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Michael J. O'Neill, ex-Daily News editor, dies

A 1965 handout photo of New York Daily

A 1965 handout photo of New York Daily News' Michael O'Neill. Credit: New York Daily News

Michael J. O'Neill, editor of the New York Daily News during the turbulence of the New York City fiscal crisis and "Son of Sam" shooting spree in the 1970s, died Wednesday of complications from pulmonary fibrosis, his family said. He was 89.

O'Neill, a Detroit native who lived in Scarsdale, had been editor of the Daily News for just three months in 1975 when he approved a headline for the tabloid ages -- "Ford to City: Drop Dead" -- after President Gerald Ford rejected a bailout for the virtually bankrupt city.

The headline, in editions of Oct. 30, was written by managing editor William Brink, who died in 2005. On seeing it, O'Neill laughed and said, "Terrific," according to a Daily News story the following year, just after Ford had lost his bid for a full term. Had Ford won New York and its 41 electoral votes, he would have beaten Jimmy Carter.

"He . . . oversaw the editorials and played a key role in helping [Gov.] Hugh Carey win support for saving the city," said Sam Roberts, a New York Times correspondent who was city editor of the Daily News from 1977 to 1981.

Seymour Topping, a former New York Times managing editor and a friend of O'Neill, noted that the Daily News went through many changes during O'Neill's tenure, including a short-lived afternoon edition, The Daily News Tonight.

"He was a helluva good journalist; a hard-hitting journalist," Topping said.

O'Neill graduated from the University of Detroit. He was an Army sergeant during World War II, serving as an in-house journalist in North Africa.

After the war he joined the Standard News Association of New York in 1946, and then United Press in 1949. He went to work for the Daily News in its Washington Bureau in November 1956 and became an assistant managing editor in the Manhattan office in 1966.

He rose to managing editor in 1968, executive editor in October 1974, and editor in August 1975.

"I always think of two things during his tenure: the fiscal crisis and Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz," said Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of The Associated Press, and the Daily News City Hall bureau chief under O'Neill.

O'Neill became president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1981, and created a firestorm in his farewell speech to the group the following year when he said at its annual convention that the press had become arrogant, adversarial and excessively powerful.

"The media have . . . made a considerable contribution to the disarray in government and therefore have an obligation to help set matters straight," he said. "The adversarial method does not necessarily produce truth. As often as not it misses the truth and distorts reality."

After leaving the Daily News in 1982, O'Neill lectured, sailed, made furniture in his basement and was active in several organizations, including the Council on Foreign Relations.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Mary Jane O'Neill; sons Michael O'Neill, also of Scarsdale, and Kevin O'Neill of Mount Kisco; daughters Maureen O'Neill of Princeton, N.J., and Kathryn of Boston; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned at The Larchmont Yacht Club for June 8 at 10:30 a.m. Arrangements are being handled by Edwin L. Bennett Funeral Homes in Scarsdale.

The family asks that donations be made in his memory to The Fund for the City of New York, 121 Avenue of the Americas, 6th floor, New York, NY 10013.

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