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Tim Knight on Breslin

Tim Knight on Breslin

A man I taught to write wins a Pulitzer Prize for journalism a while back and dies just this week.

The Puitzer is for newspaper commentaries “ … which consistently champion ordinary citizens.”

This man wins the Pulitzer because be writes about ordinary women and men — people like you and me — as if we are the most important people in all the world. He writes like this because he really, genuinely, absolutely believes that ordinary people are the most important people in all the world.

The man’s name is Jimmy Breslin. He’s Irish and fat and looks like a debauched choirboy when I see him last. He drinks too much and smokes too much and wears clothes like he sleeps in them which, some of the time, he does.

For years Jimmy Breslin has had a passionately public affair with the ordinary people of New York City. He loves them. They love him. They show their love by not electing him deputy mayor of the city when he runs for that high and impossible office, and by reading his newspaper column where they see themselves and their lives and the lives of people they know.

Ordinary people.

Like Jimmy Breslin.

It’s the great New York newspaper strike of 1968. Temporarily unemployed newspaper writers who think TV journalism is just a passing fad and has nothing to do with real journalism suddenly find TV newsrooms very nice places indeed — if only they can get jobs in them.

The New York Herald Tribune is on strike. So Jimmy Breslin is a temporarily unemployed newspaper writer. He signs with WABC, the ABC station in New York, to do his column on TV and prevent any interruption in the flow of groceries to his six kids and wife, the former Rosemary Dottalico.

To understand anything about Jimmy Breslin you have to understand that while he writes with more soul and heart and emotion and caring than any other American newspaperman of his time, he is also a very tough cookie indeed.

Breslin comes out of Queens. One of the toughest places to come out of. A lot of people don’t. There’s evidence — which he doesn’t deny — that his only educational diploma is from Elmira Reformatory.

Before The New York Herald Tribune goes on strike and he still has a job, Breslin leaves his beloved New York, with considerable reluctance, to cover some of the more significant events of our time.

He goes to Viet Nam. He ignores the Five O’clock Follies news conferences called by the American generals who specialize in lies and tactics and strategy and dinner in the officer’s mess, even though he is the most famous person around and could have had a lovely war, well diluted with excellent Scotch.

Instead, Breslin goes into the paddies, with the ordinary GIs who live and fight and sometimes die in the paddies and aren’t heroes most of the time and don’t know or even care what the hell the war is about but do know that they want out of this hell and want out now.

He writes about a battalion of Marines at the battle of Van Tuong, “the kids of eighteen, nineteen, and their early twenties”:

Somewhere close, artillery was going off. Jets screamed in the sun overhead. They sat with their chins down so the sand wouldn’t blow in their eyes. They talked about an amusement park in Long Beach where young kids go. Then Kendall’s eyes came up and he saw a guy walking toward them from another hole.

“What are you, soft?” he yelled. “You’ll get shot right through the ass doing that.”

The other two looked up. They all looked the same. Three kids in a foxhole with faces that are very old.

Breslin goes to London because Winston Churchill is dying. This prickly professional Irishman drinks in a pub where people remember the British lion:

“‘E was there when ’e was needed,” another one of the women said.

“We’d a been lost without ’im”, the man said.

Then one of the other women said something and so did another one, and the man at the bar started talking and now Moad’s fist shook in the air again and here in this little bar, with over twenty years gone since anger was needed, the fire came out again and now you could see just what kind of job this Winston Churchill did for his own when they needed him.

Breslin goes to Ireland and writes about The Troubles and The Easter Rising and “the lovely British” and their legacy for Ireland:

The oppression ended fifty years ago. But the product of it still is in Dublin. The kids on Sheriff Street and the blocks and alleys around it live in houses that have overflowing garbage cans inside the front doors and no baths inside the flats.

Breslin writes about the people who live in the slum tenements of America and have no hope but do have guns and would really, really like to kill a whitey. Just one.

And about other people in the tenements who don’t have guns so throw rocks and garbage and sometimes Molotov cocktails from rooftops at white police and white firefighters and white reporters in the streets below.

He writes about black people who grow up in black slums and go to third-rate black schools and won’t ever get jobs but go on to have children who grow up in black slums and go to fourth-rate black schools and won’t ever get jobs either.

All white and pink and blue-eyed and Irish, Breslin walks into the riots and writes about them so white people can understand the obscenity of racism and why — when you’ve got no hope left, none at all — you burn, baby, burn.

Breslin is scared of nothing.

But Breslin is terrified of television.

I’m all of 26, fresh off the boat from reporting on the Congo wars, very English-South African, a brand-new producer/reporter with ABC News in New York.

What little I know about New York comes mostly from reading Breslin’s column.

So they make me Breslin’s mentor and editor.

They make me the editor of the Irishman from Queens who covers the freedom marchers in the redneck South and writes:

You have not lived, in this time when everything is changing, until you see an old black woman with mud on her shoes stand on the street of a Southern city and sing “ … we are not afraid ” and then turn and look at the face of a cop near her and see the puzzlement and the terrible fear in his eyes. Because he knows, and everybody who has ever seen it knows, that it is over. The South as it has stood since 1865 is gone. Shattered by these people in muddy shoes standing in the street and swaying and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

They want me to teach the great writer Jimmy Breslin to write.

On the first day he’s with ABC, he comes into the newsroom with his friend Fat Thomas who weighs 415 pounds and makes a living by betting on which horse will pass the winner’s post first.

Breslin is given a tiny cubicle next to mine, a desk and a typewriter. Fat Thomas finds the widest chair in the newsroom, takes it without asking, puts it carefully outside the opening to Breslin’s cubicle and sits and waits for Breslin to write.

Fat Thomas doesn’t talk to me. Not once. Not once in all the long weeks the newspaper strike lasts and he sits outside Breslin’s cubicle next to mine and watches Breslin write.

Breslin tells me Fat Thomas only talks about horses anyway so I’m not missing much.

Inside that cubicle, Breslin writes and sweats.

He sweats over every word. He puts paper into the typewriter and writes a few words and swears and pulls the paper out of the typewriter so the machine screams and he crumples the paper into a huge snowflake and throws it on the floor and starts again.

All the time he writes and sweats and swears and throws crumpled paper on the floor, Breslin smokes. The butts pile up in the ashtray and spill over and join the snowflakes on the floor.

Breslin takes writing very seriously. Very seriously indeed.

It’s the end of the first week. Things aren’t going too well. He hasn’t captured the fire. He knows it. He shows me yet another draft.

“Tim … whadya think?” he asks. “Don’t bullshit me. It don’t work. Don’t tell me it works. It’s crap.” He pleads “Help me, Tim … you know how to do this goddam thing …”

How do you tell the great Jimmy Breslin how to write?

“Write like you talk, Jimmy … That’s all … Write like you talk … Maybe if we try this way …”

Outside the cubicle, overflowing the biggest chair in the newsroom, Fat Thomas watches Breslin write and re-write and sweat and swear and smoke and you know Fat Thomas would much rather watch horses run around in circles.

Inside his cubicle, Breslin and I re-work the column. Again and again. For Breslin, every sentence and word must be right. Every time. Only the best. Only the exact and perfect sentences and words will do.

In exact and perfect order.

Sentences are born. Sentences die. Words are born. Words die. Breslin searches for the fire, the music. In the end, he wants the words to disappear. Leaving only the feeling, the emotion.

That’s how poets do their thing.

The snowflakes and the cigarette butts pile up and suddenly — so suddenly that it catches you in the throat because you haven’t seen it coming — the words and sentences about the death of some kid in the sad, killing streets of Harlem aren’t just words and sentences any more.

Now, because Breslin cares so much and knows that words can do wonderful things to the soul, his words turn into music and he’s writing a love song about this boy who pushes drugs and his sisters and is shot down by a cop while “trying to escape.”

The words, and only the right words, have come. Unsentimental words. Honest words. Vulnerable words. Compassionate words. Now, Breslin’s words and sentences touch the soul. And make it sing.

We go to the studio and tape Breslin’s column. We do a second take. And a third take. And a fourth take.

“Just talk it, Jimmy” I say. “That’s all. Just talk it. Like you’re talking to Fat Thomas.”

And Breslin forgets that he’s really a newspaperman trying to make it on TV and forgets the camera and its red light staring at him and talks into the microphone just like he talks to Fat Thomas, but without the swearing.

The fifth take is a keeper.

“Beautiful. I couldn’t have done it without ya, Tim” says Breslin. “Thanks buddy.” Fat Thomas says something about horses and how, if they hurry, they can make the fifth race.

Breslin calls his wife, the former Rosemary Dattolico, and says he’ll be home late. Not to wait up.

I ask him to autograph a book of his columns.

“It’s a pleasure to do business with you, Tim” he writes. “Take Care, Jimmy Breslin.”

He shakes my hand. “I couldn’t have done it without ya, Tim”

And he and Fat Thomas walk out through the newsroom, out into the late afternoon sunlight to catch a cab that will take them to watch horses run around in circles.

Eighteen years later Jimmy Breslin wins the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Newspaper Commentary.

Somehow — and it can’t have been easy — he does it without me.

It was a pleasure to do business with you, Jimmy.

Safe home.


Tim Knight is an Emmy-winning journalist, filmmaker and writer who’s worked for three newspapers, United Press International (three years, two wars in Congo), CBC in Canada and ABC, NBC and PBS out of New York. He’s the author of  Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition, from which this article is adapted. He’s based in Cape Town.

Tim Knight ~ My Dear Americans

Tim Knight ~ My Dear Americans


My Dear Americans,

So very sorry to hear about your new president and the appalling way he’s treating you.

I really, really feel your pain.

But you’re not alone. We, here in South Africa, know what it’s like to elect a paranoid, grandiose, delusional, narcissistic, demagogic and probably sociopathic president.

Our version is Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma — a corrupt, giggling, barely-educated Zulu polygamist worth some $215-million after a lifetime in various forms of politics, who says his ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) will rule “until Jesus returns” and that the ANC is more important than the nation. 

Your version is Donald John Trump — a coarse, dyed, lying multi-billionaire who in the short time we’ve had the displeasure of knowing him, shows every sign of copying Zuma’s blatant disrespect and disregard for truth and democracy.

So, using Zuma as an example, let me warn you about what happens when a narcissistic, paranoid, grandiose, delusional, demagogic and probably sociopathic person becomes president of a country.

The first and most obvious symptom for the sickness to come is that he believes  — along with the French Sun King, Louis XlV — “L’etat c’est moi.”

This inevitably translates, as it has in South Africa, into something called State Capture.

Ongama Mtimka, of the Department of Political & Conflict Studies, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, describes State Capture this way:

In a nutshell, it denotes holding the state ransom to the private desires of a particular group or for their selfish gains. A level of aggression and foul play is implied.”

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (most appropriately, Gedleyihlekisa translates roughly as “he who laughs while hurting you”) has been plotting to capture the South African state ever since he took power some nine years ago.

Over those years, Zuma has been spectacularly successful at looting the nation’s rapidly dwindling wealth and redirecting as much as he can into the pockets of his huge family — including four very expensive wives — and the sordid gang of lickspittles, sycophants and cronies who flourish on the leftovers.

For most of these years he’s faced — and used millions of state money to fight — a total of 783 corruption, fraud and racketeering charges connected to an extremely shady $2.1 billion arms deal.

Only last year, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma violated the Constitution by failing to “uphold, defend and respect” it.

And that he acted unlawfully when he tried to saddle taxpayers with the bill for his private U$19-million home.

He appoints often wildly incompetent government ministers whose only loyalty is to himself. One example last year was a new Finance Minister who lasted just four days before even ANC grandees noticed the rapidly-dying Rand and forced a far better choice on him.

Which is where Zuma’s very, very good friends, the Gupta family comes in.

The Guptas are a stinking-rich, naturalised Indian family who’ve known Zuma ever since he became president. The two families are so close that South Africans refer to them collectively as the “Zuptas.”

Over the years, a Zuma wife, a Zuma son and a Zuma daughter have worked for Gupta companies and been most appropriately rewarded.

Not coincidentally, The Guptas have built a massive business empire on the backs of ANC government contracts.

The family are seen to be co-conspirators in Zuma’s inexorable drive to seize and loot those parts of the South African state — like the Treasury — which are still relatively honest and independent.

They’re believed to have directly offered Cabinet appointments — and huge amounts of cash — to people willing to do anything the Zuptas desire.

Don’t take my word for it. That’s the considered opinion of Thuli Madonsela, the former South African Public Protector (a sort of state ombudsman).

She said flatly that there’s evidence of corruption at the highest level of the South Africa’s government.

The family owns a blatantly Zuma-loving newspaper — which flourishes on huge, out-of-proportion government advertising — and a 24-hour TV news channel even more Zumian than Fox news is Trumpian.

The good news is that our own narcissistic, paranoid, grandiose, delusional, demagogic and probably sociopathic president hasn’t yet destroyed our democracy.

Not yet.

And not for want of trying.

But he keeps working on it.

Only last year Jacob Zuma said if he were a dictator he would solve South Africa’s problems.

“If you just give me six months to be a dictator, things will be straight. Right now, to make a decision you need a resolution, decision, collective, petition. Yoh! It’s a lot of work.”

Those exact words could have come from Donald Trump, twelve thousand kilometres away in Washington D.C.

Except that he would have said “sad!!” rather than “yoh!!”.

Zuma and Trump have much in common.

Both men reject the media’s historic constitutional role as watchdog over the powerful, particularly the government of the day.

Both men despise the law and the courts.

Both are secretive, arrogant bullies who believe journalists and news outlets that don’t slavishly respect and support them are therefore conspiring against them and are even guilty of treason.

Zuma wants a Protection of State Information Bill to grant state agencies broad authority to classify a wide range of information as in the “national interest” with potential prison terms for violations.

“Every morning” he’s said “you feel like you must leave this country because the reporting concentrates on the opposite of the positive.”

Trump of course, goes a lot further.

He wants to destroy the news media entirely. He describes them — while offering not a shred of evidence — of being “dishonest,” “disgusting” and “scum.” “The press is out of control,” he says. “The level of dishonesty is out of control.” The media are “the enemy of the American people.”

Both men loathe the Free Marketplace of Ideas which, in a democracy, is served and guarded by the media and holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.

Both Zuma and Trump have parliamentary majorities which have long since abandoned any pretence of real democratic debate and vote strictly along party lines.

Both believe in their own omnipotence, grandeur and invincibility.

And, of course, both are narcissistic, paranoid, grandiose, delusional, demagogic and probably sociopathic.

But there’s one big difference between Zuma and Trump.

Zuma — unlike Trump — doesn’t have his finger anywhere near the nuclear button.

That’s because apartheid South Africa destroyed all six of its very own nuclear bombs shortly before the 1994 election which ended apartheid and birthed democracy.

The official reason was that ending the nuclear program “will inspire other countries to take the same steps.” In fact, it’s widely believed that the then-white government was terrified that the bombs might one day fall into the hands of some future black government.

Just imagine Jacob Zuma’s finger anywhere near that button!

Now go really, really pale and realize that Donald Trump’s finger hovers near that button every single hour of his presidency!

The terrible truth is that both Zuma and Trump are the real thing. These are not the adopted personae so many politicians use to reach and hold office.


What you see is what you get.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma and Donald John Trump are narcissistic, paranoid, grandiose, delusional, demagogic and probably sociopathic men who will destroy our democracies if we let them.

And they’re not going to change.


I guess the only possible solution to the problem is that if they won’t change, we have to change them.

And excellent start would be to somehow force them out of their high offices.

We in South Africa haven’t been able to do that.

Not so far, anyway.

So good luck to you Americans.

I wish you peace and love,


Apropos of nothing to do with the above … back in 1964 while a reporter/producer for ABC News, I covered Arizona Republican senator Barry Goldwater’s run for the U.S. presidency.

Goldwater’s motto was: “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.”

The Democrats fought back and won with: “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.

Tim Knight is an Emmy Award winner who’s worked on three newspapers, United Press International (three years and two wars in the Congo), and was a producer/reporter/filmmaker for ABC, NBC and PBS out of New York. For ten years he was lead trainer for TV News journalists at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Knight is author of Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition.







By Tim Knight


The Jimi Matthews who’s just quit as the SABC’s acting Group Chief Executive was once a fierce defender of freedom of the press.

Particularly in public television where he’d worked for so many years.

I knew him back around 1994 when SABC lured me from Canada — where I’d been head of TV journalism training — to coach its newsrooms in the ways of democratic journalism.

My job was to lead a team of Canadian TV journalism trainers to help the SABC report professionally and honestly on the new Rainbow Nation’s first-ever democratic election.

Our mission was to help turn the corporation from a fascist state broadcaster to a democratic public broadcaster like the CBC and BBC.

By all accounts, we succeeded. The SABC got high marks for its independent, balanced, free and fair 1994 election coverage.

In those days, Jimi was a brave and highly respected cameraman/reporter who exposed apartheid’s atrocities with skill and courage.

He believed as we all did, that independent, free, honest journalism would be the cornerstone of this brave new democracy.

He too believed that this newfound professional South African journalism would guard the nation against inevitable challenges from the rich and powerful — particularly politicians.

But something happened to Jimi as he rose through the SABC’s corporate ranks, moved into bigger and bigger offices with bigger and bigger salaries.

And more and more power.

As the SABC lost its innocence and returned to being little more than a propaganda arm of the governing party, Jimi lost his mojo, his cajones, his courage.

Last week he got a lot of it back.

The new Jimi wrote that the “corrosive atmosphere” at the SABC had negatively affected his moral judgement. It had made him complicit in decisions he “was not proud of”.

“What is happening at the SABC is wrong and I can no longer be a part of it.”

“I also wish to apologise to the many people who I’ve let down by remaining silent when my voice needed to be heard.”

This finally, after all the years, was the Jimi Matthews we once knew and respected.

Enter the SABC’s Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a couple of days after Jimi’s resignation.

He bluntly told the corporation’s staff, including its journalists:

“If you are at the SABC, there is leadership, and if the leadership says you must turn right, you must turn right. If you turn left, you must get off the bus,”

Later that same day, in growing disbelief, I watched Motsoeneng dominate a bizzare SABC media briefing.

The “public” broadcaster’s Grand Poobah was in full paranoid, megalomaniacal, gunslinger denial. (more…)

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