STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
The legendary newspaper columnist Pete Hamill has died. He was 85. He was a New York City tabloid crusader, and that made him one of the most influential figures in the city for decades. In 2011, Pete Hamill spoke with WHYY's Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
PETE HAMILL: We came from a tradition where we were paid to have opinions, but the opinions were based on the reporting. We had been there and looked at it, whether it was Vietnam or Northern Ireland or the wrong part of town.
VANEK SMITH: Let's bring in NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Stacey.
VANEK SMITH: So hearing Pete Hamill's voice, I feel like it tells us a lot about the man. But describe him, if you will. Who was he?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, as you can kind of tell, he was larger than life. And I'd say he cast an unusually large shadow over his newsroom and over the profession, in part because it was New York. And New York casts such a shadow itself. But in part, also, it was a very different age in journalism.
To begin with, Hamill had came from very modest beginnings - born in Brooklyn to - son of Irish immigrants. He was poor, Catholic. He was admitted to a very prestigious Catholic high school in New York but dropped out, joined the Navy, kicked about a bit, became a cartoonist in newspapers and then joined the life - for decades in newspapers and outside newspapers a heavy smoker, heavy drinker in self-destructive ways that he chronicled in his telling memoir "A Drinking Life."
He also was larger than life in his personal life. He dated the actress Shirley MacLaine. He dated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Linda Ronstadt - lived large in the way that perhaps only a newspaper figure in New York could really pull off.
VANEK SMITH: Wow. Well, what kind of a record did he leave in journalism?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, he was hugely popular, as well as hugely influential. He defined kind of the big-city columnist of his day, along with a handful of others - think of Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Murray Kempton - and wrote with clear-eyed compassion during years of tumult, starting particularly in the 1960s - wrote about racial injustice, about poverty, police brutality and corruption, wars and riots, politicians and paupers; a guy who, in his words, sought to write to his working-class readers because he respected them and spent time with them rather than patronizing them from afar. And in thinking about him living beyond the news pages in his professional life as well, he wrote lyrically about Bob Dylan on Dylan's album's liner notes. In '68, he advised then-Senator Bobby Kennedy on his presidential campaign. And when Kennedy was shot in June 1968, there was Pete Hamill helping to wrestle his assassin to the ground - wrote about national issues enough to be put on President Nixon's enemies list. He wrote about Donald Trump and the Central Park Five. And as a tabloid editor for a stretch, he promptly went out to hire Black and women journalists at least to start to make up for lost time for a profession dominated by white men.
VANEK SMITH: What do you think his legacy will be?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, think of all the publications he wrote for - the New York Post, the Daily News and Newsday. He sees the potential in the kind of tabloid journalism not purely defined by supermarket gossip. It was a journalism that was brash and not cruel, a kind of populism defined not by the phoniness you might see on cable news outlets. Sadly, those tabloids are now diminished in their size and ambition. His spiritual heirs, I think, are fewer and farther between than one might hope, but they do exist. Journalism's moved on in other ways.
VANEK SMITH: NPR's David Folkenflik.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.