Media Circus

Legendary newsman brutally axed by tabloid! Mort Zuckerman falls back into journalistic gutter! Pix, story page 3!

Published September 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

When New York Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman "resigned" editor Pete Hamill last week, he aborted a brave and important journalistic experiment. It is painfully ironic that Zuckerman's ax should fall on Hamill's neck during the week the world went crazy for Diana, tabloid journalism's first victim.

Hamill had begun to challenge the tabloid ethic of the '80s and '90s that declares "news" to be whatever Diana and Dodi, Donald and Ivana, Madonna and Whoever, had for brunch. Hamill considered such nonsense "nose-pressed-to-the-window" reporting of "press-agent schlock." To show he meant business, he fired gossip columnists A.J. Benza and Michael Lewittes (who had written the News' Hot Copy column for four years), explaining, "We have too much gossip, and there aren't enough people around to gossip about ... I need the space for news." Celebrities, he announced upon taking over at the News, would henceforth read their names in the paper only if they "die, get shot, shoot their wives" or something happens to them "in the sense of a 'real verb.'" "Madonna Shops," he gleefully explained, does not contain a strong enough verb to carry the story. ("Madonna Throws Sean Penn under a Bus," he joked, "now that's a story.") Donald Trump, Hamill continued, would get his name in the paper "only if he puts a spade to earth. Calling a press conference to announce that he might build a building somewhere will not do it."

Zuckerman drew considerable kudos for his hiring of Hamill, much as he did for his surprising decision to name press critic James Fallows to head up U.S. News and World Report, which the real-estate magnate also owns. Chosen to replace Martin Dunn, a Fleet Street import, Hamill is the embodiment of the hard-drinking, tough-guy-with-a-soft-heart New York tabloid legend. He has knocked around that world for more than 30 years as a cub reporter, prowling columnist, reporter and famed raconteur. A high-school grad, he says he doesn't "know what the hell they teach in journalism schools." For one brief, ridiculous month, he was named editor of the New York Post, when it was briefly and chaotically owned by a strange millionaire named Abe Hirschfeld. In recent years, he had moved on to writing a bestselling memoir about quitting drinking, a sappy-yet-wonderful novel about a friendship between an 11-year-old Irish boy and an immigrant rabbi set against Jackie Robinson's first season with the Dodgers and a still in-progress biography of Diego Rivera.

In picking Hamill, Zuckerman had chosen tabloid journalism's original renaissance man -- the author of eight novels, two short-story collections and two journalism collections and a representative, with the late Murray Kempton, of the press's glory days, when news was news and gossip was gossip.

The News has traditionally been the city's working-class newspaper, the paper for the boroughs. It thinks the Times' readers are snooty and snotty. Daily News staffers were overjoyed by Hamill's hire; the rest of us wondered what the hell had come over Zuckerman, a "McLaughlin Group" wannabe who has long been a blight on the city's journalistic landscape. Nothing, apparently.

The News issued a hypocritical press release attributing the decision, allegedly Hamill's, to changes related to "the introduction of color and on the redesign and expansion of certain editorial elements," which "provide a real opportunity to strengthen the editorial product and to capitalize on the substantial editorial investment we made in increased personnel, higher salaries, new technology and a new physical plant." Right, Pete Hamill quit because he didn't like color photos.

The Daily News staff, which had been on a Zuckerman-induced roller coaster of layoffs, forced job reapplications and constant management changes since a disastrous five-month strike in 1991, was almost exclusively in Hamill's corner. They had been circulating petitions and issuing statements of support for weeks, while Zuckerman let it be known that Hamill's future hung in limbo. Even Hamill's remaining gossip columnists supported the higher journalistic standards he instituted: When the new regime decided to hold a potential scoop about The Donald's impending divorce because it was insufficiently sourced, Joanna Molloy, one of the gossip reporters who had the story, later spoke respectfully of her boss's willingness to "set a higher standard of proof at the News."

The second crucial aspect of Hamill's attempt to remake the News was his hope to create a newspaper for a new generation of new immigrants. Advertising directors and media buyers were appalled, but Hamill was not thinking in terms of lineage. He saw a newspaper not as a "property," like one of Zuckerman's real-estate developments, but a vital force in the life of a polyglot city. Hamill wanted to create a modern-day analogy to what he called a "zocalo in Latin America; a place where different cultures can collide in the plaza, rub off on one another and then go home." Moreover, this was going to be a newspaper for New Yorkers.

Not every decision Hamill reached worked out. Clearly, it was a bit meshugge to run the entire text of Norman Mailer's autobiography of Jesus, which ran in 18 separate segments. ("It was Norman's idea," Hamill now says.) A book tour for his most recent novel and the Rivera biography deadline also kept him out of the newsroom. More seriously, circulation continued to decline under Hamill. Recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation showed that average weekday circulation of the News dropped by 30,000, to about 728,000, between March 1996 and March 1997. Hamill, and much of the staff, attributed this to the fact that the new color printing plant in New Jersey was getting the paper to Brooklyn and Queens too late for people to pick up on their way to work. The Sunday News was particularly damaged by a loss-leader version of the New York Post, which sold for only 50 cents and contained all the gossip that can fit between the paper's routine paeans to right-wing leaders and love letters to Israel's Bibi Netanyahu. (Rupert Murdoch is reported to lose between $10 million and $15 million on the Post annually, but he more than makes up for it with the goodwill he earns from the city's Republican politicians.)

Hamill's as-yet unnamed successor will be the fourth person to hold that unhappy job in fewer than five years. Whoever it is, Zuckerman has made it clear that he or she had better be ready to travel down the same trash-ridden path Murdoch took to destroy the Post. Press-agent schlock will be at a premium. Paparazzi photos will rule the roost. Jim Fallows, watch your back. USA Today, go ahead, take over the world. Diana, you died in vain.

By Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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