Pete Hamill Wins George Polk
Lifetime Achievement Award
Brother Denis Pinch Hits Acceptance Speech
Produces Column on Pete’s View From The Hospital
By Denis Hamill
Pete Hamill reclined in a hospital bed in a 17th floor room on the East Side of Manhattan yesterday at noon gazing out the window at a cityscape of glass and steel and the sparkling East River rushing past Queens. A nurse poked his fingertip for a blood sugar sample and a food services lady delivered a tray of chicken, broccoli and carrots and a diet ginger ale.
Hamill, now 78, was asked what receiving the Polk Award for Lifetime Achievement meant to him.
“Start with the man it’s named after,” Hamill said. “George Polk was a great reporter who was murdered while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948. He had more personal courage than any of the guys who start the wars that reporters risk their lives to cover. But he died trying to bring the world the story. To be given a lifetime achievement award named for a great reporter who gave his life to this noble craft is humbling. It’s why I will cherish it. It’s why I’m so pissed off to be in this goddamned hospital instead of at the award ceremony.”
Hamill paused, chewing his carrots and gazing out at the city that has given him a never ending supply of stories across a half-century career in journalism.
“When I was informed that I was getting the Polk I was in Europe researching a novel and it made me think of all the great foreign war correspondents that gave and continue to give or risk their lives trying to get the reader the story. I can’t think of braver people.”
Hamill was reminded that he covered a few wars himself.
“Yeah, Vietnam, Middle East, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua,” Hamill said. “I covered a few. But New York was my beat. I got into newspapers, as you know, by accident when I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Post and they gave me a tryout and hired me in June, 1960. I loved newspapers from day one. I was receiving an education from great editors and getting paid for it, like the GI Bill.”
Who were the newspaper writers he admired most as a young reporter?
“I loved Jimmy Cannon,” Hamill said. “AJ Leibling, Menken. Dorothy Parker was my favorite woman journalist until Nora Ephron showed up. We all went to the same school just by reading the old masters. I read them like a predator. Stephen Crane was magnificent. John McNulty’s fabulous saloon columns for the New Yorker. O’Henry. Ben Hecht was great reporter in Chicago. Everyone I knew read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck. And, of course, Murray Kempton was a maestro. I also liked John Crosby and Art Buchwald who was a truly funny bastard. The best ones taught you the most in the briefest amount of space.”
When the New York Post gave you a column what did you want to do with it? “I wanted it to be about common people,” Hamill said. “Good, decent, hard working, forgotten people in New York City. I wasn’t so much looking to continue the tradition of the Irish columnist as I was looking to continue a tradition of ‘kiss my Irish ass.’ To be irreverent. I wasn’t going to write a column to get a boiled collar on a dress shirt. The whole point, when I was a kid talking to Kempton, was to understand that a column has opinion. It can also have reporting. The reporting is often an education that helps form your opinion. So I learned as much from the people I wrote about and the readers as I did from great editors and the best writers. A press card allows you to meet an amazing cast of characters who all do different things for a living. You learn something new from every one of them just by interviewing them. So the first skill you had to learn was how to listen. And then have your say.”
Hamill pushed away his half-eaten lunch and narrowed his eyes. “That’s why this Polk Award means so much to me,” he said. “Because it’s for all those common people I ever wrote about, too. It’s also for the readers. This is still a vital, indispensible, noble craft. No politician — very few, anyway — could ever amount to a pimple on a good reporter’s ass. That’s why the demise of print newspapers doesn’t worry me too much. Readers will always need professionalized news. News gathered by skilled reporters who sometimes risk their lives the way George Polk did to get the story. I started out by delivering the Brooklyn Eagle as a kid. The internet is just a new delivery system. It doesn’t change how news is reported. You aren’t going to send some unskilled blogger who doesn’t have an editor to go cover a war. Or a riot or a triple homicide in the middle of the night. You will have to send a good reporter. Trained to get the facts and quotes and details and then write them as fast as possible and have them edited by tough editors so that the reader can trust the latest news he is reading. That part of the business will not change. You are going to always rely on a brave, young George Polk to go risk his or her life to get you the story from the latest war.”
So he would still recommend the profession to young people like the kid he was 54 years ago?
“Absolutely,” Hamill said, as another nurse came in to check his vitals which were all fine. “If you want to learn something new every day. If you love ‘Hey-I-didn’t -know-that’ moments while covering a story then this is still a great life. If you have the passion to join a guild of talented people who want to add something fresh and new and important to what we know about the world, then go do it, baby.”
Does receiving the Polk Award for Lifetime Achievement feel like a coda to your career? “Nah,” he said, smiling. “It’s just an honor. It annoys me that I can’t be there to accept it. But I’m on the mend and I’m also in the middle of another novel. Being a newspaperman gave me a life. It’s hasn’t been a bad way to wander this amazing world.”
Anything Hamill would like to tell the people at the Polk Awards ceremony?
“Yes,” Hamill said. “I want to thank them for giving me this Lifetime Achievement Award. But I’m not done yet. There are still stories I want to tell. And I’m so sorry I can’t be there to thank you all in person but I will be seeing you soon somewhere around the parish.”