This is the ninth in a series of articles about recipients of the NSNC’s annual Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.
By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Nat Hentoff was the first Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award winner not to travel to receive the honor in person, but he has otherwise traveled a long way in his career.
The now-91-year-old contributor to many East Coast-based publications was our Lifetime recipient in 2001, when the National Society of Newspaper Columnists met in San Francisco.
Hentoff — who could not be reached for comment for this article — is known for his columns and other
writings about civil liberties, politics, social issues, jazz, and more.
The Boston-born Hentoff wrote for New York City’s Village Voice for about 50 years; has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Jewish World Review, DownBeat, and various other newspapers and magazines; and even co-founded a magazine, The Jazz Review.
His philosophical leanings have been as varied as the publications to which he has contributed. Hentoff is pro-free speech, anti-death penalty, and anti-abortion, and was an initial backer of the Iraq War – all of which put him in both liberal and conservative camps. And he expressed support for the 2016 presidential run of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the libertarian/at-times-Tea Party supporter who didn’t do well in the Republican primaries.
Hentoff — syndicated for decades — has also written more than 30 books, with about two-thirds of them nonfiction.
While Hentoff didn’t make it to San Francisco in 2001, some other interesting speakers did.
For instance, The Media Monopoly author/former Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian said at the conference that columnists are an important “human voice” in an age of conglomeration and impersonal technology.
“Columnists have always been needed, but they’re needed even more today,” he said. “I get engaged with George Will or Molly Ivins [the NSNC’s 1994 Lifetime winner] whether I agree or disagree with them.”
Bagdikian added back then that newspaper executives, in the world of bottom-line journalism, shouldn’t pull the plug on new columnists too quickly. “A column takes time to hit its stride and build readership,” he said.
NSNC conference attendees fifteen years ago also heard from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who would become our Lifetime recipient in 2009.
Carroll said columnists should take chances: “Anyone afraid of looking ridiculous shouldn’t be writing a column. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” But many editors and publishers “hate failure,” he added. “You’re supposed to start out perfect and get better!”
But not necessarily travel to San Francisco.
Dave Astor writes the “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The Montclair (N.J.) Times, blogs at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of the memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional.