Liebling, Libel, and the Press

A veteran newspaperman and curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University for the past twenty-five years, LOUIS M. LYONShas worked at home and abroad with the foremost journalists of our time. He is widely known also for his news analysis, which is carried on many educational television stations.

THE all too early death of A. J. Liebling cost us the most prickly and entertaining criticism to which the American newspaper has been exposed in this generation, Liebling’s lampoons were in direct line from the attacks on the integrity of the press launched by Upton Sinclair more than forty years ago in The Brass Check, which was an initiation to cynicism for the young reporter of that time. The tone had changed. In place of the humorless fulminations of Sinclair, Liebling gave a more sophisticated audience lighthearted lampooning and diverting caricatures.

A great reporter and a literary artist, Liebling, when he was moved to, wrote penetrating pieces on the American newspaper. The death of the old Brooklyn Eagle, and again of the New York Sun, so moved him. He buried them both in memorable articles. But over all, Liebling’s writing on the press was spoofing. He refused to take the press seriously. He dipped into it on its bad days, as he turned for other diversion to the prize ring, to dredge up material for bantering essays, which he had brought to an art form somewhere between that of Edward Lear and of Ring Lardner.

His readers savored with Liebling his enjoyment of such errant absurdities of press performance as Liebling’s casual researches exploited with puckish perversity. But for all his ebullient chuckles, Liebling was doing the same job as Sinclair. He did it with grace and humor, which Sinclair lacked. He did it with professional precision, too, which Sinclair lacked. He did it without the ideological wrath of Sinclair, but with the beady eye of one who knew where the bodies were buried. There was never any question in Liebling’s writing that the publishers were the bad guys — all of them — and that anyone was silly to consume their product without large doses of catsup.

A fresh line, which holds that the performance of the press is too important not to be taken seriously, appears in The Press and Foreign Policy (Princeton University Press) by Bernard S. Cohen, a political scientist who turned from studies of public opinion to explore the performance of the press in his own field. His findings apply almost equally to any area of important news.

It is not surprising that, as a specialist, Professor Cohen finds the general newspaper an insufficient source. Every specialist, in any field, has the same complaint and the obvious necessity to supplement the general newspaper with his professional sources. But Cohen’s exploration of the performance of the press corps in Washington, which is our best, has broader application.

As a professional, he expects other professionals to have approximately equal qualifications in their fields and to take their work seriously. He was disappointed on both counts. He complains that few of the political correspondents have special training. It is still usual for a newspaper to believe that a sharp reporter on the police beat can tackle anything. The scholarly columnists and distinguished bureau chiefs are exceptional among the crowd of correspondents who run in packs from one press conference to another and report only in the wellworn grooves of what is accepted as the traditional pattern of “news.”

Cohen rebels at the cliches and conventions of what makes news and how to present it. He says there are too few who strike out on their own to discover news in a fresh area. He is distressed at the vast energies the two big wire services pour into competition to get first to the wire or to contrive a more exciting opening sentence than the rival service. He finds too little competition in the more meaningful analysis of the news. Instead, he is convinced that the straining to popularize by oversimplifying complex issues serves more to distort than to inform the nonspecialist reader, and tends to ignore entirely the need of the serious reader for more detail and depth in his reports. He claims that the press deals too thinly with foreign policy; he could have said the same for almost any area of important news.

The exceptions serve to illuminate the national situation. Congressmen from the hinterland often make their first contact with serious reporting of foreign policy in the New York Tunes and the Washington newspapers. Indeed, Cohen is convinced that the most significant role of the serious newspapers is inadvertently as intercommunicator between the branches and departments of government. He finds this, most notably in the Times, indispensable to officials. But he is unimpressed with the newspaper performance in its primary role to inform the public about its public business. The congressman, he says, soon discovers that ho cannot count on his hometown paper for news about the issues of government. Where does that leave all the people back home who write letters to their congressmen against “giveaway” programs that only Presidents consider essential to foreign policy?

Newspapers devote on the average no more than 8 percent of their news space to foreign policy news, and their surveys show that only about 8 percent of their readers care about this news. Professor Cohen proposes a corrective: stop writing down to the readers who have no interest in foreign policy, and devote a special section to it for the specialist, as with sports and financial news. Put all the effort into more effective reporting for those especially qualified to involve themselves in the issues of foreign policy. I see no conflict between enhancing the utility of the press to the specialist reader and improving its general performance: to inform, as best it can, as wide a public as possible about its public business. We might hope to involve more than 8 percent.

The preparation of reporters for special areas of news is improving, and so is the selection of men for the important assignments to Washington. The more serious newspapers agree with Professor Cohen about the need for going beyond the surface facts to report in more depth. But obviously not enough papers deal seriously with the important issues of public affairs, whether foreign or domestic. James Reston, chief correspondent of the New York Times, which Professor Cohen exempts from most of his strictures, says the problem of the journalist is the pace of our own history. All important news has become more complicated as politics becomes enmeshed in economics and science and our universe expands in all dimensions. But the press has also an internal problem of dynamics to keep up the pace. The press has not kept up with the rising curve of education in America and the resultant capacity of its readers to take more serious reports that more adequately reflect the shape of the world they live in.

MOST arresting is Professor Cohen’s complaint of the traditional notions that restrict the whole pattern of reporting, the entire concept of what makes news. The Washington reporter feels that he is confined in certain grooves which are understood to be “news,” and he cannot disengage himself to look, as a researcher would, at what is really going on and what it means. “He feels himself more in the grip of the news than in command of it.”

One can claim that Professor Cohen expects too much of the press, which is not, after all, writing history but the bits and pieces of the events of each day; and that the reader has a responsibility to add these up and keep his own score. Something can be said for this view, and the 8 percent of readers for whom Professor Cohen is concerned are, by and large, best equipped to analyze the news for themselves. But for most, I think, Walter Lippmann is nearer right in saying the Washington press corps has a new responsibility in our ever more complicated world to do the homework the reader doesn’t do for himself, to add up the score for him and show him the meaning of events. We are getting more of this kind of evaluation, but never enough. The number of Lippmanns available to the press docs not increase in proportion to the number of talents widening the frontiers of other fields. The newspapers for a long time have failed to attract their share of such talents. The best of our reporters are the best wc have ever had, but there are not enough to go around.

The deficiency is evidently not going to be made up by the national circulation of even our greatest and strongest newspapers. The failure of the New York Times Western edition tends to confirm the barrier that our continental area maintains against a national newspaper. This leaves to syndication the best chance of enriching our newspaper fare.

Indeed, the most creative development of the press since Sam McClure has been the expansion of the syndication he pioneered. The independent columnist is unique to American journalism. A Lippmann column adds a dimension to hundreds of newspapers. Beyond that, the syndication of important Washington news is reaching larger numbers of papers. One of the most significant developments on the news scene last year was the launching of the Washington Post-Los Angeles Times syndicate, with a strong new Washington bureau; and almost immediately fifty newspapers subscribed, thereby adding substance to their Washington report. There are also a considerable number of papers that supplement the wire services with the New York Times, Chicago Daily News, and one or two other informed news services. But the question often is, What do they do with these resources after they get them? The bottlenecks are in the home office, on the news desks, and in the limitations of executives whose own experience is often restricted to packaging the news that flows over their desks. This isn’t enough, ft is to the management of the press that we must look for a larger understanding of its responsibility and opportunity; publishers and editors must realize that they run the most strategic institution in the community, which is extremely dependent on the capacity of its newspaper to keep it informed. This reponsibility increases enormously as an ever larger number of cities are reduced to one-newspaper management.

Last summer, the New York Times signaled a breakthrough which is highly suggestive of the broader reach open to journalism. At a time when Catholics were actively discussing new approaches to birth control that might not conflict with Catholic theology, the Times started on the front page two long articles describing the discussion. It had no “news peg” except that people were talking about the subject. The articles did not advocate birth control but reported the whole crisscross of views within the Church on the new possibilities that research appeared to have opened up. One may say the Times is unique in having space and an exceptional readership. But I read the Times articles in full in the Denver Post and Salt Lake Tribune, both of which take the Times service and found the articles of sufficient interest to give them several columns. Why isn’t anything else that interests people similarly appropriate to explore? Horace Greeley and Charles Dana thought so more than one hundred years ago, when the dimensions of news more nearly approximated the range of reader interests.

The problem for all of us is to get things in perspective, to realize the relationships of events and conditions — in short, to discover meaning in what is happening. A fair test of journalism is whether it conveys meaning with its communications.

Every day we all can have, and in fact can hardly avoid, the same information over television and radio and in our newspapers, no matter where we live and what we are doing. The same wire service carries the latest news to every newspaper and to every news broadcast. Indeed, we select a particular news broadcast not for its content, but for the individuality of the broadcaster. The front pages of our newspapers, from one end of the country to the other, with few exceptions, all carry the same main stories.

One would welcome some diversity, some regional differences. It is this instant universal communication system that is so largely responsible for eliminating most of our distinctive provincial differences, for making us practically indistinguishable units of a uniform pattern. We arc often said to be the best-informed people in the world. We are undoubtedly the most informed; one may without cynicism say over-informed. For, the velocity of the information projected at us means that most of it bounces off. There is a saturation point.

James Reston, who works as hard as anyone in this field, once told the Nieman Fellows that the first problem of a correspondent is to hold the attention of the reader long enough to tell him anything. The journalist competes with many demands on his reader’s attention. The result is, Reston said, that the correspondent must be prepared to put across the full significance of the event in the first flush of its front-page display. Tonight lie might be able to research it. Tomorrow he might get at an authority on it. But tomorrow is loo late. That story has been pushed inside by later events, and he has lost the pristine chance at the reader’s attention.

I have said that this describes an impossible job, as it does. The job is squeezed into the deadlines on the clock and the space limits of the paper, which vary unpredictably day to day as a result of the pressure of other events.

IT IS easy to catalogue the inadequacies of the press in meeting the insuperable task of collecting and assimilating even the most essential information on the ever expanding and ever more complicated fields of public concern. But it is also easy for the proprietors of the press to brush off any criticism with a facile claim to the volume and variety of what they print. The press is too strategic to all of us to be left unchallenged to those who control what we read. Every new merger, reducing the choices of the reader, further constricting the channels of public opinion as well as information, increases the need for ceaseless public appraisal of this essential resource. A monopoly newspaper is an unregulated public utility.

The press is the least criticized institution in our society, though critic of all the rest. No other institution more requires constant and searching criticism, regardless of the hypersensitivity to criticism so often evidenced by too many of its proprietors. Only television has the capacity to provide this scrutiny, and it does not choose to do so, dominated as it is by advertisers who arc not eager to sponsor criticism of the other chief medium for advertising.

The lack of any serious sustained criticism of so essential an institution as the press is a serious lapse in responsible relationships in a rational society. This is one of the yet unanswered problems of a democratic society.

But, I repeat, it is too easy to castigate the institution of the press for such deficiencies or delinquencies as are visible in its daily product. It is the only institution whose sins of omission or commission arc visible to anyone every day. This makes it vulnerable. Doctors, we say, bury their mistakes. The newspapers publish theirs. The New York Times is a daily miracle, and not the only one. The AP wire report is another, and it is not to be judged by its fragmentation in most papers.

Further, the press is a reflection of the whole society. Ours is a very conservative society made up of generally comfortable people, fairly complacent, hard to arouse even in those rare cases where crusading is still an accepted role of the newspaper.

The reader has a responsibility for what he puts in his head. Communication is a two-way street. The intelligent reader needs to exercise discrimination in the source of his news: the paper he reads, the broadcasts he selects. And, of course, he needs to supplement these immediate sources with serious periodicals that, free of daily deadlines, have more time to explore below the surface of events, and with the topical books that now tumble from the presses almost as quickly as the Sunday paper and that are available in inexpensive paperbacks.

The reader who wants to try to keep up with public affairs on his own can discipline himself to be selective, to follow the few main lines of developments that matter to him, without letting himself be bogged down in the miscellany and trivia of every edition. For we have distinguished journalists and outstanding newspapers that do make an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the shape of the world we have to live in.

A VITAL, characteristic aspect of our society that our press reflects is its openness. It is very hard to bottle anything up for very long if it is important enough. Our correspondents’ exposure of the Vietnam crisis last year illustrates this. In his recent book on the CIA, Allen Dulles complains of the difficulty of keeping secrets out of the press; he speaks wistfully of the greater influence the British government has on its newspapers. Some of our correspondents may complain that the government manages news. Any government doubtless tries to make the best showing it can. But murder will out. That is my theory of the American press. If the Democrats don’t talk, the Republicans will. If the newspapers don’t get it, television or the news magazines will. There may be a time lag, but it comes out.

It is this openness of the American society that was threatened by the incredible Alabama judgments against the New York Times for its reporting and advertising on the racism that has afflicted that state. The press of America revealed a scandalous lack of interest in its own institution in evincing so little concern over the S3 million libel damages assessed against the Times by an Alabama jury on suits brought by the commissioners of Montgomery. This was on account of an advertisement for the defense of Martin Luther King which described his ordeal in Alabama. The commissioners complained that it was a personal libel, though they were not named in the ad. It contained minor errors. Dr. King had not been arrested seven times, but four. Police did not “ring” the campus of Alabama State College, but they were deployed near it in large numbers on three occasions. The dining hall was not “padlocked” against students who protested expulsion of demonstrators, but barred only to those who in protest had refused to re-register. But the thrust of the ad was substantially true, and the purpose of the suit was clearly intimidation, an intent emphasized by making parties to the suit four local Negro ministers who had joined fifty other people in signing the ad.

Happily, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the Times counsel that the Alabama judgment “poses hazards for the freedom of the press not encountered since the early days of the Republic.” A penalty of this sort, said the Times counsel, “is a death sentence for any newspaper if multiplied.”

The Court itself went further. Reversing the libel judgments, the Court said: “Whether or not a newspaper can survive a succession of such judgments, the pall of fear and timidity imposed upon those who would give voice to public criticism is an atmosphere in which the First Amendment freedoms cannot survive.”

This was a historic decision on March 9, which opened: “We are required for the first time in this case to determine” the constitutional limits to libel awards to public officials.

Unanimously the Court held that “a good faith” critic is entitled to protection. “The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a Federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Emphasizing its decision, the Court said: “We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Three of the justices went beyond this to hold that even malice should not be penalized, feeling so strongly, as Justice Goldberg put it, that the Constitution “affords to the citizen and to the press an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct.”

Thus the justices said to public officials what Harry Truman put more succinctly: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

The protection of this decision is most timely.

Indeed, a death sentence was served last fall on a small weekly newspaper in Arkansas, the Morilton Democrat, which had a $200,000 judgment against it by a local jury on a charge that the newspaper’s crusade against a county ring had libeled them to that extent. Editor Gene Wirges lost his newspaper. A Mississippi grand jury found that the only persons responsible for the two deaths in the Oxford riot over the admission of James Meredith to the state university were the United States marshals, and it refused to indict anyone else. That finding gave a green light to General Walker to file suits for multiple millions against any newspapers that had reported his role on the Oxford scene. The hazard of such suits is that they go before the same kind of jury as the one that found $3 million against the Times for minor errors in an ad.

The Times decision held it immaterial that the libel charged was in an advertisement; also that the critic cannot be required to guarantee the truth of every statement. This protects with even greater force the Harrison Salisbury articles in the Times on the race climate in Birmingham, against which $2 million more in libel judgments have been levied.

Such a crisis as Birmingham’s can be most revealing under unfettered reporting. Last fall the unresolved issue in Birmingham led two widely syndicated columnists to explore the power structure of this outpost of Northern industrial capital. James Reston of the New York Times and Mary McGrory of the Washington Star were both writing, the weekend of September 22, that the economic control in Birmingham lay in the North, in great corporations, notably U.S. Steel; that not one of these used its decisive influence to reconcile the racial strife; that they contributed to support the racist politicians; and that, as Reston put it in the New York Times, September 22:

The Birmingham power structure wants the racial problem to go away. It wants a States Rights President in the White House and segregationist Democrats running the congressional committees. It wants law and order, but not Federal law and order.

The Reston and McGrory reporting, of course, was not news to those who have studied the socialeconomic structure of the South. Sensitive Southerners have long described as colonialism this Northern industrial control. It is always potentially an explosive political issue. But it seldom explodes, for it is smothered by the racism with which political demagogues inflame electoral emotions.

Perhaps the most serious complaint to be made of modern journalism, in our finance-corporation society, is that it has seldom proved sharp-edged in revealing such basic conditions. A Birmingham crisis brings exceptional opportunity for exposing them.

In journalism, crises provide us the best chance for seeing into a situation. The journalist has allies in uncovering the strategic facts in a crisis. For one thing, public attention focuses on it. People are keen to discover what they can. The public officials or others involved are on the spot. Any attempt to cover up is highly visible; any defiance of a legitimate public interest becomes dangerous. The heat is on, and it melts away the wrappings of concealment or camouflage. The press assigns its top men, skilled in probing and experienced in getting down to realities. They come in from outside and bring a fresh approach and an objectivity from being independent of local pressures. This has been of immense importance in Alabama and Mississippi, or in Latin America and Katanga, and, most recently, in Vietnam — wherever controlling local interests have enjoyed either a cozy relation with the local media or exercised intimidating pressures on them.

If the crisis lasts or recurs, as in Birmingham, you soon have a corps of able reporters who have developed independent sources of information and have penetrated below the surface of events.

But there is a time lag in our press, and has long been, in keeping abreast of a changing society. It was generations before the press reported labor news beyond a police report of violence in a strike. Only in the 1930s, first with Louis Stark in the New York Times, did the specialist labor reporter take his place with the conventional specialists in politics and finance. Not until the atomic bomb, and for the most part, after Sputnik, did science reporting take its recognized place; and reporting of education, the most universal enterprise in America, is only now beginning to be recognized as one of the fixtures of staff organization.

This obvious lag is an unfortunate characteristic of our press, and quite irreconcilable with its traditional claims to high enterprise. It brings the traditional organization and practice of the newspaper under serious question. Few of our institutions have made so little adjustment to the convulsive changes in our world.

An anachronism of the newspapers in these days of specialization is to cling to their old rule that everybody starts as a cub reporter for basic training in the news room. This training is useful, but not for long — just long enough to learn the ropes in the paper and to become acquainted with the structure of the community. But a bright college graduate can do this very fast. The developed nose for news is not the only element in journalism. It is more important to know something beyond what can be picked up in the haphazard education of the newspaper job.

After a lugubrious experience, Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “1 never dare to write As funny as I can.” Something similarly inhibiting soon gets into the consciousness of the newspaperman. The reporter who feels he has a significant article to write, arising from his own newspaper work, almost invariably turns to a magazine with it. His instinct tells him his own paper won’t want a piece that goes outside its conventional pattern of news. So the most productive harvest of his thinking in his own field goes to market in another medium.

Why should the metropolitan newspaper not look to the graduate schools and the university faculties for its diplomatic correspondents, its specialists in economics, science, labor, Russia, Africa, architecture, or race relations? Why should a student in foreign affairs not consider journalism as an alternative to diplomacy or teaching? Why should he not move with equal professional zest from one to another of these? Such cases are rare and occur in magazine journalism rather than in the newspaper. John Kenneth Galbraith was a Fortune editor before he was a university professor, and then an ambassador, and then again a professor. Archibald MacLeish has had an equally versatile experience. Princeton has reached into journalism for professors of government—Irving Dilliard, and earlier, Douglass Cater. But this does not happen in reverse. The traditional newspaper editor says the scientist or other specialist can’t write; he doesn’t know news. Enough of them can write. Read Bernard Cohen, Galbraith, Schlesinger, Handlin, Morison, Eric Goldman, Jerome Wiesner. The Scientific American has shown that collaboration between journalist and scientist produces both authoritative and readable articles. What is the matter with this for the newspaper?

Esquire magazine every month explores areas of the American scene untouched in most newspapers. The Reporter magazine develops issues neglected by the press on the Washington scene. The New Torker opens up fresh opportunities for journalistic exploration freed of the newspaper’s restrictive definition of news.

The newspaper has got to put more money and energy into its news product and expand its productive resources. Instead, its wire services boast of new mechanics to cut split seconds off transmission. Why is this so important, particularly in cities where the newspaper has no competition except television, which is bound to be hours ahead with the first news bulletin?

The heyday of the big-city newspaper, the era of the great forces of journalistic legend, from Greeley and Dana to Pulitzer and Hearst, came with the rise of the city, with its rapid growth, its teeming new populations pouring in from the farms and from Ellis Island. This city life, with its millions of newcomers, furnished the newspapers with themes: the romance, the excitement, the public figures and private scandals, the invention of the 400 in society, the discovery of corruption, of city machines, and of transit deals, the movements of reform. All these made the menu of the newspaper exciting and fastened its readers to the newspaper habit. In more recent times readers have been held by the continuity of comic strips and syndicated columns and features, now packaged and processed much like the attractions of a chain store.

But the suburban trend has moved masses of readers out of the city, and the pressures of world events have enlarged their horizons. The old concepts are outgrown. The old conventions of what is news and how to treat it are dated. The new media and allied fields — television, advertising, public relations, Hollywood, magazines — have stolen much of the glamour of journalism, and they tempt the journalistic neophyte and the veteran not only with higher pay but with more excitement, often with greater challenge for creative talent. These conditions are giving newspapers a hard time, and they raise the question whether the press, by and large, commands the energy and enterprise to hold its place in a more demanding age.