Peter Osnos: What Would Liebling Say Today?





[Peter Osnos is founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a senior media fellow at The Century Foundation which distributes this weekly “Platform” column. (An archive of the columns is available at www.tcf.org.) He is vice-chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review and executive director of The Caravan Project, which is also based at The Century Foundation.]

A. J. Liebling was the principal writer of the New Yorker's "Wayward Press" column from 1945 until his death in 1963. These columns were widely regarded as the ne plus ultra of journalism about journalism because of their combination of reporting, insight, and wit. Liebling's appraisals could be scathing, but always derived from his respect for what could be, but rarely were, the standards of the trade he practiced. Delving lately into a collection of Liebling's work called The Press (purchased in the used books section of Amazon), it is striking how much of his bleak assessment of the performance of newspapers--which are mostly what he wrote about--has echoes and even relevance for today's accumulation of problems in the news business.

The crisis in Liebling's time was consolidation. Writing in the early 1960s, he cites Editor and Publisher as saying that, of 1,461 American cities with daily newspapers, all but sixty-one were one-ownership towns, creating monopolies where competition once flourished. Liebling contended that the remaining newspapers tended to cut back on news and staff, no longer feeling the need to make much effort to attract readers. His favored targets were skinflint conservative Republican owners whose only goal was to squeeze profit from their rags. "The function of the press in society is to inform," Liebling wrote, "but its role is to make money. The monopoly publisher's reaction on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her in a horse race."

Once assured of a dominant position in their supine market, these moguls shoved syndicated features and filler into the papers instead of original reporting, Liebling asserted. "The publisher's mass preoccupation--their pocketbooks" opened one piece, "often keeps them from covering news at all. When I worked on the World-Telegram, 1931-35, the paper although posing as a metropolitan daily, never sent reporters out of town any further than Flemington, N.J. 50 miles away, and that was for a unique occasion, the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. A wave of economy followed this unwonted expenditure--reporters using the subway were required to bring in signed notes from the platform guards before submitting a voucher requesting reimbursement of their nickels."

So, in Liebling's view, newspapers were already in decline during what from today's gloomy perspective should have been a golden age, at least for the owners...

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