My father gave me one piece of advice for life: “Take s*** from nobody.”
After losing his leg to a septic soccer injury at 23, my father met and married my Irish immigrant mother and raised seven kids in a Brooklyn tenement and went to work every day in a factory where he toiled hard, but never took no s*** from any boss. Or anyone else.
So, I thought of him when I stopped watching these cringe-worthy press briefings from the White House. They make me embarrassed of my profession in journalism.
Every time I watched a reporter standing mute as he or she was belittled and defamed and called “fake” and “phony” and a “disgrace” and “nasty” and “scum” and “enemy of the people” by a real estate conman from Queens for the whole world and their spouses and children to see, I became embarrassed by the lack of testicular fortitude in my noble guild.
It doesn’t matter whether you like President Donald Trump or hate him, support his policies or oppose them. No president has the right to attack the press for asking legitimate, tough questions. In recent months I have profiled or written about great journalists like Nick Pileggi, Gay Talese, Karl Grossman, Robert Ward, Jimmy Breslin, and Pete Hamill in this space.
These giants did not spend their lives chasing the truth to be labeled fake, phony, and scum. None of the reporters or columnists, left, right, or neutral here at The Independent deliver phony stories to the readers.
Speaking Of Disrespect
I used to hate when Mayor Mike Bloomberg berated or dismissed reporters from his City Hall bully pulpit. Only a guy who never had a boss would dare talk to anyone with such disdain. I also think it’s awful when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio singles out or ignores New York Post reporters — all of whom I know to be tough, fair, excellent journalists — because he has a problem with the editorial policies of the paper’s owners.
In my 40 years in journalism, I never once let a politician, or anyone else, speak to me with disrespect without firing right back. Ed Koch tried it with me once on a campaign swing through Brooklyn when he ran against Mario Cuomo for mayor. Koch was distributing pro-death penalty campaign literature in conservative neighborhoods — even though the mayor has no say on capital punishment — and neglected to mention that stance in liberal neighborhoods.
He didn’t like that I had written about that, and made a snide remark to me. We went nose-to-nose, exchanging off-color barbs on a street corner for a full minute. He never tried that crap with me again.
I once called a Brooklyn district attorney a mutt in my column for letting a clearly innocent man — whom she later had no choice but to release — sit months longer in his cell than necessary because she didn’t want to tarnish the reputation of the prosecuting assistant district attorney with whom she was very close. That DA stormed into the Newsday office in person to try to have me fired.
My editor, Don Forst, tough son of a Brownsville native, stood up to her and said I was a columnist with a point of view. He’d edited the column in question and said I made a judgment call the way she had made a call on the prisoner.
The “mutt” left with her tail between her legs. I went back to work.
That’s when journalism still had — sorry for lack of a better word — balls.
Today I simply cannot understand how a roomful of reporters can sit in the White House press room and let the politician on stage berate one of them for asking a question about an existential crisis that is killing tens of thousands of American citizens. Not only should the reporter have stood up and told the president to watch his disrespectful mouth, but the entire roomful of reporters should have stood in unison and marched out the door, leaving the foulmouthed bully alone on his stage.
And I don’t just mean Trump.
Other politicians now think the wounded press is fair game. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo berated a NPR reporter, spewing a profanity-laced rant at her for daring to report the truth about his comments on Ukraine. When CNN reporter Manu Raju posed an impeachment question to Arizona Senator Martha McSally, this uncivil non-servant’s answer was, “I’m not talking to you, you’re a liberal hack.”
This was not just an insult to the reporter, but to all the CNN viewers.
Same as it is when President Barack Obama tried to give the mum freeze to Fox News, or when Alexandra Ocasio Cortez refused to let local reporters into a community meeting in her Queens office. A politician can’t pick and choose which reporters to answer to.
If you are an elected official, you work for the people. Part of that job is to talk to the press who deliver the news to the people. When a politician refuses to talk to reporters who refuse to kiss his or her ass, that politician is flipping the bird to We the People.
Every time I watched these recent pressers, I wished that Dan Rather, Jack Newfield, or my brother Pete Hamill were asking the questions and that Trump tried his bully act on one of them when stumped for a real answer. Better still, I would have authorized Pay Per View to watch Jimmy Breslin from working class Richmond Hill, Queens take on Trump from Jamaica Estates, the Beverly Hills 90210 of Queens. If Trump had tried to belittle Breslin, called him fake or a phony, a street brawl of bleeped F-bombs would have erupted on national television.
My money would have been on Breslin.
The only answer I can think of as to why reporters don’t fight back against abusive politicians is because they will be denied access. But access to what? Insults? Lies? Spin? Misdirection? Boasts? Misinformation instead of hard facts on a life-and-death crisis?
Would a gutsy news editor really fire a reporter for standing his or her ground against personal attacks? If so, then that editor is not a journalist. He’s a corporate stooge interested only in ratings and profits and not truth.
Personally, I do not understand why members of the White House Correspondents’ Association can unite to condemn a hilarious, irreverent comedian like Michelle Wolf, but not to boycott these so-called news conferences that are more offensive than any joke Wolf cracked at their precious annual dinner. I can’t understand why the networks and cable stations even air these embarrassing spectacles.
I’m still waiting for one reporter with balls to stand up to such abuse with a few choice words in return.
If the reporter loses his or her job for standing up to a bully, I predict that reporter will become a national hero and have a new job by day’s end.
Until then, I won’t watch, because every time I do I think of my father telling me, “Take s••• from nobody.”