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Book Review: Deadline Artists

Posted on Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 2:44 PM

Reviewing Deadline Artists, America's Greatest Newspaper Columns, edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Most of you probably have to deal with columns, if not also write them. Treat yourself to Deadline Artists, America's Greatest Newspaper Columns (Overlook Press), a scintillating collection of 168 pieces from which you will gain both an education and inspiration.

The book's three editors/collectors are John Avlon, senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast; Jesse Angelo, editor-in-chief of The Daily and the New York Post, and Errol Louis, a former columnist who serves as political anchor of NY1 News, a New York City–area television channel.

They claim to have read hundreds of columns, from which they chose the ones that fill the 400 pages of this anthology. In the process, they write in an introduction, "It has been striking to see which pieces endure. Those centered around storytelling and historic events best retain their power -- the more original reporting, the better. But what might be called the 'Mount Olympus' column, in which the author-analyst surveys the nation and passes policy pronouncements down from on high, tends not to age as well."

"A Voice Readers Understand"

They add that "columnists speak in a voice readers understand -- their own, but just a bit better. It is the voice of the bar room, the locker room, and the smoke-filled back room. It is a voice that comforts and confronts. A great column is both a witness and a work of art -- helping people understand the world around them while making them feel a little less alone."

A voice readers understand, that comforts and confronts, that is a witness to events and the lives of important or intriguing people, that offers us companionship: these are goals worth aiming for. You'll find also that the authors used their imagination while, at the same time, sticking to facts. There's no fiction in this book. Everything reflects the real, yet the reader finds himself or herself able to enter 168 thoughtful and tantalizingly re-created worlds, each evocative of a history, a moment, an experience, or a remembrance that matters, be it on a personal scale or larger, intimate or grand.

Included is the familiar, such as "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," penned in 1897 by Francis Pharcellus Church of the New York Sun, in response to eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon's letter stating, "Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN, it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?"

Church insists Santa exists "as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."

Included is the less familiar, such as Frederick Douglass' visionary "The Destiny of Colored Americans," written for the publication North Star in 1849, more than a decade before the Civil War. "The white man's happiness," said Douglass, "cannot be purchased by the black man's misery.... all distinctions, founded on complexion, ought to be repealed, repudiated and forever abolished."


There are lessons for us in every piece, perhaps in every paragraph, as human beings and as writers or editors. As writers and editors, let's just take beginnings, leads. You'll note how they draw the reader in through both a careful selection of compelling information and acute viewpoint.

When, for instance, Muhammad Ali retired in 1979, Jack Newfield marked the occasion and the man in New York's Village Voice. "Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. And exit like a hero," Newfield wrote, and after a brief biographical paragraph, he continued: "We have burdened Ali with many identities. Symbol of the sixties. Draft dodger. Muslim evangelist. Most famous human on earth. Exile. People's champ. Braggart. Huckster. Manchild. Poet. Rebel. Survivor. He can be as funny as Richard Pryor. He can be as eloquent as Jesse Jackson. He is as charismatic as the Ayatollah.

"But basically he is a fighter, the greatest fighter of the age. He danced like Nureyev. He could stick like Manolete. And he could think like Einstein."

Consider the details recollected to prove a point. Consider the profile being drawn in words. Consider the down-to-earth writing. Consider the aura of respect being revealed in what Newfield labeled "basically a fan's notes, a farewell tribute to a public man who gave me pleasure."

Ernie Pyle wrote for Scripps-Howard in 1943 from Northern Tunisia about "The God-Damned Infantry." "We're now with an infantry outfit that has battled ceaselessly for four days and nights," his column tells us. "This northern warfare has been in the mountains. You don't ride much anymore. It is walking and climbing and crawling country. The mountains aren't big, but they are constant. They are largely treeless. They are easy to defend and bitter to take. But we are taking them. The Germans lie on the back slope of every ridge, deeply dug into foxholes. In front of them, the fields and pastures are hideous with thousands of hidden mines."

Pyle combines description and narrative as he relates what he has been experiencing on the front lines, his beat as self-chosen war correspondent for an anxious nation. The dispatch is laden with measured emotion and anxiety, with, again, respect, here for unnamed but very real heroes facing possible death on this particular day as well as days gone by and still to come.

Molly Ivins fashioned "A Short Story about the Vietnam War Memorial" for the Dallas Times-Herald in 1982. The "she" written of in this impression-laced column, one suspects, is the writer herself. This is how Ivins begins: "She had known, ever since she first read about the Vietnam War Memorial that she would go there someday. Sometime she would be in Washington and would go and see his name and leave again.

"So silly, all that fuss about the memorial. Whatever else Vietnam was, it was not the kind of war that calls for some 'Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima' kind of statue. She was not prepared, though, for the impact of the memorial. To walk down into it to the pale winter sunshine was like the war itself, like going into a dark valley and damned if there was ever any light at the end of the tunnel. Just death. When you get closer to the two walls, the number of names starts to stun you. It is terrible, there in the peace and the pale sunshine."

One senses from the opening words Ivins' love for the lost and loathing for the war. Her reaction builds in a column of passion and powerful self-expression, underscored by a rush of facts supportive of the argument she unfolds in her "Short Story about...." It's good to let readers know from the start where you stand on an issue, if a stand is what you mean to take.

The lead Regina Brett used in her 2006 Cleveland Plain Dealer column, "45 Life Lessons and 5 to Grow On," merely prepares the reader for a list. She writes: "To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me. It is the most-requested column I've ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here's an update."

The list follows, beginning with: "1. Life isn't fair, but it's still good. 2. When in doubt, just take the next small step. 3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone. 4. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does. 5. Pay off your credit cards every month."

Pithy start. Pithy body. The end is pithy, too, Brett's 45th lesson: "Life isn't tied with a bow, but it's still a gift."

Yes, life is, and so is Deadline Artists. Treat yourself to a copy. You'll enjoy and you'll learn, from the leads right through to the finishes.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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