Jack Newfield, 1938-2004


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

Ray Harding & the Gluttony Party

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 Voice and elsewhere, he defined the compromising power of self-interest money in city politics. His exposés over decades—beginning with a table-by-table accounting of the wirepullers, contractors, leeches, and dealmakers at a Mayor Beame fundraising dinner in the 1970s—undergird 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.

Jack’s father died when he was four, so Jack, propelled by loss in his own life, became a father to a generation of journalists. His two children, Rebecca and Joey, shared him with Maggie Haberman, Joanne Wasserman, Stu Marques, Marcia Kramer, Tom Robbins, Jim Callaghan, Paul Berman, Joe Conason, Jill Gardner, John P. Avlon, Bill Bastone, Mark Jacobson, myself, and many others. We still feel his hand guiding us whenever our fingers hit the keys. We will hear his whispered advice for thousands of stories yet to be written: Discover. Dissect. Dig. Track. Reveal. Confront. Besiege. Level. Care.

The journalists he adopted loved Jack Newfield, just like his lifelong brothers and sisters in type—Hentoff, Breslin, Pete Hamill, Murray Kempton, Nick Pileggi, Paul DuBrul, José Torres, Paul Cowan, Jules Feiffer, Eric Breindel, Joyce Wadler, Arthur Browne, Stanley Crouch, Norman Mailer, Gil Spencer, Victor Navasky, James Ridgeway, Wallace Matthews, Alex Cockburn, Dave Seifman, Fred Dicker, Susan Brownmiller, Juan Gonzalez, and Bob Caro.

For these fellow truthtellers, and for his readers across four decades, there is no better tribute than the one he quoted himself, in the final pages of his memoir, taken from a speech Martin Luther King delivered just 60 days before his assassination:

“I don’t want a long funeral. I’d like somebody to say that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. That I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things won’t matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things to leave behind. I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

Research Assistance: Eric Cantor, Deborah S. Esquenazi, and Daniel Ten Kate