Somebody's Gotta Tell It: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working Class Journalist

by Jack Newfield

Published by St. Martins Press

352 pages, 2002


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Trench Tales

Reviewed by Paul McLeary

 

The collective consciousness of the United States, (or at least Hollywood) seems to remember the Brooklyn of the late 1940s and early 1950s as some kind of urban embodiment of the American Promise. The multicultural, fair play ideal of the nation was to see its potential revealed in Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier at Ebbets Field while out on the streets, the offspring of immigrant parents were given a chance to rise through the strata of American social life by attending integrated public schools. Even journalist Jack Newfield, who cut his teeth in the Brooklyn of the 50s, begins and ends his memoir, Somebody's Gotta Tell It!, with odes to this Brooklyn, fictitious or not. "My Brooklyn," he says, "was the working-class Brooklyn of the Dodgers, democrats, unions, optimism and pluralism."

Of course, things are not as simple as that, but Newfield, involved in some myth-making of his own, chooses to dwell on the positive lessons learned from growing up in the tough, multiracial Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. After his father died when Newfield was still a toddler, he lived with his mother as one of the dwindling number of Jews in his neighborhood, struggling under the weight of financial hardship. Impressed early on by the example of the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947 and by the writing of legendary New York journalists Murray Kempton and Jimmy Cannon who wrote in the tough, yet literate language of the politically savvy sportswriter, Newfield discovered his love of writing early on. Realizing that "journalism would be my chance to get out of dead-end Bed-Stuy," Newfield charted a course that would take him across the East River and into Manhattan, smack into the center of the social upheaval that was soon to visit the nation.

Editing the Hunter College Arrow and through his early involvement in the Young People's Socialist League and the Students for a Democratic Society, (under the tutelage of Michael Harrington), Newfield became immersed in the civil rights movement in the years before it was seen as a national issue, tearing at the very fabric of the ideals the nation was founded on. He also got a taste of what direct action could do, taking part in sit-ins and protests railing against segregation and economic injustice.

This early education in social justice would form the basis for a social philosophy that served Newfield well during the epic labor battles of the early 1990s at the New York Daily News and The New York Post. Through it all, Newfield tried to stick to the "neighborhood code" of fair play and loyalty he learned as a kid. Ardently pro-labor, he was the only member of management to quit the Daily News during the 1990 labor strike, although he admits that working there "was one of the joyful periods of my career." The infamous battle lines of that fight were drawn when The Tribune Company, which published the Daily News, set out to destroy the newspaper unions in New York, much the same way they had done in Chicago years earlier. By this stage of his career, as an investigative reporter well-versed in scandal and corruption at the highest levels of power, this was nevertheless the first time Newfield felt his ideals personally challenged. Under pressure to back up his years of taking principled stands with action, he chose to side with his conscience:

The strike forced me to confront myself, testing my own integrity, my willingness to live by the words I wrote. Could I exhibit the sacrifice and courage that I preached? Could I live up to the old neighborhood code, which was "never cross a picket line?" In my heart I knew I had to resign and join the picket line of my peers.

After quitting the Daily News job, Newfield made ends meet by writing freelance articles for magazines such as New York and The Nation. Soon came the gig at the New York Post, at the time published by real estate developer Peter Kalikow who Newfield had slammed in 1986 and then again in 1988 in Voice and Daily News pieces. Though the ownership made the Post job a surprising career choice for a champion of the "little guy," Kalikow didn't interfere in editorial decisions and Newfield was promised enough freedom that he accepted without reservation. Little did he know, however, that in two years the job would put him in the middle of "one of the busiest, craziest car wrecks in the history of American journalism."

What happened was this: In January 1993, Kalikow, going broke and out of credit, was either going to shut the paper down or cut salaries by 20 per cent. Unable to even buy newsprint, things didn't look good until old-time Newfield friend and governor of New York Mario Cuomo stepped in and found a buyer for the beleaguered daily. The night before the New York Post was going to shut down, "entrepreneur" Steven Hoffenberg stepped in and bought the paper. But the fun hadn't even started yet. Cuomo, lobbying for businessman Abe Grossman to buy the paper, made a mistake and ended up endorsing con man extraordinaire Steven Hoffenberg in the bidding. Hoffenberg, who owed more than $1 million in court costs and was accused by the SEC in a $215 million sale of false notes, was an odd candidate to buy the Post. "I reached the conclusion, "Newfield recalls, "that Hoffenberg's crazy idea was to take the Post hostage, use it as a shield against the SEC and FBI. His thinking was that as long as he was impersonating the civic patriot, 'rescuing' the seven hundred jobs at the Post, they wouldn't put him in jail."

Add to this the fact that The Post was taking a beating from the Daily News over the change in ownership and a spate of high-level defections to the News, and the situation looked bleak. Making matters worse, fellow loose-nut mogul Abe Hirshfeld soon became co-owner of the New York Post with Hoffenberg, beginning a brief, but contemptuous relationship that would almost sink the paper. Things were so bad that Newfield and others worked without pay in an office crowded with security guards hired by Hoffenberg and Hirshfeld to, among other things, keep them away from each other.

The insanity reached a fever pitch when fired editor Pete Hammill, Newfield and three other writers began working at a diner around the corner because they were banned form the building. All this led to the paper not going to press on March 15th and soon after the famed "mutiny" issue, where the writers and editors commandeered the entire paper and filled it with stories slamming Hoffenberg and Hirshfeld. Within weeks, Rupert Murdoch stepped in and bought the paper, (thanks to some FCC wrangling, since he already owned FOX TV in New York, and the deal would have broken federal antitrust regulations.) The paper was saved, and Newfield stayed on until June 2001, when he was let go due to restructuring.

But it wasn't just the Post and Daily News that were whirlwinds of inside maneuverings and pitched ideological battles. Newfield also wrote for the granddaddy of alternative newsweeklies, the Village Voice for 24 years. Hired as a staff writer in 1964 by editor Dan Wolf, Newfield felt that the Voice was a true "writer's paper" under Wolf's stewardship. Encouraged to write about everything from the civil rights movement to boxing to anti-Semitism to rock n' roll and the Black Panther movement, the Voice of those years was a fresh, exciting alternative to the city's traditional, and very partisan, dailies and weeklies. In the early 60s, Wolf assembled a team of "inspired amateurs, who had not gone to graduate school, who had not worked for a daily paper where their opinions would have been squeezed out of them. He preferred people with strong convictions and a story to tell." It was during these early years at the freewheeling Voice that Newfield taught himself how to be a writer, and more importantly, developed a method by which to go about writing his stories:

Pick an issue. Study it. Make yourself an expert so that you won't make any stupid factual mistakes. Figure out who the decision makers you want to influence are. Name the guilty men. Make alliances with experts. Combine activism with the writing. Create a constituency for reform. And don't stop till you have achieved some progress or positive results.

Just as the 60s ended in a maelstrom of confusion, assassination and unrealized visions, the Voice almost went down with the countercultural ship as well. In 1970, Wolf and Ed Fancher sold the Voice for $3 million, splitting the sum between them while paying their staff pitifully low wages, leading to confrontations between Wolf and the staff. These battles led to a series of editorial and publishing changes that almost saw a mass staff defection to create an alternative to the Voice. At one point during the early 70s, Newfield recalls, a young intern was so confused by the shifting politics of the paper that he asked an editorial director: "Now let me get this straight. We're against gentrification, but we're for fist-fucking. Do I have this right?"

Although known largely for his books and articles on New York City politics and features on the city's "ten worst landlords" and "ten worst judges" for the Voice, Post and Daily News, the early days saw Newfield on the front lines of national political and social activism, including marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and as a confidant and biographer of Robert Kennedy. Kennedy seems to have had a profound effect on Newfield, who dedicates two emotional chapters to his time with him in the mid-to late 60s. "Robert Kennedy was one person who never disappointed or disillusioned me," he says while recalling his trip aboard Kennedy's funeral train in June 1968. "Even decades later I cannot shake the memory of the faces, the images and emotions as we escorted Kennedy's remains form Penn Station to Arlington National Cemetery. The 1960s were not supposed to end like this." But end they did, and Newfield's disappointment and confusion merely echo the disillusionment expressed by many other writers, politicians, artists and reformists who were there to experience the perversion of their ideals.

Political allegiances aside, Newfield takes his "guilty pleasure" of boxing just as seriously as the social causes he has made a career of rallying around. Like many intellectuals who are fans of the sweet science, he has mixed feelings about the sport, as evidenced by his recent pieces in The Nation and New York magazines. He's gone so far as to campaign for a "Boxer's Bill of Rights" and a pension fund for retired pugilists. Overall, however, he claims to take an "economic populist" view of the sport: "The fighter is the exploited worker, the promoter the robber baron, and the corporate cable giants HBO and Showtime -- the bankers." In keeping with the neighborhood code he learned during his boyhood in Brooklyn, Newfield seeks nothing more than equal treatment and fair compensation for the worker: in this case, the guy getting his face punched in. Along the same lines, he has created a boxing metaphor for his brand of muckraking journalism, which he calls the "Joe Frazier method of reporting," a method which he has employed in taking on moneyed interests in the spirit of fair play and socioeconomic justice: "Keep coming forward." He counsels. "Don't get discouraged. Be relentless. Don't stop moving your hands. Break the other guy's will." There are no doubt quite a few disgraced judges and landlords in the metro area who wish Newfield hadn't learned this lesson so well. | April 2002

 

Paul McLeary has written for Social Policy magazine, PopPolitics, World Citizen Foundation, and New York Resident. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.