Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Jack Newfield 1938 -2004: “A voice of conscience, a voice of sacred rage”

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice”

• Old Indian Proverb

How the Other Half Still Lives
by Jack Newfield, The Nation, February 27, 2003

In 1890 the great photojournalist Jacob Riis published his now classic book about immigrant tenement poverty in lower Manhattan, called How the Other Half Lives. During the past few months I have tried to retrace some of Riis's steps through modern New York's pain and deprivation. As New York's (and America's) economy has turned bleaker and bleaker, I hung out in unemployment offices, food-stamp application centers and the occasional job fair, where lines of job-seekers were never short. I traveled around in a van with volunteers from the Coalition for the Homeless as they distributed free hot meals at night to the city's most defeated and destitute inhabitants.

I visited union halls, food pantries, immigrant community centers and the dreadful Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the Bronx. I interviewed community organizers, economists, politicians, leaders of nonprofit advocacy groups--as well as the jobless, homeless and hopeless. I wanted to understand better how the other half lives now, and who was responsible for this misery in the midst of this new, twenty-first-century Gilded Age of excess produced by the money culture, corporate scandal and the concentration of wealth and power.

What I learned was that in some ways little has changed since Riis published his reportorial findings in 1890. The poor are still largely invisible to the complacent majority. Most Americans don't see the everydayness of poverty. It is segregated in "bad neighborhoods" and in impersonal government waiting rooms. We don't see all the people being told there are no applications for food stamps available at that location; all the people postponing medical treatment for their children because they don't have health insurance; all the people trying to find a job with their phone service shut off because they couldn't pay the bill; or all the deliverymen for drugstores and supermarkets paid only $3 an hour, which is illegal.

In one way we are even worse off than we were 113 years ago: We have no Jacob Riis now humanizing poverty, making the satisfied see it and smell it. We have no American Dickens or Orwell, no James Agee and Walker Evans, no Michael Harrington, no John Steinbeck, no Edward R. Murrow.
And now, sadly, we have no Jack Newfield.


The Village Voice:

In the introduction to The Education, Newfield quoted a description of the crusading journalist Jacob Riis that, Newfield wrote, "is a paragraph that when I'm 90, I hope somebody will say about me."

The paragraph was: "He not only got the news; he cared about the news. He hated passionately all tyrannies, abuses, miseries, and he fought them. He was a 'terror' to the officials and landlords responsible, as he saw it, for the desperate condition of the tenements, where the poor lived. He has 'exposed' them in articles, books, and public speeches, and with results."
John Nichols, The Nation:

Jack Newfield saw a world of heroes and villains, and he recognized that when they battled in the political arena it was the job of the journalist to go beyond merely reporting. He understood that the search for truth led, ultimately, to the point where the journalist had to take a side. He took the side of civil rights marchers, of anti-poverty crusaders, of reformers and radicals who believed that the promise of social and economic equity would be made real if the better angels of the American experiment could only be awoken by an article or a book. And so he wrote, passionately, powerfully and with a faith in the potential of a word well chosen to change the world.

Jack Newfield defined journalism for this reporter, and for thousands of others. His passing robs the craft not just of an able practitioner, but of a man who taught the rest of us that the combination of pen and ink could produce the rarest of all commodities: truth, and sometimes justice.
Michael Tomasky, The American Prospect

In addition to tracking down the ne’er-do-wells, the paper invented a new way -- shorn of the conventions of objectivity -- of talking about the good guys. Eventually, they had to coin a name for what the paper did, a name that’s still in the journalism textbooks: “advocacy journalism.” And Newfield, by and large, created it. And in doing that, he attracted protégés who became some of the country’s greatest liberal investigative journalists.
Stuart Marques, The New York Sun
Jack made his name as an investigative reporter at the Voice, when it was more about journalism and less about sexual orientation. He exposed greedy nursing-home operators, mob-tied contractors, and corrupt politicians. He was famous for his carefully crafted annual reports about the 10 worst judges in the city, or the 10 worst landlords.

But his writing also sang the song of New York; of its history, of its fabric, of the poor and helpless who live in the shadows at the financial capital of the world.

He wrote about the dangers of lead paint to children, until lawmakers started acting on it. He wrote about nursing-home parasites, until they were indicted. He wrote about companies that exploited workers, about corrupt boxing promoters who traded on fighters and then discarded them when they had lost their skills.

And he wrote about his love of New York and the honest politicians, labor leaders, and just plain folks who make it the best city in the world.
New York Sun Editorial

His own hero was Jacob Riis, the muckraker who burst onto the New York scene in the pages of the original New York Sun. While objectivity has its uses, we agreed, it was not the defining element of the journalists who tower over the field in historical terms. No, the defining element was an honest commitment to a great cause - or, as Newfield would put it, that they cared.

That is the feature that animated the newspaper life that Newfield himself led right up to the hour of his death yesterday, after a brief but valiant fight against cancer.
For four decades, at the Village Voice and later the Daily News and New York Post, Newfield stood against what he called the "permanent government." He would have none of the traditional "Chinese wall" separating reporting from advocacy.

Eve Berliner

Jack Newfield, in the end, a muckraker, a voice of conscience, a voice of sacred rage, in the tradition of Murray Kempton, his guiding light.