Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
The Upbeat Memoir of a Working Class Journalist
by Jack Newfield (St. Martins Press, April 2002)
collective consciousness of the United States, (or at least
Hollywood) seems to remember the Brooklyn of the late 1940's
and early 1950's 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 Ebbetts 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
50's, 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
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 Bed-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 sports writer, 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
river into Manhattan and into the center of the social maelstrom
that was soon to visit the nation.
Editing the Hunter College Arrow and though 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 at 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 1990's 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 working there "was
one of the joyful periods of my career.", He admits.
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 personal 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%. 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 paper
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 paper 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
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 news
weeklies, the Village Voice for 24 years. Hired as a staff
writer in 1964 by editor Dan Wolf, Newfield felt that the
paper 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 60's,
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
Just as the 60's 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 70's, 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 60's. "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
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 "Boxers 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 monied 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.