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GET OFF JIMMY BRESLIN'S BACK

I write this column assuming you already know that Jimmy Breslin is the best newspaper columnist in the country. During a thirty-year career on various New York papers, Breslin has gotten into all the good fights. He has done so in his own way. He has ridiculed racists and anti-Semites. He has disparaged politicians, both the crooked and the merely pompous. The thrust of his whole career as a newspaperman has been directed toward helping society's underdogs. There are many columnists who adopt a public stance as guardians of the downtrodden. What separates Breslin from the pack, and what makes him so special, is his sheer writing talent. When Breslin is hard-hitting, the power of his prose can blow the reader away. When Breslin chooses to be outrageously funny, the result leaves the reader with unforgettably hilarious scenes. It's a cheap and easy thing to sit in an office behind a desk and compose neatly rounded sentences that sing a compassionate song for the underdog. But the problem with these kinds of columnists is that their distanced self-righteousness always becomes a bore. That never has been Breslin's way. For the thirty years he has been writing a column for various New York newspapers, his method has been to go out into the streets every day and find the action. After finding it, most often in the black and Puerto Rican sections of the city where the theorists of Sigma Delta Chi and the journalism mills fear to tread, he would race back in a cab to the city room to write against a fast-approaching deadline. Now, however, Breslin must serve out a two-week suspension without pay because of something he said out loud in the city room at Newsday, the paper he now works for in New York City. FC

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Newsday is owned by the Los Angeles Times. Last week the Times ran a long piece setting out Breslin's offense. The story took the better part of two full newspaper pages to tell. The headline read "RACE AND OUTRAGE: Jimmy Breslin's Racist Newsroom Pique Provokes a Nationwide Furor." It all began when Breslin wrote a satirical column about his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, who is a member of New York's city council. In the column, Breslin complained because his wife spent more time at the city council than she did taking care of her duties as a housewife. It is the kind of column about the foibles of his own family life that Breslin has written for years. But this column was branded as "sexist" by Ji-Yeon Yuh, a 25-year-old Korean-American reporter recently hired on from Omaha. Miss Yuh wrote a memo criticizing Breslin's column on the paper's computer system to Breslin and the paper's editor. Miss Yuh claimed that Breslin was "sexist" and suggested she be able to use Breslin's column space to set things straight. In the old days, Miss Yuh would have been spotted as a hard charger trying to take her own shortcut to the top. When Breslin saw Miss Yuh's note on the computer screen, he threw a temper tantrum, something he has been known to do through the years. He called Miss Yuh a lot of names that normally aren't used in corporate boardrooms--at least while the Dictaphone machines are running. Miss Yuh and eleven other Asian-American reporters on the staff went to Newsday editor Don Forst and demanded harsher discipline than a two-week suspension. They wanted him fired. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has joined in, too. "White males don't run the world," an association spokesperson announced. "I think management needed to send a message." A long time ago Breslin wrote a prophetic line that fits this situation: "There is one thing to be said about a racist fight; it doesn't cloud the faculties with anything delicate." We are living in a time when people's heads are being chopped off for speaking their minds. You can't even write about criminals in a satirical way anymore because organized crime's biggest thing now is drug dealing. "A writer such as Damon Runyon," Breslin says, "would be busy on a rewrite desk today. Life is too complicated for the Runyon point of view." Not long ago, Andy Rooney was suspended from the 60 Minutes show for the alleged racist and antigay remarks he made to a reporter from a gay magazine in a telephone conversation. The suspension of Rooney was a craven act by the CBS brass. So is Newsday's suspension of Breslin. FC

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It's reached the point where it has become impossible to speak your mind without sending a member of some roving minority thought patrol into action. Everyone treads water on this issue. It's an ugly thing. The fear of being branded a racist, a sexist or an anti-Korean makes everyone tremble. It has become a force as powerful as "The Red Scare" and McCarthyism. If Miss Yuh had only taken the time to research Breslin, she might have learned he's far from being a sexist. She should go to any public library and take out a copy of The World According to Breslin, which contains a selection of columns he wrote for the New York Daily News during the 1970s and 1980s. She should look up one called "She Said Good-by With Charm," which was the eulogy Breslin delivered at the funeral of his first wife Rosemary, mother of their six children. It concludes this way: "She was a woman utterly unspoiled. I thank God for the high privilege of having known her so well. "She ran my life and those of her children almost totally. She leaves us with a tradition of decency that we must attempt to carry on. Her strength was such that even as those of us here today stumble now and then, I think the Rosemary Dattolico line of decency will reveal itself time after time in whatever generations there are to come. "As was said of another aristocrat MD120 Col 3, Depth P54.08 I9.11 such as this one. "Earth, receive an honored guest." The defense rests. The suspension of Rooney was a craven act by the CBS brass. So is Newsday's suspension of Breslin. It's become impossible to speak your mind without sending a member of some roving minority thought patrol into action.

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Tom Fitzpatrick