The name Jimmy Breslin probably means as much to anyone born after 1980 as the names of any president between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. However, in the pre-digital era of journalism, Breslin ruled New York as a columnist, writer and reporter without equal. (Breslin preferred the title of “reporter,” eschewing the term “journalist” as a “college word” that didn’t befit a man who didn’t go that route in life.)
Thanks to HBO’s latest documentary, “Deadline Artists,” a new generation of students and media practitioners can get a glimpse of Breslin and fellow columnist extraordinaire Pete Hamill, along with the way they practiced their craft. In watching this film, I picked out five simple things Breslin viewed as crucial when reporting and writing that can help student journalists easily improve their work:
Embrace noun-verb-object simplicity: Breslin and Hamill worked together for a time at the New York Daily News, and people who worked with both of them at that point talked about how different they were as writers. Breslin sweated over every word, while Hamill would breeze through a piece in no time flat. Hamill was a poet while Breslin used simple building blocks of verbiage to construct his epic pieces. However, they shared a set of roots that gave them the one thing they both swore by over the years.
Breslin and Hamill talked at length about growing up Irish-Catholic in New York and how the nuns used to drill grammar into them. In the film, they discuss the way in which “Noun-Verb-Object” became their primary “Holy Trinity” in the church of journalism. Breslin recalled the need for “concrete nouns, active verbs” to make sure he avoided the wrath of the sisters and that he carried it with him forever more.
If you go back and take a look at Breslin’s work, for all the detail and fluidity of it, the core of his sentence structure relies on those simple building blocks of concrete nouns, vigorous verbs and clear objects. He essentially wrote sentences from that NVO core outward to the various rings of descriptors that would accentuate his copy.
Even if you can’t style your work with a Breslin-like nuance, you can always start with that simple core and build your way on out.
Look for the story where nobody else is: Breslin is famous for a number of pieces he wrote in his time, but his coverage of the Kennedy assassination remains among his most-cited examples of how to work a story. When the president was killed, journalists flocked to Dallas to get the official story from the official sources, acting in an official capacity.
Breslin didn’t see value in “pack journalism,” so he went after the story a different way: He tracked down the doctor who was responsible for trying to save the life of the country’s 35th president. “Death in Emergency Room One” follows the day of Malcolm Perry, a surgeon who had to substitute in for his boss that day when Kennedy arrived at the hospital. In addition to getting Perry, he found others involved in the last moments of JFK’s life and the first few moments after it ended to help craft a compelling tale.
Breslin one-upped himself when it came to the Kennedy funeral. Everyone else wrote of the splendor of the day: The young widow with her children, the heads of state who came to pay tribute, the horse-drawn carriage that brought Kennedy to his final resting place and more. Breslin went the other way, getting out of the press pack and heading to the grave site to find the guy who actually dug the hole for the casket. His piece told the story of both “the common man” and a common man: Clifton Pollard, who worked on a Sunday in Arlington Cemetery in an effort he called “an honor.”
Both stories typified the basics of Breslin: Find the story that others aren’t telling and tell it well.
Get the details and use them well: The previous two pieces also showcase another hallmark of Breslin’s work: an amazing attention to detail. Look at the way in which he uses detail to paint a picture of Perry the moments before the president arrived:
Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.
“This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,” he said.
“President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,” the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.”
Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the president of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.
Think about how much detail Breslin gathered there to paint a picture with his words: The brown door, the gray tiled walls and the cream colored ceiling. The aluminum hospital cart carrying the president with the lamp glaring down on it. Even more, Breslin thought to ask not only, “What were you doing when you got the page?” which likely would have led to the answer, “Eating lunch,” but also “What were you eating?” (salmon croquettes)
The story doesn’t end with Perry, however, as Breslin continues telling the tale:
Everything that was inside that room now belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy and Father Oscar Huber and the things in which they believe.
“I’m sorry. You have my deepest sympathies,” Father Huber said.
“Thank you,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.
Father Huber pulled the white sheet down so he could anoint the forehead of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy was standing beside the priest, her head bowed, her hands clasped across the front of her plum dress that was stained with blood which came from her husband’s head. Now this old priest held up his right hand and he began the chant that Roman Catholic priests have said over their dead for centuries.
“Si vivis, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis. In nomine Patris et Filio et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”
The prayer said, “If you are living, I absolve you from your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen.”
The priest reached into his pocket and took out a small vial of holy oil. He put the oil on his right thumb and made a cross on President Kennedy’s forehead. Then he blessed the body again and started to pray quietly.
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,” Father Huber said.
“And let perpetual light shine upon him,” Jacqueline Kennedy answered. She did not cry.
The use of color was incredible in this piece: the plum dress, the white sheet and even the red blood. He also wove in the pre-Vatican II Latin version of the blessing and the other elements of prayer associated with Catholicism, something Kennedy himself had to often address as the first Catholic president.
In terms of the “Honor” story, Breslin gathers reams of tiny details that help paint the picture in vivid ways.
WASHINGTON — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does.
Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the 35th president of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.
Breslin has colors again: khaki overalls, yellow garages and a yellow reverse hoe. He also had the name of Pollard’s wife (Hettie), the name of his boss (Mazo Kawalchik) and even had Pollard’s nickname (Polly). Food again is mentioned by name (bacon and eggs) and his specific salary ($3.01 per hour) contrasts with the aristocracy surrounding the rest of the event. The details add the specific touches that tell the larger story.
When you go to a scene, profile a person or craft a narrative, look for the specific details that let your readers see what you see, hear what you hear and smell what you smell. Get the name of the dog that was barking, the brand of the beer the guy was drinking and the specific color of car the woman was driving. Even if you don’t end up using these things, it’s good to have them in case you need them.
Get out of the newsroom: Breslin talked a great deal about how he hated using the phone and how it wasn’t really a reporting tool. He would go places and meet real people who told him what was really going on. An African-American reporter who worked with Breslin told a story about how Breslin asked this guy to take him to the sketchiest dive bar for black people in the city because he wanted to tell the stories of the people there. The guy said he told Breslin that it might get ugly and Breslin would have no real protection there, but Breslin insisted. In the end, Breslin worked the bar like he did every other scene and had people telling him important stories all night.
It didn’t always work out well for him when it came to going places. In August 1991, the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn erupted into three days of rioting after a fatal car accident sparked tensions between the black and Jewish communities in the area. Breslin, then in his early 60s, took a cab down to the area to cover the melee, only to be dragged out of the car, beaten and robbed. The assailants also stripped him down to his underwear and trashed the cab. Still, he had no qualms about going down there and bristled at the notion that heavy punishment should be doled out to the young men who attacked him. It was his decision to go down there.
The phone, email and text messages often feel safer to newer journalists, even when life and limb aren’t on the line. However, you will never feel the tension of a scene over the phone, capture the sound of laughter over email or generally paint any picture worth painting via text.
As Breslin would have likely put it, get off your ass and get over there.
Don’t make stuff up: Calling the characters Breslin used in his columns “larger than life” would be a massive understatement. He talked about an arsonist he called “Marvin the Torch,” an art thief he dubbed “Rembrandt,” and “Fat Thomas,” an illegal bookie and maybe more. Breslin wove tales so rich with these characters and vivid description that some people argued that guys like “Fat Thomas” didn’t exist except in Breslin’s imagination. In true Breslin fashion, he told his detractors to head over to Costello’s Bar in Midtown, grab a drink with him and see for themselves.
Sure enough, there was Fat Thomas. And there was Marvin the Torch. And Rembrandt. And a bunch of other “There’s no way this guy is real” guys that Breslin wrote about. They were all exactly as Breslin had described them, even the 400-pound bookie who inspired Breslin to check into hotels in the South under the pseudonym, “Martin Luther Fats.”
The problem for those of us less-talented scribes is that we don’t have “those folks” about whom we can write. We lack access to wise guys, bookies, weirdos and other everyday people who create the rich tapestry of life. Because of that, our writing feels beige compared to the technicolor that Breslin could provide on a daily basis. That’s not an indictment of us, but rather a testament to Breslin.
Still, rather than accept these limitations and remain less vibrant than Breslin and others in his rare pantheon, many journalists have cut corners, exaggerated beyond reality and flat-out lied. There are the classic cases of Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, who created characters out of whole cloth in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley in the 2000s who fabricated content as well. Even well-meaning pieces rooted in a broader reality, such as the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” did more harm than good when a writer decided “color” was more important than “fact.”
The desire to find your own “Fat Thomas” is an admirable one that you should pursue doggedly. However, if your passion becomes an obsession, it can lead you to create an Ian Restil, a Jimmy or even a Jackie. Always remember that choosing to cheat like this rarely turns out well.