By: Dave Astor
Pete Hamill received the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday night at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) conference.
“I’m delighted to win this,” said Hamill, who has written columns for papers such as the New York Post and the New York Daily News, edited the Post and Daily News, and authored a number of fiction and nonfiction books.
He went on to say that “we’re in a time when columnists are needed more than ever. There are huge stories all over the place — two wars, a propaganda machine, and religious people who want us to obey them. The other great story is immigration.”
Elaborating on “propaganda machine,” which apparently referred to the way the Bush administration manages information, Hamill added: “We’re living in an era where b.s. is triumphing, but can’t be allowed to triumph.”
Hamill said he’s not opposed to good conservative commentary, noting that New York Times columnist David Brooks “demonstrates that you can be a conservative without being a nut.” He also praised Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman — contrasting their lively writing with the dull prose of former Times commentator Arthur Krock. “Anyone could start his column, but no one could finish it,” remembered Hamill, as he feigned nodding off at the microphone.
The speaker also cited some of his favorite non-Times columnists — including Jimmy Breslin, the late Murray Kempton, and the late Mary McGrory — and offered a couple of “can’ts” to NSNCers. “You can’t hurt anybody who can’t hurt you back and you can’t make people dumber,” Hamill advised. He also suggested that columnists read all they can, including works of fiction, and watch great journalism movies such as “Deadline USA” with Humphrey Bogart.
Moving to a different subject, Hamill said columnists need a certain kind of spouse. “You have to pick your mate carefully,” he said. “They have to understand that if you’re looking out the window, you’re working!”
Hamill was introduced Saturday night by conference host/Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Dave Lieber and NSNC President/self-syndicated columnist Suzette Martinez Standring. Lieber said Hamill was the columnist he most admired when he was growing up. “He wrote every column like it was his last,” said Lieber. “He hit hard, threw long, and took chances.” And Standring noted that Hamilll was the “lucky 13th” winner of the NSNC lifetime achievement award, which started in 1993. Some of the previous winners were Herb Caen, Molly Ivins, William Raspberry, David Broder, Richard Reeves, the aforementioned McGrory, Chuck Stone, Andy Rooney, and Steve Lopez.
Hamill also gave a talk earlier on Saturday, as did Washington Post feature writer Wil Haygood.
“As a columnist, the reaction you hope to get from readers is ‘I didn’t know that’ or “I never thought of it that way,'” said Hamill. “If you get either, you’ve succeeded.”
Hamill also advised columnists to avoid “impactism speech,” which is exemplified by the use of impact as a verb.
Haygood said he hesitated to write in the first person until he was working on a book about the street he grew up on in Columbus, Ohio. His editor kept urging him to write more about his interesting family, and Haygood finally “got over that hump of hiding myself” in stories. Haygood, who has also authored three other books, read to the NSNC audience an interesting first-person piece about taking Sammy Davis Jr.’s elderly mother to a play.
The Post writer also said: “There’s so much talk about the threat against the written word. Don’t believe it. They all need us.”
Hamill added: “Newspapers are going to be here a very long time. Television has never been more wretched.”