As this column reaches its second year, entering in media’s race for your delectation, my buddy Tripp insisted I watch the HBO documentary on the late columnist Jimmy Breslin and his still-tart colleague-in-crime Pete Hamill.
Tripp seems to think, after a drink, that I write sort of like them. Knowing that to be a fake news slander on these worthies and a compliment which could only set me up for a well-deserved fall, I nevertheless tucked into my hubris and streamed the film.
Discussing this fine and personally humbling documentary, The Wall Street Journal pulled a notable quote from Hamill. He recalled his editor at The New York Post, the late Paul Sann, advising him: “If you want it to be true, it probably isn’t.”
Truer words were never spoken. At ABC News, I adopted this phrase for self-reminding: “Beware the higher truth.” As I looked around the world of TV news, I saw executives sabotaging stories that didn’t fit their world view, or that The New York Times hadn’t validated. Eventually, this drove me from commercial network news. These days, it is so shallow and headline-centric that the most interesting thing on TV at dinnertime is the commercials from which you can learn about diseases you don’t want to get and pharmaceuticals to treat them that you can’t pronounce.
As the Ides of March are upon us, which Shakespeare instructed the audience to beware lest we end up like Caesar when he went under the knives in the Senate chambers in 44 B.C., I am reminded that the Romans originally viewed March 15 as the deadline for the settling of debts.
In true American fashion, we dawdle another month before paying off the IRS. For my part, acquaintance with Pete Hamill’s work was originally through his prescient liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Hamill led off with: “In the end, the plague touched us all… The plague ran in the blood of men in sharkskin suits, who ran for President promising life and delivering death.” The Bard of Hibbing had no better prose-man than Pete the Post-man.
If looking back embarrasses one with the superiority of one’s predecessors, looking forward is a head-scratcher of another sort. Newsrooms across the country and the world have begun to employ the tools of artificial intelligence to automate many of their stories, summing up baseball games and dissecting financial reports. One-third of Bloomberg News items employ automated technology, according to a report last month in The New York Times, which also clocked 3,000 machine-generated posts a week on the local news service Patch. As Patch’s CEO noted, “Our A.I.-written articles have zero typos.” As a former proofreader, I can applaud that.
I am imagining the computer-generated column of tomorrow, relieving me of the burden of the mastication of facts and feelings and the bespoke orchestration of words and phrases. Say I, circa 2020, in a column’s rough draft: “This week was fascinating. I also found it alluring, bewitching, captivating, enchanting, fetching, glamorous and seductive. I did not find it, as the spin would have it, repellent, repugnant, repulsive, revolting or unalluring .I reviewed 547 news articles, blogs, tweets, podcasts, rants by Ann Coulter and cat videos on YouTube, and have synthesized these into the following recommendation for my readers: the end times are near, but in the meantime stop taking Xarelto if you experience nosebleeds, pink pee, barf resembling coffee grounds, the sudden desire to get pregnant via a relative or member of the clergy, suicidal ideation unrelated to Fox News, the belief that your version of ‘Danny Boy’ will qualify you for a tryout on The Voice or, at the very least, instant internet virality. That is my unspin, folks. Stay tuned for my next column, in which I ruminate on whether Sean Hannity is a cyborg.”
On second thought, I had better step up my game if I am not to be supplanted by microchips and an app that also monitors blood pressure, garlic breath and arousal caused by proximity to any kind of chocolate, which I admit is a distraction from writing.
When not on a sugar high, I look back on my grounding in Dickens and King James, Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow, and my training under John McPhee and the red and blue pencils of Time-Life, and I can only hope to keep putting one word in front of the other as long as my wise and indulgent editors allow.
So thank you, dear readers, who have made it this far with my column. I’m no Breslin or Hamill, but I bleed ink just the same, only waterier.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.