Editorial: The Two Newspapermen - Irvin Lieberman and Pete Hamill
By Richard Gaw
“I like to say that journalism is the graduate school from which you never graduate.” -Pete Hamill, journalist, 1935-2020
In hindsight, it is not likely that Irvin Lieberman and Pete Hamill would have agreed on much of anything.
Upon surface examination, their differences were many. Hamill was a high school dropout, a loyal ally of liberal causes and once championed the presidential aspirations of Robert Kennedy. Lieberman was Ivy League educated and did not surrender an inch of his conservatism. Hamill was not just an engine of facts; he wrote with the eloquence of a poet who was always cognizant of word counts and the ticking clock on the newsroom wall. Lieberman’s writing seemed chiseled out of brick, a canvas of fat words that wasted no space.
And yet, they are forever linked by their association with those who believe that newspapers are the essential documentation of our history, founded and proliferated by those who use their constitutional right to tell those stories in the name of tough but fair journalism.
Lieberman, who founded the Chester County Press in 1970 and whose “Uncle Irv” columns ran weekly until his death in December 2018, spent most of his adult life advocating the right to a free press. For nearly five decades, Lieberman championed – many would prefer the words “freely exercised” -- the First Amendment and wore it like a protective shield of armor, passing the importance of that freedom on to his reporters in the form of a declarative marching order. He could at times be dogged in his insistence and sometimes even crude, but his message was clear: The purpose of a free press is to pursue facts without pretense and be utterly fearless at doing it.
For Hamill, who died on Aug. 5 at the age of 85, the craft of being a journalist seemed to proliferate from the cracks in the sidewalks of his Brooklyn childhood and grow beneath his feet. It came with a scent, too: the kind you inhale in the sweet boozy aroma of neighborhood bars and from the incense that permeated the churches throughout the boroughs of New York City. Hamill knew that these were the places in the city where the people congregated, where they prayed, where they pontificated, where they went to forget sorrow, to swallow up regret and where they went to share news.
To Hamill, who had the distinction of serving as the editor of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, the pursuit of news was done best when a reporter left the newsroom and followed his or her natural curiosity, to places where the voices on the other end were both reluctant and forthcoming. A newsroom was a place solely dedicated to typing. He would have hated working in journalism now; if the complications from liver and kidney failure did not eventually lead to his death, being forced to be a journalist in the age of COVID-19 certainly would have.
Hamill’s ear bent toward truth and he had the ability discern it simply by looking into the eyes of the individual. He exalted the prophets of our nation’s greatest moments. He also sniffed out liars and crooks and bad guys and called them out in print for their craven indecencies. His literary sword, induced by harsh deadlines, was sometimes too sharp and occasionally it dug in too deep.
From time to time, so did Lieberman’s, but in reflection, who dare dast blame these men to refuse to accept the double-speak, half-truths and word salads spoken by the elected and the selected and the detected? These were men who could never accept impartiality.
If there is such a place in Heaven where old newsmen now gather, however, it is right to believe that they will find their common ground in their belief that newspapers are better when their narrative follows the plight of the regular man and woman rather than the big muckety-mucks who chew up all the scenery and flash their credentials with a false sense of entitlement. Hamill’s reporting had the ability to break down the magnificence of New York City into small towns of many neighborhoods, through which blue collar men and women lived, worked and died. Lieberman wrote about the unforgiving world of mushroom workers and farmers, each of whom have helped to carry the economic well-being of Chester County on their sweaty backs, with barely a thanks.
In the end, Irvin Lieberman and Pete Hamill, like true newsmen do, staked their entire livelihoods on the very simple idea that Truth is something to be pursued and that the voices of journalists – be they written or spoken, in print or online or on the air -- must survive, no matter the consequences.
They are now bound forever by what burns in the guts of every good journalist: That left unchecked, Democracy will die in the darkness of ignorance and in the disappearance of accountability.
For these two newspapermen, it will serve as their eternal epitaph.