By Dave Lindorff
New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin, 1930-2017
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There only was and only will be one Jimmy Breslin, and after his death last Sunday at 88, he is no more.
Funny, cranky and sometimes boorish, Breslin was a working class journalist who cared about the working class and the under and un-employed class and who, despite achieving wealth and pinnacles of journalistic success, from a Pulitzer and a Polk award to movie options and best-selling novels, never forgot his roots.
How many journalists have your read in a major newspaper or magazine, or heard bloviating on the air, young or old, who've had the courage and fortitude to do as Breslin did in his old age: finding a refrigerator box and setting himself up in the dead of winter on a heating grate on a New York City sidewalk alongside a bunch of other homeless people so he could write with real understanding about how they live? That was some column, and provided a jolting wake-up to New Yorkers who walk by those boxes every day, usually without a thought to who's huddled inside them.
How many have had the courage to call out the likes of Hillary Clinton when she was a carpetbagger running for Senate from New York State, for having "blood on her hands" as she waved to the crowds?
How many have shared his outrage at learning how much money the Standard Oil Company paid to have a marketing company develop a new name and logo for the company, changing Esso to Exxon (that was one of the funniest of his columns I ever read, full of extraneous Xs whose value he placed at something like a million dollars per keystroke after learning what Exxon had paid a naming firm for its new corporate logo).
I'm pretty sure the answer to all these questions is the same: none.
Breslin did all that and much, much more.
But the problem isn't, as most obit writers have been saying, that there aren't journalists out there who have Breslin's sensibility and sensitivity to wrongdoing, if not perhaps his unique gift for getting close to people who don't normally open up to a reporter. There are. It isn't that there aren't journalists out there who are actually writing the kinds of incisive and eye-opening pieces that Breslin spent his life writing. There are. It isn't even that there aren't journalists with a similar literary talent. There are.
The problem is that there are no longer any newspapers whose publishers and senior editors are willing to run such gritty Establishment-demolishing and icon-attacking pieces in their columns and on their opinion pages.
Years ago, newspapers ran columns by the likes of Breslin, Anthony Lewis, Pete Hamill, Mike Royko, Molly Ivens and Joe Bageant -- columns that could leave the reader fuming, racing for pen and paper or typewriter to knock off an angry letter to the paper or to a Congressperson, columns that would have you running to a friend or a spouse to read it aloud to them, columns that simply made you think about something or some people you hadn't though of before. No more. It's the rare column in a mainstream news outlet these days that can elicit outrage, make the blood boil, or even bring a tear to the eye.
Jimmy Breslin wrote those kinds of columns because he felt them, chased them down, and was able to write them, day in and day out, right through 2004, and even later, after a brief hiatus, into 2011/12, and he was able to do it because there were papers like the New York Post, the Daily News and Newsday, that let him do it.
Now newspapers are dumbed down, homogenized and busy seeking a higher-income, perhaps in the publishers' minds more easily offended, or jaded, demographic, so they don't want the old-style rabble-rousing columnists ruffling feathers and playing Charles Dickens.
Of course you can find those writers. They're all over the internet. You'll find them here at ThisCantBeHappening, at sites like Consortium News, Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Oped News and other sites. The problem is you have to go looking for them. The beauty of the old newspapers with their columnists like Jimmy Breslin was that everyone was confronted by a Breslin or a Royko or an Ivens when they opened their daily paper. Their columnists were in your face. You couldn't avoid them. And that made a huge difference. Jimmy Breslin busted up a corrupt Democratic Party machine with his column. Most newspapers required an investigative team and a series of page one articles to accomplish something like that.. My late friend John Hess did the same kind of thing at the New York Times and later as a columnist for a local TV station and on Democracy Now! to the New York State nursing home industry.