By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Jan. 11, 2016 — In March 1993, I was present at a newspaper insurrection.
It probably still stands as the most notorious staff uprising in modern newspaper history.
And in the chaos of the turmoil’s climactic week, I found I couldn’t shake David Bowie’s song “Heroes” from my head – a phenomenon described today as an “earworm.”
As the drama of that week enveloped us all, I felt like I was in the company of heroes – these New York Post editors and reporters who felt obligated to fight back against uncaring, belligerent owners even though the odds of victory were very long.
The “heroes” label was not my creation. We were being lauded in other media that week for the brash stance we had taken, which reached its apogee on Tuesday, March 16, 1993. That was the day we published an edition made up almost entirely of stories and editorials blasting our then-owners, a New York parking lot magnate and notorious eccentric named Abe Hirschfeld, and a publisher from Harlem named Wilbert Tatum.
The cover of that day’s edition was an enlargement of the picture of Alexander Hamilton, the Post’s founder in 1801, that used to be placed every day in one of the upper corners of the paper’s front pages. This time, he took up the entire page, with a dramatic teardrop placed just under the corner of his right eye.
I first laid eyes on this front page on a staircase as it was being delivered to the composing room on Monday evening. Other than an elevator that was so slow no one could be bothered to wait for it just to travel to the floor above, this staircase in the old Post building at 210 South Street was the only other route between the fourth and fifth floors, and it was heavily traveled by editors going back and forth between the Post’s newsroom and the composing room, where printers pasted up the pages. As TV editor at the Post in those days, I used to go up and down these stairs about 20 times a night for close to five years.
On this particular evening, I ran into one of the Post’s editors about mid-flight – Tommy Ko – who held a rolled-up object in one hand that I took to be surreptitious, since this wasn’t the way Tommy had traditionally transported pages upstairs.
So I called him on it. I asked him what it was, and may have even guessed it was the front page for the next day’s edition. Citing a need for secrecy, he was reluctant to show it to me.
For the better part of an entire day, all of us had been engaged in putting together an entire issue of the paper blasting our owners. The Post newsroom was on the fourth floor, just two floors below the executive offices on the sixth — which meant we were undertaking this rebellion virtually under the very noses of our owners. Now it was close to press time and they were still clueless, and would remain so until the edition was published and on the street.
On the staircase, I pressed Tommy to unroll the page and I saw it for the first time. It was a glorious thing to behold and I was excited and anxious about the impact it would have when it hit newsstands late that evening and the next morning.
Among other things, this edition had a story on page three with the headline “WHO IS THIS NUT?” in something like 120-point type over a picture of Hirschfeld. There was also a story on the page about an incident at a Miami airport some time previously in which Hirschfeld was filmed by a local TV station in the act of spitting on a reporter. The spitting picture, a screen grab, was my one and only contribution to this edition of the Post. I had secured it from a source at CBS, which owned the Miami station whose news crew had filmed it.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ Dylan Thomas advised, and reporters and editors of The New York Post have taken the poet at his word,” said the New York Times in an editorial published the next day, on March 17. “Hemorrhaging red ink and on the brink of extinction, The Post hit the streets yesterday with a pungent, brassy issue that illustrated just what the city would lose if the paper shuts down. …
“Only The New York Post would publish an issue skewering its own boss. … In irreverence lies The Post’s charm, and a serious point: Money may be able to buy a newspaper’s real estate, computers and presses, but its soul belongs to the people who report, write and edit [it].”
In the midst of the tumult, David Bowie’s “Heroes” lodged in my brain, with its lyrics, “We can beat them, just for one day. We can be heroes, just for one day …” In my head, I was romanticizing the experience we were all having, perhaps as a counterpoint to the seriousness of the situation. We were all in danger of losing our jobs — and a whole lot more too — if the Post went down the tubes, which was where it seemed headed.
At around midday on one of the days of that week, I called a local radio station and requested that they play “Heroes” and dedicate it to the heroes of The New York Post. The station was WXRK, the one known as “K-Rock,” at 92.3 FM, because I knew someone who worked there.
Pete Fornatale played the song and my dedication, which I never heard since I didn’t possess a radio at the office. Many years later, after I had long forgotten it, Pete confirmed in a conversation that he played it that day. He remembered it, even if I did not.
Pete died in 2012. David Bowie died today in the wee hours of the morning. He left a catalogue of unforgettable hit songs and thousands, if not millions, of people each with their own memories.
P.S. The Post survived.
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org
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