For more than 40 years, Jimmy Breslin has turned words into weapons. A rumpled, cigar-smoking man who drinks hard and writes harder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman has pummeled the privileged and defended the down-and-out in tough, bare-knuckled columns read by millions of New Yorkers.
Brash. Insulting. Street-smart. Compassionate. Nobody personifies the brawling, in-your-face side of the Big Apple better than the Irish-American Breslin. Nobody has written more powerfully on behalf of the city's minorities, or gunned down the high and mighty with such wit and relentless energy.
But now critics are using new words in connection with Breslin--words like racism and sexism --and even his closest friends say the 61-year-old star of New York Newsday has shot himself in the foot. Badly.
It all began less than two weeks ago, when a Korean-American journalist at the paper took exception to one of Breslin's columns, saying he had denigrated professional women and was "spewing sexism." She told him of her displeasure in a personal computer message and complained to Editor Don Forst.
Some speculate that Ji-Yeon Yuh, 25, a recently hired reporter who previously worked in Omaha, was unfamiliar with Breslin's crusty humor. The column in question poked fun at his wife, a New York City councilwoman, and complained that she was never home. Readers accustomed to Breslin's curmudgeonly complaints about modern life probably did not give it a second thought.
But longtime friends were shocked by his hair-trigger response to Yuh's criticism. Storming into the city room on May 4, Breslin spat out a stream of obscenities and racial and sexual slurs, calling her a a "bitch," a "yellow cur" and "slant-eyed." Although she was not in the room at the time, he shouted, "She's a yellow cur. Let's make it racial." The columnist quickly apologized, but in the aftermath, earned himself a two-week suspension without pay. More important, his behavior has triggered a debate over free speech in the workplace and the sensitivities of minorities at a time when tensions are already high in the city. It has generated a controversy similar to those caused by CBS commentator Andy Rooney, former Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis and sports pundit Jimmy the Greek--all of whom were either suspended or fired because of allegedly racist remarks.
"This issue is of national concern, because it goes way beyond Breslin and New York," says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation and former editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
"I don't think it's a free speech issue at all, because this isn't free speech, it's verbal assault. What we have is a whole new playing field in the workplace, and there are certain kinds of behavior that just aren't going to be acceptable anymore. Not to women, not to minorities, not to anyone."
But to others, Breslin's punishment is a disturbing sign that everyone must tread lightly in a minefield of new and growing sensitivities. At the very least, they say, the barriers between public and private speech in America are collapsing, creating a brave new world of do's and don'ts.
"This (punishment) carries with it risks that are deeper than the possible affront to an individual," says Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard and former CBS newsman.
Although he stresses that Breslin's comments were deplorable, Kalb adds: "You get to the point where people like Breslin and not like Breslin are going to be so concerned about not offending somebody that . . . they will all end up sounding the same. And it's going to be an awfully boring world."
Ever since he set foot in a newsroom, Breslin has tyrannized editors, reporters, copy messengers and others with a bullying, arrogant persona many believe is part of his charm. Once you get to know him, friends say, the stocky columnist's tirades and tantrums are all part of the act--an endearing blend of macho swagger and compassion for the underdogs of urban life.
Who else but Breslin would declare war on New York's police brass--and blast them for hypocrisy--when they fired a female Puerto Rican officer who had posed for nudie pictures months before joining the force? Who else would turn his political feuds into a public circus, publishing an annual list of "People I'm Not Talking To," which includes some of the city's biggest VIPs?
Friends say Breslin's explosions of temper are routine, prompted by anything from deadline pressures to casual criticism. He fires off sexual epithets and cusses a blue streak with little provocation, according to colleagues at the Daily News, where he worked for years before coming to New York Newsday. But none can recall him lashing out with racist language.
Yuh, who was told later that day about Breslin's comments, says she has been badly hurt by them. "I was shocked. I've been subjected to racist comments before, by strangers on the street. But this was something else. It was a lot worse than anything I'd ever heard before.
"I'd very much like to forget about it, but I think that's impossible. I'm really glad that I wasn't there to hear it, because those words that he said, when I'm not busy and things are silent around me, they ring in my head."
Breslin regretted his comments almost immediately, and apologized in computer messages to Yuh and the entire Newsday staff.
"I am no good and once again I can prove it," he said. "I intended to make noise, not offend good people. I'm sorry. I said things I shouldn't have said. The racial and sexual insults I spewed are never appropriate. Again, I'm sorry."
He apologized again in a subsequent column, writing: "It is absolutely nuts to say that I am bigoted against a young woman from anywhere, including a young woman who is Asian." In addition, Breslin sent a private note to Yuh, inviting her to have a cup of coffee and soothe troubled waters.
That was enough for Breslin's editors, who decided their star columnist would be reprimanded but not suspended. They said he was guilty of atrocious judgment but was neither racist nor sexist. Officials at New York Newsday, which is owned by the Times Mirror Co., the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, hoped to put the incident behind them.
But Yuh and other reporters were incensed at what they felt was a slap on the wrist. The weekend after Breslin's outburst, they spoke out publicly against the decision. During a May 8 meeting with Forst and other editors, 11 Asian-American staffers said the columnist's apology was not sincere. They demanded harsher discipline, but management refused.
"They (the protesting reporters) had come to the aid station seeking morphine for the wound they felt had been inflicted on them, and we were saying the wound wasn't that serious or grievous," Forst says. "In our view, it required aspirin."
As the tense and emotional meeting continued, the Asian-American journalists dropped a bombshell: That morning, they said, Breslin had called a radio talk show and made flippant remarks about the controversy. They handed out a transcript that quoted the columnist as saying all his apologies were "carbons," and joking that it might be difficult for him to attend the wedding of a nephew who is marrying a Korean woman.
After editors played a tape of the show, they agreed that Breslin's latest comments had undercut the sincerity of his apology and decided to suspend him immediately. When the paper contacted him at home, he was furious.
"I'm tired of being sensitive," he told Newsday. "You're asking me to behave because people think I should? The thing is called freedom of speech, in case people have forgotten such a thing does exist. What are we in, a totalitarian state? I can say anything I . . . please."
Since the disciplinary action, Breslin has been lying low, refusing all comment. He and his wife did not return phone calls, and the columnist snapped at a New York Times reporter who did reach him to "just leave me alone."
Did Breslin deserve a suspension? Forst says the columnist's actions gave the paper no choice. Going back to his earlier analogy, he said Breslin's radio comments "suggested indeed that morphine was needed."
Today, the story continues to spark controversy, with the reaction appearing to break down largely on generational lines. Several of New York Newsday's male columnists say the protest over Breslin's column violated accepted newsroom etiquette, even though all believe his comments were offensive and inappropriate.
Sydney Schanberg, for example, took Yuh to task for not sending a letter to Breslin about his column, instead of a computer message, which he said could be intercepted by a third party. Murray Kempton accused Yuh of "finkery" by complaining to Forst, instead of limiting her criticism to Breslin himself.
Bob Wiemer sympathized with an "angry, bewildered Breslin" and said: "Words spoken in milliseconds of anger attached themselves to him as the dogs used to attach themselves to the bears. He couldn't pry them away with a lifetime's worth of written words. He was staked out and nibbled by terriers. What grand sport!"
Many younger reporters, however, say the paper waited too long to discipline Breslin, reacting only when the issue became public. They also suggest that far too much media attention has focused on the columnist's feelings and not enough on Yuh, whom they believe was the real victim.
"White males don't run the world," says Evelyn Hernandez, a Newsday reporter and past president of the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists. "I think management needed to send a message that in today's newsrooms--and anywhere in the workplace--no one can get away with this kind of behavior, not even Jimmy Breslin."
George Jordan, a black Newsday reporter, contends the days of rough, locker room banter among white males that casually targets women and minorities are long gone.
"The columnists are crying in their beer because the old days are over, when a (black) was a spade and women were chicks," he says. "People are going to have to learn to curb their behavior. There is going to have to be a standard of behavior that is sensitive to people of color and women."
It may take a while for that message to catch on. Newsday reports that the initial reaction among readers and phone callers to Breslin's suspension was weighted heavily in favor of the columnist.
But in some corners, a lesson has been learned. Don Singleton, a Daily News reporter who has been friends with Breslin for years, says his buddy made a dreadful mistake and knows it.
"He was using street talk in a dumb way. It's banter that was acceptable in another era, but it's not now, and Breslin knows damn well it's not.
"I speak as a white male, 53 years old, who grew up where those terms were thrown around all the time, and I sometimes have the tendency to throw that mud myself. I don't want to. I disapprove of it. And if this helps make me more sensitive, then it's served a purpose."