Innocent Bystander: The A. J. Liebling Memorial Jeremiad

As regular readers of this column may remember, I do a lot of rereading—and re-rereading—of favorite books. Among these are the works of A. J. Liebling, who ranks, I believe, as our best journalist since H. L. Mencken and before John McPhee. Liebling, if you haven’t read him—and I fear that most of his books may be out of print— is sort of an American George Orwell, a passionate pursuer of the truth, but with the added ingredient of what can only be called a Rabelaisian sense of humor. When he attacked The Wayward Press in the New Yorker column of the same name, his weapons were satire and irony as well as decency and common sense.

Rereading William Cole’s excellent anthology. The Most of A. J. Liebling, the other day, it struck me that: a) there are no journalists capable of Liebling’s kind of risible indictment around today, and b) his memory should be honored, a decade after his death, in some substantial way (it’s true that some members of the working press have named their informal annual convention, a kind of riposte to the concurrent convention of the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association, for Liebling, but that seems a fugitive and unfulfilling kind of monument, and their conventions are for the most part vapid). A man who could write as follows about monopoly cities (in which one owner controls all the papers in town) deserves better than that: “There are also cities, like New Orleans, where the overpower in silly hands has led to largescale disaster. There the Times-Picayune company, which owned the only morning paper and the States, one of the two evenings, bought the Item, the other evening paper, ‘forcing to the wall’ the competing publisher by pressing 3.5 million dollars against his navel.”

Then it occurred to me that a useful as well as honorific kind of homage to Liebling might consist in taking a long, hard, objective look at today’s metropolitan dailies, to see how much, if any, they had improved since he pronounced judgment on them in the fifties and early sixties. First I reread his book. The Press, to refresh my memory of his strictures. Among them were a healthy scorn for the linguistic absurdities (akin to those of crossword puzzle makers) created by severe restrictions on the length of headlines; the proliferation of tired —and absolutely predictableclichés (like “wasteful government” and “overburdened taxpayer”) in the news and editorial columns; the multiplication of “experts,” defined by Liebling as men who write what they construe to be the meaning of something they haven’t seen; the cowardice of publishers who, with an eye to their advertising revenues, hesitate to afflict or offend the local commercial powers; the persistence of sensationalism—and sentimentality, or pure corn—in pictures and headlines; and the tendency of most American dailies to pursue an excessively conservative—even reactionaryeditorial line.

Having reread The Master, I then made a selection of daily newspapers to scrutinize. Since I was interested not in the lowest common denominator, but in the furthest advance of the state of the art of journalism, I chose not the mid-American small-city dailies, but a handful of papers noted for their excellence in one field or another—papers that might conceivably make (or actually have made) Time’s list of the ten best American newspapers. I chose the New York Times for its standing as the newspaper of record in this country; the Washington Post for its position as leading authority—and leading gadflyin the capital; the Boston Globe because it is said to have improved out of recognition in the last decade, and to be among the ten best U.S. papers today: the Christian Science Monitor for both its high reputation and its noble experiment with a new tabloid format; and the New York Daily News for its reputed combination of breeziness and professionalism in the handling of headlines and pictures alike. I see all of these papers at fairly regular intervals, in some cases every day, so I knew approximately what to expect; but to draw the sharpest possible contrast between them, I confined myself to their editions for just one day, Friday, June 27, 1975. I then withdrew into my study and attempted to read every word of all five papers—a fairly ambitious undertaking, since these were thick editions. I didn’t, in the event, read every word, but before my eyes gave out on the third day, I came close. I also came to some surprising—at least to me—conclusions.

Let me begin by generalizing. Then I’ll get particular. Though none of these papers came from a one-owner city, I’ve read repeatedly that the number of such monopolies has increased vastly since Liebling wrote about them. But I think it’s fair to say that in spite of this trend, the surviving papers, even in some very middle-American cities, have probably become more, rather than less, liberal during the intervening years. Even in a rigidly conservative market like Worcester, Massachusetts, for example. the one-owner papers, the morning Telegram and evening Gazette, have become less than wholly predictable in their editorial stands on such subjects as, say, labor unionism and women’s rights. (Let us remember, too, that the arch-conservative Chicago Tribune startled the world last year by calling for Nixon’s resignation.) The general loosening of archaic scruples, the shaming experiences of Vietnam and Watergate, the wide-ranging new doubts about the credibility of our institutions, and perhaps also pressure from news magazines and television news, have conspired to force all but the most reactionary papers to give us at least an inkling of both sides of a story, in the news hole as well as on the editorial page.

Admittedly there has been a trendy, but still on balance healthy, new emphasis on investigative reporting. The Times’s handling of the Pentagon Papers and the Post’s long-running scoop on Watergate have made muckraking not only desirable but downright de rigueur on many papers (and, incidentally, have stimulated the biggest Jschool enrollments in years); even the small, one-owner city may find itself reading reports of local connivance or corruption in the local press.

At the same time, let us also admit that the physical product—the daily newspaper itself—has progressed almost not at all since Liebling’s day. Headlines remain, with a few honorable exceptions, exercises in deciphering farfetched synonyms or unintelligible rubrics (like the use of “unit” for anything from a congressional committee to a Parent Teacher Association). Stories are uniformly written in a gray, awkward prose out of some twenties stylebook, spun out (except, of course, in tabloids) to unconscionable lengths; pictures are at times graceless and utilitarian or, worse, cutesy to the nines and captioned to match; even the Op-Ed page, that vaunted innovation of the sixties, is too often merely a repository for the daily screeds of the resident (in Liebling’s sense) experts, and too seldom a place for the ignored, afflicted, and obscure to speak out; in fact, the biggest bright spot I can see in today’s newspaper is the editorial cartoon, which frequently has more to say than the rest of the editorial page. But let’s look at our five papers.

The New York Times, studied objectively, is stunningly tough to read. The headlines, often cramped into a single column, reek of rewritese: “Fears on Refugees Called Unfounded”; “Jobless Pay Plan Extended to Jan. I in Congress Vote”; “Accord Reported on Plot Evidence” (whatever that may mean); “Legal Base Stems from British Era” (a well-veiled reference to Mrs. Gandhi’s seizure of power); and the virtually meaningless “Study Finds Gaps in Catholic Press.” Nor are the unintelligibilities confined to headlines. A Bernard Weinraub report on the situation in New Delhi refers to something called “an extraordinary crisis.” A Douglas Kneeland piece on the sociology of Vietnamese refugees states that fears about the refugees’ unassimilability appear to be unfounded—and then quotes, unquestioningly, the Administration’s own sociological studies. Things aren’t helped by the following typo: “The second study involved 177,106 of the approximately 130,000 refugees. . .” Worse, an article headlined “CareyDeal Oil Man a ‘Swashbuckler’ ” nowhere mentions the connection of its subject, Bart Chamberlain, Jr., with the Carey Oil interests. And so on. The editorial page features a painfully predictable lead editorial opposing Mrs. Gandhi’s coup, and not much else; OpEd features Reston in a playful mood (on the Azores) and Tom Wicker at a pitch of subdued militance on wiretapping, as well as a Yale professor on the need for more research into narcotics and Irving Howe on the financial plight of City University: hardly a barn-burner.

What’s good in this issue of the Times? Page one of Section Two, as almost always, has a couple of excellent features (on the Newport Jazz Festival and the education, in American Sign Language, of a female gorilla); Vincent Canby is stimulatingly scathing about Richard Brooks’s movie Bite the Bullet; and Anatole Broyard, always an interesting reviewer, has both nice and thoughtful things to say about Nora Ephron. And that’s about it, alas.

The Washington Post fares no better; despite the Herald Tribune-ish format, the headlines are, if anything, more clunky than those of the Times; on page one we are greeted with a threecolumn head that reads “Gandhi Assumes Dictatorial Rule; Arrests Mount” (for a second there I thought she had apprehended a horse), and, directly under it, “Park Says North Eyeing Seoul Raid.” On page three, “Church Bars Open Hearings On Death Plots” turns out to refer not to the Church of Rome but to the Church of Idaho. And so on passim, including the cryptic and sinister “‘Leak’ Charge Seen As U.S. Pressure” on page twenty-two. The stories themselves are straight stylebook stuff longish and dull, couched in standard newspaperese. On the editorial page, though, there are two bright spots; Herblock’s biting cartoon on Indira Gandhi and a surprising editorial that dares—unlike the Times- to stress the triteness and technicality of the corrupt practices of which she was convicted, while simultaneously deploring the dictatorial nature of her reaction. Op-Ed is determinedly tame; even the letters column leads off with a lobbying plea for deregulating natural gas prices by—who else?—the Governor of Oklahoma. From there on out, the Post is just a progression of perfectly standard newspaper features, from the curiously debilitated Style section to the double handful of comic strips. Nothing here to indicate that this paper pulled off the scoop of the century just a couple of years ago.

The Boston Globe. Another Herald Tribune format. But here something interesting has happened: the headlines are written in an approximation of plain English. Viz., on the front page, “Mrs. Gandhi orders arrest of thousands,” “2 FBI men killed on S.D. reservation,” and “Economy gains for 3d month.” The staff-written articles, while unscintillating, are couched in straightforward prose that is sufficiently readable, There’s even a small expose of questionable towing contracts. The editorial page seems, for this day at least, a bit parochial, and the Globe’s cartoonist, Paul Szep, who’d use a steam hammer to crack a nut, is not among my favorites, but the Op-Ed page is inviting, with two pictures and three cartoons, along with articles on local politics, busing, and the need for “real revolutionary change” (this by an avowed radical. To the Globe’s credit, the article on busing is from an opponent; the paper itself supports busing Boston’s children to the schools). Otherwise, the June 27 issue is largely devoted, like other metropolitan dailies, to features; but it is highly notable that many of these are written by the paper’s own substantial staff of columnists, not by syndicated outsiders.

It was short work to read the Daily News and the Monitor, and my comments will be brief as well. Both suffer from the limitations of the tabloid format. with its tiny news hide. The Monitor is a pale (and thin) shadow of its former self; its difficulties in obtaining advertising based on its widely scattered circulation are too painfully evident. As for the News, it soldiers on precisely as in Liebling’s glorious days; the scare word “Peril” is in the page-one head; there’s a “Mystery Survivor” (of a jet crash at JFK) on page three; and a shot of naval officers watching a beauty contest is too cutely captioned “Weighing Ankles.” The rest of the paper is the usual Hearst Patterson progression of canned features, dozens of them, from Jumble and crossword puzzles to three and a half pages of comics, including a vintage conversation between Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks (both of whom I had thought dead like Harold Gray). All this is interrupted only by the usual waspish and reactionary editorial page, in which Mrs. Gandhi is called “a Grade A phony and a 24karat hypocrite,” and those who winced at a Gerald Ford statement on the use of nuclear weapons in Korea are characterized as “Nervous Nellies.”

It seems fitting to end this small memorial to A. J. Liebling with the observation that he was a prophet as well as a critic; in many cases, his comments on the press of ten and twenty years ago apply, alas, with equal force today.