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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Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)

Those of us tuned into popular culture are familiar with David Simon’s critique of the so-called “War on Drugs.”  In brief, he argued through his journalistic writing and the television series The Wire that the War on Drugs targeted the minority underclass and the urban working poor, created dysfunctional police systems, ruined individual lives as well as the urban institutions more and more of us rely on.  The tragedy, Simon points out, is that deindustrialization is making us less necessary to the economy at the same time that the institutions that could defend us became corrupted and criminal.  Like Zygmunt Bauman, he sees a larger number of “wasted lives.”  More and more human kipple, to borrow Philip K. Dick’s term from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  I mention him, because as important as Simon has become to contemporary social criticism, Philip K. Dick was exploring many of these same themes in the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which is his investigation of the “War on Drugs.”

I do not recall seeing the term used in A Scanner Darkly.  The history of prohibition of drugs and alcohol is old in this country, but the modern war on drugs began sometime in the 1970s with the creation of national drug enforcement agencies and new national laws on drugs that trumped local enforcement (and accommodation) efforts.  If this was in the newspapers and TVs of the 1970s, I do not know.  They certainly were by the 1980s.  As the epilogue to A Scanner Darkly makes clear, Philip K. Dick was deeply affected personally by the counter culture’s use of drugs.  He had largely turned from it, in disgust, by the 1970s.  A Scanner Darkly shows that Dick clearly thought drugs were a horrendous evil.  He goes so far as to make the street name for his new drug “Death.”

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The plot of A Scanner Darkly explores the descent of an undercover drug enforcement agent known to his friends as Bob Arctor.  His use of Substance D (“death”) leads to his inability to properly interpret reality, dividing his consciousness into the police officer and the drug addict.  Eventually he is used up by the system and sent to a rehab clinic, which is actually a cover for the production of Substance D.  The film version of this novel is follows the book quite well (being the only major film adaptation of a PKD work to do this).

One thing we can say right away is that there seem to be three groups at play in the novel.  The first group is the disempowered people scraping by, addicted to drugs, but surviving at the margins of the economy.  This group is represented by Arctor and his friends Barris and Frink and his girlfriend Donna (also an undercover agent it turns out).  Like in later cyberpunk novels, this underclass appears to be quite large.  The second group is the police and the enforcement agencies.  This is the same situation we saw in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. The police have resources and powers, but are committed their energies to the destruction of this large underclass of drug addicts.  (Here we see the same critique as David Simon would later make.)  A third group, examined only in the background is the “square” public who support the police state with their taxes and political energy.  They are fearful of the expansion of the drug culture and want to protect their families.  Bob Arctor begins the novel meeting with a group of these paranoid citizens.  As we rarely see them again, we can suspect they live in gated communities and suffer few, if any, of the negative consequences of the war against Substance D.

Individuals in the underclass see their life destroyed.  Arctor (at least his drug addicted side) will live out his life with a fried brain in a rehab clinic.  Frink tries to kill himself.  In the macro sense, it is hard to argue that the police are winnings.  Drugs are easily available on the streets.  The underclass has its own networks and institutions as well.  As with the current war on drugs, it was a war of attrition that rarely brings clear victory.  If it is unwinnable, what is the purpose of fighting the drug culture?  In part it is a media event.  A major bust to put the public at ease and help defend the institutions of the police.  Of course, it is tragic for all of those directly involved, police and users.

Another theme in the novel is the relationship between a surveillance society and paranoia.  This is made most clear with Bob Arctor again, who is paranoid all the time about being watched and it also the watcher.  In fact, all sides in the drug war are paranoid.  The users and dealers are always on guard against police actions, the police need to be careful about the motives of every informer, and the people in the gated communities are fearful that the next knock on the door will be an armed drug addict looking for cash.  Some of this paranoia (maybe all of it) is justified.  In the case of Arctor and his friends, there are police watching them.  The house is bugged.  They are not even capable of purchasing a bicycle without paranoia (of course some of this is the drugs).

We should also note that the affect of Substance D on people is not so unlike the effect liquid modernity has on people.  It splits our mind, divides our attention, causes displacement, a lack of solid grounding, paranoia, odd and irrational behavior.  Substance D users embrace liquid relationships as well.  Many of the themes in Dicks novels from the 1960s emerge again, but in this novel they are expressed as the consequence of the use of a horrible drug.  Sadly, as the fate of Bob Arctor shows, the purpose remains some baseline economic exploitation.  Thinking back to my earlier posts on Dick (this is number 29), I cannot think of any example where a liquid material reality has a purpose other than exploitation.