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TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2024
Pithy, unadorned writing is a gift that great American journalists have bequeathed
Jimmy Breslin in New York City in 1983 (Picture: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)
America has a rich newspaper tradition. From Jimmy Breslin to All the President’s Men, it has accidentally left its mark on justice, democracy and common humanity.
Pulitzer Prize winner Breslin once summed up the writing process thus: “When I start my column, I’m ready to go five or six hours. And that’s the business – ARSE POWER.
“SIT. Don’t walk around and talk about this story, don’t swagger, don’t tell me how much you had to drink, don’t puff the cigarette and tell me how great you are or how tough it was. I don’t want to hear anything. Just sit there and write, in silence please.”
Have you ever heard it put better? That’s what Americans bring: great writing, pithy and unadorned.
Breslin, who died in 2017, aged 88, was a through-and-through tabloid man who wrote for, among others, New York’s Daily News and Newsday on Long Island.
One of his columns so upset a Mafia kingpin that he beat Breslin to a bloody pulp. Breslin suffered serious concussion, a broken nose, broken fingers and a fractured rib – but lived to tell the tale. Or possibly not to.
That same New York tradition also produced some great headlines: HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR was written by Drew MacKenzie, a younger brother of Kelvin; YES, WE HAVE JOE BANANAS reported the capture of a Mafia figure from the Bonanno crime family.
When President Gerald Ford refused a bail-out to bankrupt New York City, the Daily News headline read: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. But legend has it that the original said: FORD TO CITY: FUCK OFF.
That was before the Editor got hold of it. No doubt he was thinking of the paper’s image. Anyone on the Express in the eighties will recognise that. Badge and tone, we’ve all been there.
And have you ever seen a better movie about newspapers than All the President’s Men?
Alan J Pakula’s 1976 film tells the true story of how two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposed the lies of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Lies that saw him impeached, disgraced and hounded from office.
The appeal of the film to non-journalists lies in the dogged pursuit of the story by Woodward (played in the film by Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) at great risk to their careers and possibly their lives.
It also hinges on the personal chemistry between the two. Woodward was the Yale-educated son of a Republican lawyer, and later judge. He was quiet, methodical, a well-connected and meticulous investigator.
Bernstein was from a family of Communists, rougher around the edges, pushy, a rebel. He was the better writer and an intuitive journalist.
They would never be friends but together they were newsroom dynamite.
Crucially, they were trusted and supported by their editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), who was given some of the better lines to speak by the great screen writer William Goldman.
Before I quote some, you need to know that John Mitchell was Nixon’s Attorney General and president of his 1968 and 1972 campaigns. He was jailed for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Katharine Graham was publisher of her family’s newspaper, the Washington Post. This scene featured both of them.
John Mitchell: (on phone) All that crap you’re putting in the paper? It’s all been denied. You tell your publisher, tell Katie Graham she’s going to get her tit caught in a big wringer if that’s published. Good Christ, that’s the most sickening thing I ever heard.
Ben Bradlee: (later) He really said that about Mrs Graham?
Carl Bernstein: (nods)
Ben Bradlee: Well, I’d cut the words “her tit” and print it.
Carl Bernstein: Why?
Ben Bradlee: This is a family newspaper.
So that was then… what about now? Well, now newspapers are an irony-free zone, in the sense that you couldn’t make up some of the stuff that is going on.
We have the curious case of James Bennet, who was fired from his job as opinion editor of the New York Times for printing a column by a Republican Senator calling on Donald Trump to deploy troops to tackle looters after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Bennett, 57, was hounded from his post by young, woke staff members who took to Twitter to denounce him. Despite opinion polls that suggested most Americans agreed with the Senator’s view, the Times caved in and sacked Bennet.
That was three years ago and Bennet is now a columnist on The Economist. He has written a 17,000-word essay on his experience called “When the New York Times lost its way”. Get a copy of the magazine, it’s worth a read.
The polemic has had a big impact in the US. Bennet had intended it to be his last word on the subject. But the debate about free speech has erupted again after a fresh scandal on university campuses and so he decided to give an interview to the Sunday Times’s John Arlidge.
He spoke out after the presidents of three universities – Harvard, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology – refused to agree that calling for the genocide of Jewish people constitutes bullying or harassment on campus.
Bennet, a former White House Correspondent and Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, claims America needs a counter-revolution to root out “illiberal liberalism”.
“We need to reclaim free speech in our media and universities, agree on facts and re-engage in robust debate,” he says.
Without that, America will become even more divided, “which can only help Donald Trump to win again and, if that happens, democracy is under threat. The stakes are very high.”
Like Big Macs, Starbucks and Black Friday, the attitudes that triggered Bennet’s firing and angry outpouring were bound to make their way over the pond and, of course, they have been here for a while.
They were behind the tearing down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. They underlie the terrible mess our schools have got themselves into over gender identification, which is finally being addressed by Rishi Sunak’s Government.
They also account for the infighting that is going on at the Guardian and the edict from editor Katharine Viner that the paper’s code of conduct was being changed.
It now says that staff “should not sign public petitions or open letters that have, or could be perceived to have, a bearing on our ability to report the news in a fair and fact-based way.”
Social media posts were deemed to be a problem, too. And if editors considered that they risked “compromising our editorial integrity” the culprits would be dealt with “on a case by case basis.”
The row surrounds film released by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said to show the atrocities committed by Hamas in Southern Israel on October 7.
Private Eye reports that Guardian columnist Owen Jones, a so-called progressive, claimed on his own social media channel, that video of a woman’s badly burned corpse with her underwear removed “is not what you would consider conclusive evidence” of rape or sexual violence.
Is he mad, brainwashed, deluded? As James Bennet says, “People need to step back and say: ‘How have we allowed ourselves to get to this point?’”
Never has reporting of the Woodward-Bernstein-Bradlee kind been more important.
Baroness (Michelle) Mone’s embarrassing TV interview to excuse her part in the PPE scandal reminded me that I had once watched her making a business pitch to former Express owner Richard Desmond and his Editors.
She was impressive. Authoritative, well-briefed (no pun intended) and frankly, rather beautiful.
When she had finished and departed, Desmond asked the assembled hacks what they thought. There was some carefully worded waffle in reply, no one wanting to commit to an opinion until they could sense which way the wind was blowing.
Finally, Desmond, channelling his inner Sir Galahad, gave his verdict. “She’s just a bloke with tits, isn’t she?”
That’s it from me until the New Year. I’m off to open a bottle of something expensive and delicious that will keep me chemically coshed through to Boxing Day. It’s the only way I can cope.
19 December 2023