AJR  Books
From AJR,   February/March 2012

A Dazzling Collection Of Newspaper Columns   

Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns

Edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis

Overlook Press

432 pages; $29.95

Mon., December 5, 2011

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


This may be the most addictive journalism book ever: dozens of glittering columns on topics olympic and ordinary, most produced on deadline by a pantheon of outstanding writers, a collection that should squash any doubts that journalism can be literature.

These pieces, most of them under 1,000 words, transcend standard reporting and writing. They convey the kind of connection and feelings that get squeezed out of much conventional reportage. Long before anyone imagined the word "blog," columns like these truly personalized journalism.

The editors, three working journalists, have assembled an all-time, all-star lineup, one that includes such luminaries as Margaret Fuller, Ernest Hemingway, Murray Kempton, Ring Lardner, O. Henry, Anna Quindlen, Mike Royko, Damon Runyon and Dorothy Thompson.

Every page, it seems, spotlights another master pounding out a classic on deadline. Mary McGrory covers an assassinated president's burial ("Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's funeral it can be said he would have liked it.").

Pete Hamill witnesses both the slaying of Robert F. Kennedy ("In this slimy little indoor alley..I saw Kennedy lurch against the ice machine, and then sag, and then fall forward slowly...") and 9/11 ("All around us, the fine powder of death is falling, put into the New York air by lunatics...on the day of the worst single disaster in New York history, there was a feeling that the dying had only begun.").

Repeatedly, Hamill and other writers seem prescient, even as they cover chaos and uncertainty. Writing on Pearl Harbor Day in 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt predicts, "Because our nation has lived up to the rules of civilization, it will probably take us a few days to catch up with our enemy, but no one in this country will doubt the ultimate outcome."

Trailing a little-known Bill Clinton in 1992, Molly Ivins knows she is seeing something special: "It is a show, and a good one at that...The different thing about Clinton is that he listens to people as he moves among them." The week of the 2008 election, William Raspberry has this perspective: "It's been said that the ascendancy of Barack Obama signals the beginning of a 'post-racial' America. I wish."

The writing often touches brilliance. In 1849, a decade before the Civil War, Frederick Douglass writes, "The white man's happiness cannot be purchased by the black man's misery...all distinctions, founded on complexion, ought to be repealed, repudiated and forever abolished."

Defending free speech even for hatemongers, I.F. Stone declares that "almost every generation in American history has had to face what appeared to be a menace of so frightening an order as to justify the limitation of basic liberties...This gutter paranoia can only be prevented by fighting the conditions in which it can breed, and for that fight we need more and not less freedom of discussion."

You will recognize countless classics, from Ernie Pyle's "The Death of Captain Waskow" to Grantland Rice's "The Four Horsemen" (you'll remember the lead but don't overlook the ending) to Francis Church's "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus."

You'll find poignancy (Jim Murray on losing his good eye: "He cried a lot with me, laughed a lot with me...We read a lot of books together"), heartbreak (William Allen White on the death of his daughter) and anger (Art Hoppe on how the "hated and endless" Vietnam War makes him "root against my own country").

Some are obituaries (Grantland Rice: "Game called on account of darkness. Babe Ruth is dead."). Some are hair-raising. The serial killer Son of Sam writes to Jimmy Breslin: "I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night..I love my work."

Some of the most powerful columns connect ordinary people to life-changing events. In 1867, Fanny Fern rides with a boat-man who had been imprisoned in the Andersonville POW camp, and his lack of bitterness overcomes her. Breslin locates the man digging JFK's grave at Arlington ("It's an honor for me to be here.").

You can quibble with some choices, and the book is heavy on white males, with important exceptions. Surprisingly, the humor section seems flat. But mostly these are stories to savor. You read them, feel them, almost hear the voices.

Bob Considine begins his column about the Louis-Schmeling fight with the words, "Listen to this, buddy." That's my advice, too.