stiff’s arm on the way home. Not to mention the Sun, the Brooklyn Eagle and many others, long defunct. The choice of the source of your daily updates on the state of the world was usually dictated by ethnicity or social class, and each paper definitely had its political biases, but news articles were mostly bereft of editorial content, and a “just the facts” mentality prevailed.
Then there were the columnists, who were bigger than life. Anyone who needs a reminder of what the golden age of newspapers was like could do worse than checking out the current HBO documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, which portrays the days when Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill patrolled the streets and the subways, the bars and the back rooms, for the real stories of the real people of New York and the nation, mostly under the banners of the Daily News and the Post.
Both men were educated on the streets, before an Ivy League degree was required to cover local politics and crime, but Breslin was the epitome of the “regular guy,” proudly associating with hoodlums and crooks, while Hamill had a more sophisticated aura, dating the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Shirley MacLaine. They both saw the hypocrisies of the city’s social structure and tended to defend the helpless and the downtrodden while thumbing their noses at the elite, but who were not above hobnobbing with them when convenient. They would sneer if you labelled them “journalists;” they saw themselves as merely “reporters,” immersing their frequently controversial opinions in the facts they gathered from the neighborhoods which they saw as the heart of the city.
Sometimes they became part of the story, as when Breslin printed his correspondence with Son of Sam, the cold-blooded murderer who terrorized the city while gunning down unsuspecting young women in the 70s, but who wrote so well, according to Breslin, that “he knew the proper use of the semi-colon.” When Hamill (and Breslin)were with Bobby Kennedy as he was slain in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. after winning the 1968 California Democratic Primary for President. Or when Breslin ran for City Council President on a ticket with novelist Norman Mailer for Mayor in 1969 on a “51st state” platform, although Breslin lamented: “ I am mortified to have taken part in a process that required bars to be closed.”
Of course, the newspaper business had its dark and tawdry side as well. Who can ever forget the Post’s headline of April 15, 1983, “Headless Body in Topless Bar?” or the Daily News of October 30, 1975, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” the lead in to President Ford’s rejection of any help to the city in its most dire fiscal crisis. They were so memorable that they remain touchstones in time, such as “where were you when JFK was shot?” But, even in such low moments in journalism, there was a brutal and stark realism that reflected a simpler and, in many ways, a more honest time before the current bombardment of fake news and outright lies that pervade the media today.
Newspapers are not perfect. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now. But they represented a certain order. As with many of our old institutions: the Church, Wall Street, political parties and our employers, newspapers no longer hold our unquestioned trust. But, a part of me wishes that we could go back to a time when we looked forward to picking up our paper in the driveway or at the newsstand to see what the likes of Breslin or Hamill had to say that day. Even if we had to wash our hands to get the newsprint off.