The Hard-Living Tabloid Journalist was Both Fearless and Empathetic
6/26/19 – – Over my 35 + years in public relations, I’ve had the opportunity to know and work with some fascinating journalists. The most interesting, memorable character by far was Steve Dunleavy, who passed away Monday at his Long Island home. The hard-living, street-savvy Australian-born reporter personified the down and dirty tabloid style of The New York Post, in which his fearless stories ran from the mid 1970s to his retirement in 2008.
Proud of his Irish roots, Steve (he let me call him Steve and he called me Lord Tennyson or “mate”) would have enjoyed Monday’s colorful headline on IrishCentral.com: “Legendary hell-raising Irish American journalist Stephen Frances Patrick Aloysius Dunleavy has passed away at age 81.” And he would have been proud of his boss Rupert Murdoch’s pronouncement that, “Steve Dunleavy was one of the greatest reporters of our time . . . his passing is the end of a great era.”
There was no missing Steve Dunleavy in a crowded room or tavern. His craggy, animated face and impressive mane of silver hair projected a unique depth of experience, curiosity and confidence. As tough and battle-tested as he was, he possessed sincere empathy for people dealing with pain, tragedy and crises. His readers appreciated his aversion to group think and pretense. He was open to the cop’s side of the story, felt for the family of the fallen fireman, railed against the hypocrisy of the pandering politician.
Recognizing that everyone is flawed in some way, he looked for honesty and authenticity in those he covered. He told me once over lunch that he tries to be fair, covering the world the way it really is and people the way they really are. His readers trusted him and couldn’t wait to read his next story.
Fortunately, the clients I represented who merited Steve’s attention were the kind of authentic people Steve respected. They may have been dealing with difficult circumstances or facing serious challenges, but they were substantive, interesting people willing to tell him their stories openly and honestly. I understood those to be the ground rules when working with Steve Dunleavy.
The obituaries and remembrances since his passing have not shied away from Steve’s fondness for adult beverages. Post columnist Cindy Adams, his long-time colleague and friend, shared this story: “One St. Paddy’s Day, he marched down Fifth, staggered up Sixth and ended up like the Tower of Pisa at Langan’s bar. When a nearby buddy fell off his stool, Steve slurred: ‘That’s what I like about you, Pat. You know when to quit.’”
I read in the coverage of his passing that Steve ended his formal education at age 14 to begin his journalism career as a copy boy at The Sun newspaper in Sydney. That nugget in his biography brought back the memory of a day many years ago when Steve and I were going to get a drink together (okay, maybe a few drinks) near the federal court house on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. One of my clients was on trial, and Steve was in court every day covering the story. On our way out during the lunch recess, he apologized and explained that he had to make a call into the paper. I politely stood a few steps away, but could not help but hear and be astonished as Steve, using no notes, dictated the story that would run, word for word, the next day in the Post – great lead, full sentences, even accurate direct quotes. His words flowed beautifully, effortlessly.
When I shared what I had witnessed with a cynical colleague, he remarked that Steve was just making sure he got something filed before his “lunch” rendered him incapacitated for the rest of the day. Maybe so. But looking back, what I saw was genius. An extraordinary communication skill honed not in school, but in the classroom of life. Covering the world the way it is and people the way they are.
Rest in peace, Stephen Frances Patrick Aloysius Dunleavy.