by Rachel Donadio
It was only a small headline, buried deep in the Metro section of The New York Times on April 8—"Minister Says Breslin Falsified Interview About Homosexuals"—but as a sign of the newest chapter in the history of American journalism, it might as well have been a front-page splash.
The minister was the Reverend Louis Sheldon of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, who claims that he never met legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin or told him that he thought gays proselytize by kidnapping young men and converting them to homosexuality, as Mr. Breslin had quoted Mr. Sheldon as saying in his Newsday column the previous day. Mr. Breslin told the Times reporter that he relied on his memory in reconstructing the interview.
Mr. Breslin also dismissed the accusations in a column published on April 8. He’d interviewed Mr. Sheldon at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, he said, and used the quotes from that interview.
Newsday editor Howard Schneider said the paper was doing "an internal review of Sheldon’s accusations" and planned to publish an editor’s note in "the next several days." Newsday would "do this under any circumstances for anyone who challenged the integrity of any of our reporters," Mr. Schneider said.
Whatever its outcome, the flap represented a peculiar clash of journalistic cultures: Between the once bold and brash, now old-school narrative New Journalism of Mr. Breslin’s generation and today’s newspaper journalism, which in its sobriety and extreme attentiveness to accuracy is more akin to the old old school.
The Times story on Mr. Breslin came from the world of corrections columns, newspaper ombudsmen and Poynter.org. It’s a world that, even as it prizes information and verifiable accuracy above all else, has been rocked by the exposure of whole-cloth journalistic fabricators like The Times’ Jayson Blair and USA Today’s former war correspondent Jack Kelley, who was asked to resign in January after it was discovered that he made up interviews and events. In this information-centered environment, mythologizing and lying can seem like the same impulse.
Mr. Breslin comes from another tradition—the one of Damon Runyon (whose biography Mr. Breslin wrote), Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Meyer Berger, Murray Kempton and Pete Hamill—terse, atmospheric writers who celebrated ordinary people in the bars, offices and waterfronts of a New York where the Irish, Italians and Jews were still considered ethnic. That New York is irretrievably lost, and gone with it are the columnists who helped create the myth.
For his part, Mr. Breslin, who prefers to think of himself as a reporter and writer—"Don’t call me a journalist, I hate the word; it’s pretentious!"—doesn’t take too well to questions about the place of columnists in today’s culture. "I don’t know any other columnists, and I don’t know what they do," Mr. Breslin barked into the phone affectionately. "I work the single! And nobody does what I do anyway. They’re not going to change me." As for the climate, "I don’t know about climate," he said. "I survive in any climate!"
Well, sure, but the climate has changed nonetheless. "People always ask me where’s the next generation of you guys, and there aren’t that many examples," said Jack Newfield, another pioneer of what he called "neighborhood ethnic populism" or "underdog-ism." "To some degree, I think people like me and Hamill are kind of like dinosaurs," Mr. Newfield said.
As for where the next generation will come from, "I don’t see anybody doing it," Mr. Breslin said. Mr. Breslin started his career at the old Herald-Tribune, Mr. Hamill at the old (as in owned by Dorothy Schiff) New York Post and Mr. Newfield at the old (as in pay-per-copy) Village Voice. They came of age in the early 1960’s, before local broadcast outlets learned that there was money to be made in television news.
Columnists like the old lions of vanished New York no longer play a vital role in today’s culture. Talk radio and television current-affairs shows have inherited some of their rambunctiousness. These days, water-cooler conversation is much more likely to center on what Jon Stewart said on last night’s Daily Show than on what Mr. Breslin wrote in this morning’s paper. Our fascination with celebrity has contributed to the decline of columnists, too. Columnists once made minor celebrities of underdogs. Today, however, competitive and cultural pressures have squeezed the underdog out of metro coverage. Columns like Dan Barry’s "About New York" in The Times, which find dignity in the seemingly ordinary, are the exceptions that prove the rule. Columnists in today’s New York Post are more likely to write about the generic tabloid scandal of the moment than a New York–specific person or event.
What’s more, newspapers have become more like magazines, full of oblique angles and anecdotal leads—the only way, some editors believe, to breathe life into breaking stories that are on television and the Internet long hours before they are on the front page. One of Mr. Breslin’s most famous columns was his interview with the man who dug President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. His print colleagues were off covering straight news. Today, that story probably would be handed over to a general-assignment reporter by an editor looking for fresh angles not eaten up by television.
Where’s His Place?
The signs, then, indicate that there’s less of a place for columnists like Mr. Breslin, or for atmosphere-heavy narrative writing in general. "Breslin is a very good writer who is also a reporter, and that’s what confuses people," said Clay Felker, who fostered the New Journalism as the editor of New York magazine in the 1960’s. "There’s nothing unusual about what Breslin does, except that he’s a better writer than most people."
Indeed, accusations like the recent one against Mr. Breslin are as old as the advent of the New Journalism, the days when he and Tom Wolfe were working at the Herald-Tribune. "A lot of people on other papers resented how good he was," Mr. Wolfe said of Mr. Breslin. Many of his stories "did have the techniques of fiction, such as theme-by-theme construction rather than just relating a history, and they had a lot of dialogue." That’s why people "thought he must be making it up. That was a constant charge to everyone who became involved in what eventually became known as the New Journalism," Mr. Wolfe said.
"The assumption is if it reads too well, it’s not journalism, it’s fiction. That’s an assumption not only among readers, but among some more tradition-bound journalists who just don’t like narrative writing," said Robert Vare, a veteran narrative nonfiction editor who’s now a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. "Then the other side is if it’s journalism, it can’t be literature. It’s amazing how many journalists have that opinion."
Mr. Breslin has no truck with the idea that his technique sacrifices accuracy. "You gotta be more accurate to make a character come alive," Mr. Breslin said. Nor did he think there should be different rules for columnists and reporters. "No. The rules are all the same," Mr. Breslin said. "Tell the truth as best you can. But do more work than normal. The whole key is the amount of work you do.
"It all starts with the shoe leather, with the climbing stairs for work," Mr. Breslin said. "You can tell how you do it in your feet. If you gather a lot of stuff, then you write it, write in scenes with dialogue," he said. Then, "somewhere in the middle, rising from all this research like strong metal towers, is your opinions." It’s quite a contrast to Jayson Blair, who notoriously said in an interview with The Observer last year that when he chose to fabricate stories from his apartment in Brooklyn rather than travel, he thought to himself, "I don’t want to be getting on a plane for The New York Times."
Nor did Mr. Breslin think the kind of operatic stories he specialized in are rarer these days. "The only thing that changed is the decline of the Mafia as interesting figures," Mr. Breslin said. "That’s a bad, bad thing, because the replacements are big-business executives, and they’re not nearly as interesting."
Some would say maybe the characters don’t exist anymore.
Mr. Breslin disagrees. "If you keep fucking looking, you’ll get them! You gotta look!" Does he have a formula for bringing life to his columns? "Yeah," he said with a growl more ebullient than menacing. "Writing!"
Gay Talese recalled how he and Mr. Wolfe and David Halberstam and others of Mr. Breslin’s generation left the frantic pace of daily journalism when they were in their 30’s to write books. "It’s such a young man’s game," Mr. Talese said. "You don’t keep chasing fire engines and talking to people in saloons. One that stayed within that world of daily journalism, writing against deadlines, is Jimmy Breslin. He’s quite remarkable."
Yet Mr. Talese wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea of a reporter remembering quotes, especially when that reporter was "a senior citizen"—Mr. Breslin is 74—who "can go to a movie and pay half-price, as I can. A man who’s that age should never rely on his memory," Mr. Talese said. Still, he added, "I’m very respectful" of what Mr. Breslin does. Filing a column for a daily paper is like "being a jockey at Pimlico. It’s demanding!"
In his own nonfiction writing, Mr. Talese said, he tries to avoid quoting people directly. "It’s very hard to be accurate, even when you try to be accurate, because people don’t speak in sentences," he said.
A Holy Ruckus
The column that set off the flap was a remarkably dark look at religiously motivated violence and trouble around the world—from last week’s uprising in Falluja to the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and stem-cell research—written on the occasion of Holy Week. "It is supposed to be a week of glorifying, of reasserting deep belief, of flowers and family and happiness. Instead, we have a religious war that kills our young," Mr. Breslin wrote about Iraq. Then he wrote about a photo he’d seen of New York Cardinal Edward Egan, President Bush and Mr. Sheldon at a White House ceremony.
Then came the now-contested quotes: "‘Homosexuals are dangerous,’ Sheldon assured me one day. He was a short man with eyes gleaming when he mentioned how bad homosexuals truly are. ‘How?’ ‘They proselytize. They come to the door, and if your son answers and nobody is there to stop it, they grab the son and run off with him. They steal him. They take him away and turn him into a homosexual.’"
The day the column appeared, Mr. Sheldon sent out a press release saying that he had never said those things. The following day, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and Newsday all ran stories on the dispute. "I know Jimmy Breslin fills his column with interesting and often fictional characters. But the line between amusing fiction and political commentary seems to have been blurred in today’s Breslin column," Mr. Sheldon said in a statement on the Traditional Values Coalition Web site. "I have never met Jimmy Breslin, never had the conversation described in his column today and never said those sentences to anyone in my life."
In a follow-up column published on April 8, Mr. Breslin said it was "a pleasure to be attacked today by a non-Catholic"—Mr. Breslin has had several run-ins with his fellow Catholics—and recounted how he’d met Mr. Sheldon at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992.
Mr. Sheldon told The Observer that he had never heard of Mr. Breslin before last week’s column and did not meet Mr. Breslin at the convention. "He may have been in a crowd of reporters, but that’s not meeting somebody," he said.
He denied that he’d ever said what Mr. Breslin had quoted him as saying. "I never said that, and I don’t agree with that," he said.
Nevertheless, on the Traditional Values Coalition Web site, the organization touts a study written by Mr. Sheldon and entitled: "Homosexuals Recruit Public School Children." The study focuses on "Gerald Hannon," who is described as "a homosexual pedophile." "How are Hannon and his fellow sexual predators going to recruit children? Hannon’s answer is simple: ‘proselytize.’ How? By establishing homosexual youth clubs with adult advisors to serve as mentors."
As for the study on gays recruiting schoolchildren, "That’s not knocking on somebody’s door. We’re talking about they’re going into the public-school system," Mr. Sheldon said. "That’s a totally different kind of issue."
Mr. Breslin called Mr. Sheldon "a fruitcake" and lambasted The Times for taking the preacher seriously. "If they’re so worried about accuracy—and I guess their corrections columns get longer every day—this is a pretty big error they made, listening to Sheldon," he said. He took The Times’ headline as an affront. "I saw in the paper this headline: ‘fabricated.’ That was the word they had to use when Blair was around," Mr. Breslin said. (Actually, the headline said "falsified.")
Mr. Breslin was also harsh on The Times and other papers for running news stories with anonymous sources. "These blind quotes—‘He spoke on the basis of anonymity; we were not to give his name’—what do you call that? You call that craven," he said. "What do you mean, he won’t give you his name? On what basis, that he’s not going to talk? You can’t keep him out of your fucking living room! They want to get in the paper!"
In a column scheduled to run in Newsday on April 14, Mr. Breslin also criticized his own paper for writing a news story on the flap. "I am going to charge them $50,000 more on my next contract," he wrote.
Over the years, Mr. Breslin has invented plenty of characters, like Un Occhio, a one-eyed Mafia don who starred in columns spoofing the mob, but these were satiric flights of fancy, just like Maureen Dowd’s conversations between Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
"Humor can win everything," Mr. Breslin said. "That’s the difference between anything that I do, frankly, and anybody else. I can get now and then something humorous, and nobody else can. There’s one accusation they can hurl which is deadly, which is ‘boring’! If he’s boring, that’s a major sin. That’s a felony."