A. J. Liebling, “The Press,” (1964)

Put out a few months after his death, The Press, collects A. J. Liebling’s diverse writings on the state of journalism in the United States. In the sharp and humorous style that characterized most of his work, Liebling exposes the decline of the newspaper in the United States as an important element of civil society. This type of argument is, of course, old news by now. We have been hearing about the decline of the newspaper for years now. Media consolidation, the rise of the Internet commentators lacking the ability and skills to report, the 24-hour news cycle, and downsizing in newspaper are all clear to us, now. What strikes a 2013 reader of Liebling’s The Press is how predictable all of that was and how the roots of that decline went back to the early 20th century. I suppose Liebling’s critique has three parts. The first is that profitability of a newspaper interferes with its role in civil society. The most profitable newspapers are the only newspaper in town, making competition for stories rare and ensuring that much will be unreported (because with a captive audience one need to necessarily report in order to get buyers-or so they thought until the Internet). Media consolidation makes newspapers more profitable at the expense of the losing companies and the public good. A second critique that runs through The Press is that the newspaper is no longer speaking for the public interest and rather speaking to class interests (or some other subset). His analysis of the coverage of strikes, for instance, shows the press supporting owners while feigning objectivity.  This third critique is a bit more technical, but has to do with the ways in which news spread between papers, exaggerate claims, or carry on lies. They are essentially becoming gossip rags. Again, the fault for this seems to lie in media consolidation. With no need to compete for stories, there is no reason to have a bureau in Moscow, which means international news will largely rely on slight rewritings of wire stories. At best this is harmless, at worst it leads to the promulgation of falsehoods or exaggerations, as Liebling shows in the case of reportage on Chiang Kai-shek’s military strength.

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The Press is made up of six pieces previously published by Liebling throughout his career, so these are not a deathbed condemnation of his profession. His chapter titles suggest clearly his major themes: “Toward a One-Paper Town,” “No-News,” and “Not Too Lopsided.” Liebling does very well describing what ails the newspaper industry, but what of the solutions? In fact, it seems to Liebling that the solution is quite simple. “[A] large number of competing newspapers, permitting representations of various shades of thought, are a country’s best defense against being stampeded into barbarism.” (911)  A greater diversity of views, leading not to greater amateurism but rather a greater focus on professionalism as papers compete for accuracy and relevance. That is certainly fine for his day. We have a more challenging problem today, namely, that diversity has not necessarily led to more professionalism. This blog, for example, is the product of someone who is entirely untrained in literature, politics, or philosophy but I discuss them all. In a search for Melville’s Mardi, I come up long before many real professional Melville scholars. (I mention this as one of my more commonly-viewed pages, which is also one of my worst efforts written during last Christmas over heavily spiked eggnog.) For better or for worse, good commentary, good reporting, and thoughtful analysis often gets shoved aside by. This is essentially David Simon’s renewal of Liebling’s argument. Simon is seeming to say that a one-newspaper town is acceptable as long as it has professionals, is committed to reporting on urban institutions engaged in the public interest, and (of course) financially viable. I do not recall him saying much about competition between newspapers. Maybe the hey-day Liebling recalls, when a city had half-a-dozen competing papers was too far gone for Simon to pine over.

Sorry for the string of clips:

If you watch those clips, you will see that Liebling and Simon essentially start from the same place, in a belief that the role of the newspaper is that of preserving civil society and that this job is impossible to carry out unless newspapers are not primarily concerned with the bottom line. I reckon a product-first focus would do much to aid the universities, another bastion of civil society almost completely engulfed by the profit motive, as well.

Another model that Liebling suggests, as he loses hope that competition can ever again be the force that provides objective and professional journalism is the endowed newspaper. “I think that a good newspaper is as truly an educational institution as a college, so I don’t see why it should have to stake its survival on attracting advertisers of ball-point pens and tickets to Hollywood peep shows. And I think that private endowment would offer greater possibilities for a free press than state ownership.” (698–699) Liebling hopes that an endowment model (rather than the daily panhandling for ads, would to more to ensure objectivity as long as those endowments were offered up without strings attached. I suppose this works well enough in other areas; I am not sure how often corporate sponsors of opera companies complain about what is put on each season. Yet, the news had more opportunities for opposing the interests of the elite so I am not as sure as Liebling is that the endowment model would work.

Some of what Liebling documents is just humorous and not necessarily a sign of illness. The tendency of the press to inflate stories to fill column inches (the media’s slow watch of Stalin’s death is fascinating if only because each days reporting could only report that he still lived). This may be how 24 hour cable stations now make their money but Liebling is able to present it as a fascinating piece of Americana.

As I see it, Liebling’s The Press is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of media in the United States. It is not as strong in imagining creative alternatives for the nature of reporting in free societies – Liebling was, after all, institutionalized and a professional but not so much so that he could not manage a critique of the press. One issue he did not speak much on was the division of labor among workers in newspapers. I know some anarchist publishers (AK Press) have managed to rethink how work is divided to ensure that no one person has too much power. In my brief experience with newspaper (I work at one now at a copy desk) only a handful of people in the company have any power over what appears in print and for the rest of us, the job is pretty Taylorized and repetitive. I guess that a newspaper of the future would need to be prefigurative.

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