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Rage & Outrage : Jimmy Breslin's Racist, Newsroom Pique Provokes a Nationwide Furor

May 15, 1990|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — 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.

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