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By Steve Weinstein
Jack Newfield, whose 700 Voice pieces between 1964 and 1989 chronicled the left in New York and across America, died last week at 66. A columnist for the Daily News, Observer, Post, and Sun in more recent years, he was honored at a Wednesday funeral that included Mayor Bloomberg, Mario Cuomo, Fernando Ferrer, Jimmy Breslin, Dennis Rivera, Reverend Al Sharpton, and hundreds of his friends and readers.
Joining the Voice in its first decade, Newfield pioneered a new genre of advocacy journalism. But his larger contribution, patented here and transported on his customary yellow legal pads and manila folders to his daily columns, was a deeply personal investigative reporting that grew out of a consuming ethic and chased the new fact that could change policy or politics. His trademarks were: detail over dogma; leads that lassoed; each sentence, even in a 5,000-word opus, a crafted revelation. Simple and direct, he hated clauses more than criminals.
In his 2002 memoir, Somebody's Gotta Tell It, Newfield defined his own lifelong method: "Pick an issue. Study it. 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. This is what I mean by the Joe Frazier method. Keep coming forward. Be relentless. Don't stop moving your hands. Break the other guy's will."
Nat Hentoff, who was already at the Voice when Newfield arrived four decades ago, said: "When I was coming up in Boston, there was this thing called 'stick-to-it-iveness.' Jack believed that if you broke a story, you'd just begun the process of change. He kept going." Hentoff likened Newfield to a great jazz musician who, "even before he plays, communicates a presence as he sets up." Newfield "radiated integrity." Former Voice colleague Joe Conason recalled Jack's "immunity to cynicism, profound sense of class, and optimism of will." Tom Robbins, who worked with Newfield here and at the News, says he wrote stories with "a hammer, pounding one nail at a time." His Voice headlines captured his crusades:
The Mayor Who Did Not Want to Know
The Men Who Are Killing A Noble Sport
Al D'Amato & the Shame of the Suburbs
The Last Unspeakable Nursing Home
The Landlord Who Puts Souls on Ice
How 9 White Men Cheated Half the City
The Men Who Are Burning NY
How the Mob Bleeds the Garment District
Lead Poisoning: Silent Epidemic in the Slums
Ten Worst Judges
Ten Worst Landlords
The Dreck Machine
Inspired by muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, Michael Harrington, and I.F. Stone, he showcased in hard type the anger he prized as a professional prerequisite: "Compassion without anger can become merely sentiment or pity," he wrote. "Knowledge without anger can stagnate into mere cynicism and apathy. Anger improves lucidity, persistence, audacity, and memory."
Newfield's other invention was embodied in the titles of two of his 10 books: The Permanent Government and City for Sale. In these bestsellers, as well as in articles he wrote at the Voiceand elsewhere, he defined the compromising power of self-interest money in city politics. His exposés over decadesbeginning with a table-by-table accounting of the wirepullers, contractors, leeches, and dealmakers at a Mayor Beame fundraising dinner in the 1970sundergird a reform now closer to fruition than ever. Mayor Bloomberg and the city's Campaign Finance Board are actively negotiating regulations that could dramatically restrict the contributions of those doing business with the city. The most significant change in city governance since the creation of the CFB in 1988, this reform may become his memorial tribute, driven by a mayor who takes no contributions and is thus free to champion it.
Ironically, Newfield won warm editorial and obit praise in the three conservative dailies but was faulted in a mixed Times review for "suggesting that facts should be subservient to larger understandings," a pinpoint description of the Times' disinformation front pages that brought us to Baghdad. In fact, Jack was perpetually in search of facts that could lead to larger understandings, mining them, sometimes even milking them, but never manufacturing them. It is true that Newfield openly disdained Timesian "objectivity" that often winds up parroting an official line. So critiquing him by that elusive standard is like assessing a halfback by calculating an imaginary earned run average, using a time clock to measure distance. If Jack helped develop an alternative form, judge him by how he met its standards, rather than passing him through a Times filter.
The Times correctly cited Newfield's memoir, though he actually wrote that politics "seemed more empty" in the later years of his life, not that it had "grown" empty. But any suggestion that readers were getting Newfield Lite at the end was belied by his masterful deconstruction of Ralph Reed in The Nation and the 35 or so columns and news stories he wrote for the Sun recently about his lifelong obsession: Brooklyn clubhouse corruption. The last interview he did, scrawled in a notebook at his home desk and dated November 15, was about the sale of Brooklyn judgeships, and the folder at his feet in his paper-strewn office, bulging with up-to-date reporting, was labeled "Tom DeLay." While Newfield did write that he "discovered" that he liked writing positive, rather than negative, columns recently, it was a throwaway line, not an epitaph. He proved he could praise as passionately as he could attack by publishing a Thanksgiving Honor Roll of Heroes for almost 20 years, and he always believed punching out a public parasite was a positive story.
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