When Newspapers Were King

This film resurrects a bygone era to lasting life.

Forgive my personal connection here, but I think the new HBO documentary, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” is must-watch filmmaking in these spooky days when the free press is under daily attack by wannabe autocrats who are being checked and exposed by tenacious reporters pursuing the truth.

This documentary, which was directed by Jonathan Alter, John Block, and Steve McCarthy, focuses on the careers of newspaper columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill — who, full disclosure, is my older brother.

Breslin and Hamill covered New York, the nation, and the world for various New York daily newspapers across five decades, starting in the 1960s.

These two guys gave loud voice to ordinary people three times a week by using old-fashioned, shoe-leather, look-see reporting coupled with the narrative skills of gifted novelists to tell fierce, funny, and poignant stories that often animated hundreds of thousands of people to move the arthritic hand of government.

Breslin set the tone for a new era of news reporting after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy when, instead of running with the journalistic herd, he covered the funeral through the eyes of Clifton Pollard, a black gravedigger who earned $3.01 an hour for the “honor” of digging JFK’s grave.

Hamill helped articulate the anti-war movement with impassioned columns condemning that illegal war based on live reporting from the battle lines of Vietnam. He went, he saw, he listened, he took notes, and he reported and expressed his resounding anti-war opinions in the New York Post, earning him a place on Nixon’s infamous enemies list.

The HBO documentary follows both columnists through the 1970s, when Breslin became a pen pal with serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and the 1980s, when Hamill took on Donald Trump for being a “fraudulent tough guy” for taking out full page ads calling for the death penalty for the five black kids arrested for raping and beating the Central Park jogger.

DNA evidence and a confession by a completely separate lone monster would prove all those teenagers innocent after 12 terrible years in jail. If Trump had had his way, they all would have been executed.

When Bernard Goetz shot four teenagers on a subway train on December 22, 1984, Breslin fired back that, far from a hero vigilante, Goetz was a cowardly punk who’d shot two of his victims in the back.

In that same decade, Breslin was the first mainstream reporter to profile a dying AIDS victim as a human being in the midst of a plague that needed our urgent attention and compassion.

Hamill’s 9/11 column about being separated from his wife in the chaotic dust cloud following the collapse of the twin towers stands as an iconic piece of American history preserved in amber.

And so is this documentary, which, more than a celebration of two columnists, gives us a thrilling, rollicking joyride through a lost New York that none of us fortunate enough to have lived through will ever want to forget. For those born with this century, it is a marvelous MRI of the second half of the 20th Century in the capital of the world.

On a personal note, I’m in the film briefly, speaking about my brother Pete, as is my sister, Kathleen, who remembers Pete as a young man, and my brother Brian, who was with Pete in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Robert Francis Kennedy was assassinated. Amazingly, Jimmy Breslin was also there.

After losing a wife and two daughters to illnesses, Breslin remarks in the film, “We’re not put on this earth to be happy. We’re really not.”

And yet on many an unhappy Monday morning, Breslin made commuters on the LIRR and the subways burst into rolling laughter with his zany tales of real life Runyonesque characters like Marvin the Torch, Klein the Lawyer, Shelly the Bail Bondsman, and Fat Thomas.

When Breslin and Hamill began to write novels, they often retreated to the quiet, golden shores of the Hamptons to work in rented homes by the sea. I remember seeing Breslin once trudging along the beach of Bridgehampton in June wearing a wool Irish sweater, dress pants, and shiny loafers, smoking a cigar and sipping a coffee. “What a beautiful place,” he said, squinting around. “For a murder. I gotta go write.”

Hamill rented a place year-round on Dune Road for many years, working on several novels. I played with Pete in the Writers and Artists softball game one year. After seeing the documentary, many of the East Enders who have played in that game raved about it. Carl Bernstein said, “I absolutely loved it.” So did New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta. Noted authors Gay Talese, Nick Pileggi, and Mike Lupica, who are interviewed in the film, praised it.

I had no idea what the film would be like before seeing it. But 10 minutes in, my personal connection quickly became secondary as I was drawn through this window into a vanished world and a proud profession that has changed dramatically. I worked with Breslin and Hamill at Newsday and the Daily News, which filled me with a sense of loss for those bygone days before the internet, when newspapers were king and these two guys shared the crown.

But the nostalgia passed like yesterday’s paper, replaced by a pride to have been part of the same noble trade.

I also realized that the standard Breslin and Hamill set is still very much alive. In these past two years, when the three branches of government failed the nation, the reporters of The Fourth Estate stepped into the breach to expose the truth about “fraudulently tough” Trump and his gang that couldn’t lie straight.

Daily newspapers might not be what they were when Breslin and Hamill were at their peak. But a democracy will always need professionalized news gathered by gutsy reporters who sniff stories like bloodhounds wherever the treacherous trail leads, with an eye for the telling detail, an ear for a revealing quote, and the moral courage to speak truth to power.

This film should be shown in every journalism class in America. It is available On Demand on HBO. Watch it. It’s Extra, Extra good.

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