Jimmy Breslin died over the weekend. He was 88.
We’ll come back to that.
The media today – or at least, people of a certain age (i.e. older than me) who are still in the media – remind me of circus performers telling inside jokes about what the ringmaster did after that one show in Lincoln, or of mailmen amongst themselves about the worst breeds of dog to encounter, or city bus drivers reminiscing about the foibles of that old model of bus that got retired a couple of decades ago, unlamented by anyone but, well, them. They remind me of any group of clubby, beleaguered insiders who turn the foibles, peccadillos and petty miseries of their callings into legends in their own minds. Not like World War II veterans telling niche anecdotes from a little tiny window of the fight to save freedom. Just guys who did something most people don’t care about all that much, building it in their minds into something worthy of the life they built around it.
Unlike arthritic old circus hands, mailmen and bus drivers, journalists buy newsprint by the rail car and ink by the barrel – so they can inflict their particular tales, traditions and argot onto the rest us. And lest anyone accuse me of ridiculing other people, I am one of them, at least as regards the radio industry.
I remember hearing some longtime Twin Cities journalists talk about Nick Coleman leaving the Star/Tribune. “He was a great, old-time newspaperman”, one of them said. “One of the best”.
Why, I asked.
What followed was an explanation I can’t possibly reproduce here – but it boiled down to Coleman epitomizing what an old-school “ink-stained wretch” was supposed to look, act and write like.
And I thought “this is the Nick Coleman who made an outsized contribution to the decline and fall of journalism. If he didn’t like you, he’d just make s**t up; he’d conjure up community groups from his imagination, or make up facts when he didn’t know enough to dig, ask or wait for the real ones. And he played a bigger-than-average role in the financial ruination of the field he, and the journos who reminisce about him, try to earn a living in.
But no matter. Journalists are like those hold each other to a standard that only they understand, and really only makes sense, or matters, really, to them.
And so Nick Coleman is a hero, while journalists who actually do what journalists are supposed to do but don’t know the secret handshake get mocked and derided by the bus drivers. Er, circus geeks.
Damn. I mean journos.
Along those lines, Journos like to tells themselves their mission nis to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
It’s pretty inevitably b******t. Most reporters spend their careers covering city council meetings and one-car crashes and writing obits and, today, probably selling ads to help their outlet get by. Their biases are irrelevant, because their beats are all about the mundanities of civic and public life that are just too boring for partisanship.
But Jimmy Breslin, like Studs Terkel and Jim Klobuchar and, heaven help us, Nick Coleman, was on a different plane. A columnist as well as a reporter, or maybe a reporter who got to have opinions, a pioneer in what they used to call “New Journalism” – subjective, advocacy-oriented, opinionated, journalism that put white and black hats on its subjects…
…rather than letting the reader do it for themselves.
To journos – and consumers of a certain outlook – it was brilliant, pioneering stuff. And it certainly did pioneer the idea of the journalist as the crusader rather than the crier, the seeker of goals rather than the reporter of facts – as the ones who could comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. As being able to fight, as one of Breslin’s obituary writers said, for the little guy.
I found out Breslin’s regard for the little guy, straight from the horse’s mouth. I met Breslin once, back in 1986. He was doing a book tour, back when book tours meant traveling the country and doing radio live in the studio; I booked him on the Don Vogel show.
This was in the wake of one of Bernard Goetz’s trials. Vogel asked him a question about Goetz – an electrician who’d been mugged, over and over, and reacted famously by shooting a group of muggers in the subway with an unregistered gun (only celebrities and politicians could get handgun license in New York – and that’s still pretty much true).
Breslin oozed contempt for Goetz. It was sneering, visceral, hateful – as if the thought that a mere hoi polloi’s life was worth defending itself violated the public order.
But Goetz wasn’t “the little guy” to Breslin or the “journalism” establishment who aped him. The criminals – with whom the purveyors of the myth of New York in the sixties and seventies had long since made fitful peace – were the little guys; not predators, not even pests; part of a zen-like symbiosis that one had to tolerate to “be a New Yorker”.
To the likes of Breslin and his many many imitators.
He was there for the right little guys.
Like most journos.
But never let it be said I speak ill of the dead. Breslin did write one thing in his long career that rocked me back on my heels; the piece he wrote about the surgery he underwent a few decades back for an aneurysm. Positively brilliant. I can’t find it, but I will keep looking.