The columnist’s art, then and now, is reflected in the new anthology ‘Deadline Artists’

Jimmy Cannon. (Life magazine.)
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Fred Siegel

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A great deal has rightly been made of the ways in which the internet has replaced the newspaper as the means by which people wake in the morning and set their compasses by what their favorite writers have to say on the burning topics of the day.

But this is more a matter of continuity than generally recognized. As a young man growing up in New York I turned to the sport pages of the New York Post and Newsday for my favorite columnist, Jimmy Cannon. Cannon, who is included in the second volume of the Deadline Artists anthology, edited by John Avlon (of The Daily Beast), Jesse Angelo (who was at The Daily) and NY1 TV-news anchor Errol Louis, would sometimes begin his columns with “Nobody asked me, but…” granting himself literary license to tackle a thorny topic. It was Cannon, with his columns on Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, who brought home the importance of sports for race relations.

Cannon inspired a score of tabloid scions in the 1960s and '70s including Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield and Jimmy Breslin, writers who helped the city take stock of itself every morning. Over in the broadsheets the much underrated Flora Lewis patrolled foreign affairs for the Times while Robert Bartley at The Wall Street Journal engaged in the Sisyphean task of educating the public about the dark arts of economics.

The golden age of columnists may be past but there are still first-rate writers whose strong styles matched by even stronger opinions light up the landscape. Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News, Michael Goodwin and Fred Dicker of the New York Post, Michael Powell of the Times and Dan Henninger of the Journal are essential reading. They are joined online by Michael Daly of The Daily Beast (who is included in this volume), Ron Radosh and Barry Rubin of PJ Media, Maggie Haberman of Politico, Steve Hayward of Powerline, and Marc Epstein of The Huffington Post.

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The editors have subtitled this volume Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs. They’ve sorted the columns into these three categories. But many of the best of the columns can be better described as dealing with either small-town life or the violence of New York in the 1960s.

Columns included in the anthology illuminate the now lost pre-1950s world of an older America comprised of culturally self-contained small towns. H.L. Mencken, the most important liberal writer of the 1920s, helped create the archetypes for writing about the “booboisie” of the small towns with his still famous columns about the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” held in Dayton Tenn. In Mencken’s account the antievolutionists lead by a three-time antiwar Democratic Presidential candidate, the “mangy and flea bitten William Jennings Bryan,” were persecuting the amiable high school teacher John Scopes out of a mix of aggression and an overflowing animus to all that was superior to their own “pathetic commonness.”

This is the view that has been enshrined by the 1952 play Inherit the Wind and Hollywood movies based on the theatrical production. But with the exception of his defense of evolution, nothing Mencken wrote about the trial approached the foothills of truth. The case, as legal scholar Edward Larson described it in his 1998 Pulitzer Prize Winning book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion was set off not by local fanatics, but rather by the ACLU, which was looking to create a test case. Scopes wasn’t a victim of local gang justice. He was hailed by his fellow townsfolk for bringing the political equivalent of the circus to the sleepy backwater. And far from a buffoon, the widely read Bryan saw the eugenicism of Mencken, who had been a staunch admirer of the Kaiser in World War I, as a threat to the ideal of the common humanity on which democracy was based. Mencken was struck nearly mute on the subject of Hitler but in the 1930s Bryan’s heirs (like Hubert Humphrey’s father) saw their leader’s fears vindicated.

In what may be the best column of the volume, Ben Hecht, author of the great screenplay about journalism Front Page and called "the Shakespeare of Hollywood," wrote about the small-town America of 1914. “The Death of Henry Spencer” was written by Hecht for the now defunct Chicago Daily News. The editor’s description in the introduction to Deadline Artists 2 is that the best columns are “short stories come to life,” and that's exemplified by Hecht’s piece. The first three quarters of this true-to-life short story, set in Wheaton, Ill., is taken up with an account of the brutal murder of a beguiled spinster by the clearly guilty gigolo Henry Spencer. Spencer, surrounding himself ostentatiously with hymn-singing, banjo-playing evangelists as he awaits his execution, claims to have repented . Hecht takes Spencer at his word but also notices that the townspeople of Wheaton were, as they would be in Dayton a few years later, looking to cash in on the occasion. The town had built a stockade five times larger than necessary for the hanging. The builder, Hecht discovered, was the sheriff’s brother-in-law, who owned the local lumber mill. No need to let a hanging go to waste.

1964 was, despite the Kennedy assassination, still a time of considerable hope symbolized by The Freedom Summer of 1964. In Freedom Summer, also the name of current play about that time by William Tucker, northern students white and black went to the feudal Mississippi delta on behalf of the campaign by the courageous Robert Moses, a former Stuyvesant High School math prodigy, who had braved the Billy clubs and batons to register African-Americans for the ballot. Not even the murders of New York Civil rights workers Goodman, Schwirner and Chaney could fully tamper the hope. But in New York, which had elected its first African-American borough president, Hulan Jack, in 1952, black rage, as captured in columns by Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton, was beginning to boil over in the Harlem riots of that same summer. The rioters, blinded by a fury fueled by the racial injustices they had endured, turned their anger not only on the police but firemen as well.

“They were stoning us last night,” reported a shaken fireman to Breslin, “they were trying to kill us.” Jesse Gray, who along with Malcolm X had helped orchestrate the anger, saw little difference between North and South. “Only one thing,” Gray told Breslin, that “can solve the problem in Mississippi, and that’s guerilla warfare. And when Gray asked a crowd what would solve the problem in Harlem, they shouted back, 'Guerilla Warfare.'"

A year later Malcolm X would be assassinated not by whites but by rival black Muslims at a meeting from which whites were barred. This, wrote Murray Kempton, “was an assassination, for Mr. Malcolm was a head of state.” This was written two years before the term “black power” came into common usage.

There’s considerable pleasure to be had in slowly grazing through the columns in Deadline Artists. At their best the pieces collected in this volume illuminate a moment with an intensity rarely achieved in conventional reporting. The shift to the internet notwithstanding, the skills of the columnist are still a treasure to be prized.

Fred Siegel is scholar in Residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and a contributing editor to The City Journal.