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HBO's 'Deadline Artists' Profiles Old-School Columnists
January 28, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

In case you hadn’t noticed, we have no shortage of opinion writers and commentators these days. But the decline of print newspapers has cost us, among many other things, a unique subspecies: the New York tabloid columnist.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, a documentary that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, celebrates two of the last in that breed: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, who over almost 50 years wrote for all the tabloids (and even a broadsheet or two) in New York.

Deadline Artists romanticizes things a bit, which is forgivable because in the broader sense, this documentary really is celebrating a voice too often missing even in the cacophony that today’s multi-platform media has become.

A documentary like this also tends to define all their work by their best work, which isn’t exactly true. You write hundreds of thousands of words over multiple decades, some will be better than others. Happily, their best deserves the applause.

It should be added that Breslin and Hamill also were brilliant at building their brands. They weren’t just columnists, they were personalities. Breslin, who tells the camera here that his greatest creation was “me,” did beer and cereal commercials and ran for city controller of New York. Hamill dated women like Jacqueline Onassis, Linda Ronstadt and Shirley MacLaine.

But unlike some of today’s celebrity, theirs wasn’t a hollow shell. They succeeded because they were very good at their core occupation, which was writing.

In that endeavor they had very different styles whose commonality, at their best, was passion, intelligence, perception and a distinct kind of eloquence.

Breslin wrote tough, the way he talked. Take it or leave it. Hamill, conversely, came across as a guy who wanted to sit down with you over lunch and explain why he had this passion for New York. He wanted to explain why, after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, his father felt so betrayed he never went to another baseball game.

In an odd way, Deadline Artists underplays the writing part of this story by mostly focusing on headlines from their careers, like Breslin’s interplay with the Son of Sam killer or Hamill’s self-reported struggles with drinking.

More instructive, perhaps, is the passage on how, after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Breslin wrote about the $3-an-hour worker who dug the President’s grave.

In 1979, a teenage flutist named Renee Katz had her hand severed when she was pushed onto a New York subway track. She would survive and rebuild her life, but it was clear from the beginning that she would not play the flute again.

Hamill wrote a column exploding with fury, ending with the wish that the perpetrator be sentenced to life in a silent room, with no music.

That knack, that instinct for humanizing a story, explains Breslin, Hamill and the best of New York tabloid journalism to those outside its immediate circle.

Deadline Artists at times tends to glamorize their work, and the era they did it in. Both Hamill, who is still alive, and Breslin, who died in 2017, strongly suggest here that glamour had nothing to do with it. They were writers and reporters, talking to people, gathering facts, then synthesizing into a story.

Deadline Artists also inevitably doubles as a eulogy of sorts for print newspapers, which were once a unifying media platform and today are often just one more voice in an information world most of us are still trying to sort out.

That doesn’t make newspapers irrelevant. It just reorders their place, making it likely the next Breslin or Hamill won’t come from the same place as the last two.

Deadline Artists implicitly acknowledges that 20th century New York tabloids offered a peculiar and in some ways singular niche. Like the city itself, the tabloids had an attitude that endeared them to the locals and often made them a subject of puzzlement and wariness in the rest of America.

Deadline Artists is a salute to two men who did it imperfectly but well – a phrase that could just as easily describe the whole racket in which they toiled.

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Mark Isenberg
Jimmy Breslin was the best because he went everywhere for a story including the engineer for the World Trade Center whom he caught up with after the first bombing attack in the basement long before 2001. Watch this documentary and be sad we won't have their like again. Journalism has gone off the rails even at the NY Times and Russell Baker's death last week was equally telling how much better it was to be reading in the 1970s.....
Jan 28, 2019   |  Reply
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