By Aislinn Keely
New York City has a rich journalistic tradition. People across the globe read the front page of The Times, which has become the world’s journal of record rather than just New York’s. The nation looks towards the predictions of The Wall Street Journal. However, the city’s roots are in local storytelling. New York would lose its character without its New York Post, New York Daily News and dollar tabloids. The city has felt the loss of local publications like Gothamist and DNAInfo. New York’s local coverage both marks and preserves the passage of time in a city that is as much a community as it is a center for the world.
This weekend, I curled up on a friend’s couch and watched HBO’s documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.” It was a magnificent act of storytelling about storytellers, and it led me down two lines of questioning: what is the relationship between localized storytelling and timekeeping, and what does it mean to live a life on deadline? The documentary asks and answers this through an exploration of city journalists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. Both men wrote columns for a variety of publications through tumultuous times.
Breslin and Hamill were both authorities on the narrative of major historical events. Hamill’s column shaped the understanding of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Breslin was heralded for his columns on the John F. Kennedy assassination, which included telling the story of the surgeon who couldn’t save JFK and the man who dug the president’s grave. The latter column is known by its title “It’s An Honor.” He would win the Pulitzer for that story, and it remains central to the history of the nation’s response to the tragedy.
Breslin would also cover issues of police brutality in the city, the crime of the 80s and the city’s pack mentality in response. He wrote columns critiquing lawmakers and investigating organized crime. His writing is an authority of New York history. Looking at Breslin’s portfolio is a snapshot of the city from 1960 up to the early 2000s.
However, it’s important to note that Breslin had opinions. He had a voice and he wasn’t afraid to use it. This meant he incited change, but it also casts doubt on the objectivity of his record of New York. In his columns, we see New York as Breslin and the subjects he chose to quote saw it. They are a handful of perspectives in a city of millions.
The records we have of that time are bound to be tainted by the people who wrote them. They are written mostly by white men, but these men were also very much entrenched in the communities they wrote about. The journalism of this era lacked college degrees, and was marked by street knowledge. Their sources were relationships cultivated from years of being active within their local communities. While our journals of record should contain as many diverse voices as possible in order to get the truest snapshot of a time, I found it admirable and interesting that the journalism of this time was created by people of a community covering that community.
In addition to shedding light on who is keeping the records of our communities, the documentary also touched on what it means to live a life on deadline. Hamill and Breslin lived against a deadline, bound to deliver a story regardless of what happened that news cycle. Reporters must be consumed by their own temporality, I thought. They live their lives racing to hit a buzzer only to feel the clock counting down again moments after they’ve hit it.
On one hand, this is freeing. Life moves on. Some columns are bad. Some are magnificent. The only thing that should weigh on one’s mind is the next deadline, not a fictitious win/loss record. In the New York Times obituary for Breslin, Mario Cuomo touched on Breslin’s consistency:
“Think of it: He still works every day,” former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a close friend who died in 2015, wrote in remarks prepared for a 2009 celebration of Mr. Breslin. “Writing, or thinking about writing, and he has done it for 60 years, nearly 22,000 days and nights — except for the short hiatus when doctors were forced to drill a hole in his head to let out of his congested brain some of his unused lines. Then he wrote a book about it!”
Living on deadline creates a reason to get up and give it your all each day. It frees you from both resting on your laurels and getting stuck in failure. However, it can also undercut the importance of stopping and living in one moment. Breaks should be part of life, but living on deadline can harden one to them. Breslin famously told his son to get out of bed the morning after they laid wife and mother Rosemary to rest. “Get the —- up. The clock doesn’t stop,” Breslin said. Perhaps those on deadline are also condemned to be consumed by their own temporality, and plagued by the temporality of others.
A collection and summary of a few of Breslin’s most famous columns can be found here: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/back-jimmy-breslin-best-columns-article-1.3002680