HBO's "Deadline Artists", the story of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill is the story of New York City and the American Century.
Here's a top piece of journalistic advice: get off your butt. Chase the story. Go wherever it leads. Show no fear or favor.
Then tell the public what you have found. If ever there were two reporters who understood this career-making advice in their bones they were Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.
Two Irish American titans of new journalism, they were first draft historians of the American century, men whose own outsized personalities were perfectly in keeping (and often far ahead) of the times they witnessed and reflected.
But the truth is you can't really have the kind of storied careers that Breslin (who passed away in 2017 aged 88) and Hamill (now 83) had because times have changed and journalism has changed too.
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Hamill was a high school dropout, Breslin didn't have a fancy ivy league degree, but what they did have were determination and Queens and Brooklyn taught street smarts, and more than that they had the patience to spot a good story and let it speak for itself.
They ended up the friends and confidants of some of the most powerful people in America, belying their modest Irish immigrant's roots but never, ever betray them. In the remarkable new documentary Breslin And Hamill: Deadline Artists, which will premiere on HBO on Monday 28, directors Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy, all three veteran journalists, reflect carefully on the lives and hard lessons of these two peerless reporters.
But the film isn't just a celebration of Breslin and Hamill's lives and work, it's also a call to arms to a new generation to the kind of inspirational public service journalism that was their daily bread and their life's blood. Don't just admire these two, match them, the film challenges us.
“They were not popular with my family when I was growing up because my dad was NYPD, as was my uncle,” co-director Steve McCarthy, who hails from Bay Ridge, tells the Voice. “My grandfather was a Democrat because he was a union guy but he wasn't exactly a progressive person either. So they weren't big stars in my family. But I read them.”
“I was fortunate enough to have a journalism career that took me to 55 countries and 49 states. I really got around and I began to understand how things work. And I think that that opened my eyes and at the same time I began to realize that people like Jimmy and Pete were courageous because they often went against the tribe, they weren't afraid to defy it.”
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But Alter, Block, and McCarthy are the first to admit these are challenging times for journalism too. We're in a period where the old model of journalism (newspapers and beat reporters) have not found a successful way to finance the new one (the internet). Not in a way that matches the public service reporting that all democracy relies on, that is.
When they were coming up in the 50s and 60s a morning subway ride was filled with newspaper reading passengers. But now it's almost an event to spot a newspaper amid the endless sea of iPhones. The culture has changed but the media has not caught up with it yet. That's why the message of Breslin And Hamill: Deadline Artists feels so timely.
“They really are larger than life characters and it's impossible to imagine a print journalist nowadays hosting Saturday Night Live or doing TV commercials or running for office and all of the things they did,” Alter, the former senior editor for Newsweek, tells the Voice. “They really are quintessential 20th-century figures. They both covered all of the major stories of the second half of the 20th century.”
But Breslin And Hamill doesn't just celebrate their lives, it's a challenge our own times as well doesn't it?
“Well I and a lot of journalists I know went to major colleges. But you could go to Oxford for a thousand years and you still couldn't cover the streets like Jimmy Breslin did because it's just something you can't learn in school. We didn't understand what was going on in the white working class culture in this last presidential election for example because most of the journalists now come from a different culture. Jimmy and Pete were self-taught, they understood how to really connect to different parts of American life in ways that I have to admit that I really am not capable of doing in the same way.”
“If I go to a working-class section of Queens am I operating in as easy a way as a journalist like Jimmy Breslin? No way. Jimmy had that with the black community. That's one of the most interesting parts the film is seeing him with black journalists. They talk about Jimmy Breslin and his sense of empathy and his connection and natural relationships in the black community.”
Nowadays it seems like the majority of banner name commentators with Irish last names are conservatives, whereas Breslin and Hamill belonged to a progressive Irish tradition. “We have some great columnists still but we've lost a little bit of that. It was really an Irish American tradition of a certain kind of newspaper columnist in every city and a lot of them were very good they were telling great local stories. We have some left but not that many.”
Is there a way forward for a young journalist to follow the kind of path Breslin and Hamill took? Do you think that the kind of careers they had and the lives they led are still possible?
“We're not going to see their likes again. It's just not going to be the same. But it's important to remember that, as Gloria Steinem says in the film, storytelling traditions never die, they never go out of fashion. We have very talented younger people coming up. I think a real problem is that the business model isn't quite there yet for local news. But people understand the importance of local news that there will always be a thirst for it. But we haven't quite figured out how to subsidize it and get the advertising to support it.”
“And so we're feeling our way in a transitional period on that. We'll see what comes out of that. The bad news is we don't do enough of that anymore. The good news is that there are a lot of other voices that are getting a chance that didn't before and that's good. So there's been a democratization with that democratization also comes a lot of crap.
"As Sam Roberts of The New York Times says it's a mix and we'll find our way. I'm not pessimistic, I'm sort of encouraged by the coverage of Trump. There is good journalism that's happening on that and I think we'll muddle through.”
Co-director John Block agrees. “We had a thing going in the 20 century, a certain kind of rough and tumble swashbuckling muscular American journalism and it had a lot of great qualities and so I think nows the time to think about how do we take the best of what Jimmy and Pete represent and move forward with the great diversity of voices that we have now?”
“Good reporting is about speaking truth to power,” Block continues. “We have to figure out how to create a model for future generations so that they go out and tackle the crooked mayor or take down the stupid idea. I think we have the talent out there to do that. And one of the things that I really hope the film is doing is that people who are interested in journalism or just good writing, that they can take some inspiration from these guys.”
Did you watch "Deadline Artists" on HBO? What did you think? Let us know in the comments section below.
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