From the grave, which claimed him four decades ago at age 59, A.J. Liebling continues to reign as the great American press critic. Although Liebling contributed millions of words to The New Yorker and other publications about food, New York, boxing, scam artists, war, all things French, low-life culture, politicians, and the Paiute Indians (!), he’s best remembered for the 82 columns of press criticism he wrote for the magazine between 1945 and 1963 under its “Wayward Press” rubric.
If Liebling didn’t invent press criticism, he might as well have. Liebling still ranks so high that, in 2000 when the New Republic’s Franklin Foer wanted to take the Washington Post’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, down a couple of point sizes, he wrote that Kurtz was no Liebling. While this is a little like complaining that Jonathan Franzen is no Henry James, Foer’s gist was clear: A few writers may occasionally reach Lieblingesque heights in their press criticism (he mentions Hendrik Hertzberg and James Wolcott), but nobody survives at the long-dead master’s altitude for very long.
The press critics who came before Liebling—muckrakers Will Irwin and Upton Sinclair, court intellectual Walter Lippmann, crusader George Seldes—earn respectful notices from press scholars Tom Goldstein and James Boylan. Latter-day critic of corporate concentration Ben “Media Monopoly” Bagdikian, media reporters Kurtz and David Shaw, and the various watchdog groups receive approving nods, too. But both Goldstein and Boylan wish for less news coverage of the press and more advocacy criticism in the Liebling vein. Liebling portrayed the press as a comic circus populated with evil clowns, union-busting lions, and crookeder than usual carnies performing inside a tent that could go up in flames at any moment. He made readers laugh, but for a reason: A window opens when a man laughs, a window through which you can insert an idea.
Liebling didn’t take press criticism to hell with him when he died, but he might as well have. What does it say about a craft that has celebrated no new master in 40 years? Was Liebling’s press criticism really so brilliant that it should blot out the sun forever? The New Yorker apparently thought so, retiring the “Wayward Press” when he died and not reviving it until 1999.
One measure of Liebling’s standing as a writer is that publishers are forever returning his works to print. Who can blame them? Every sentence he wrote contains a kick, a bounce, and a leap. Thanks to publisher enthusiasm, we’re never more than three or four years away from the next Liebling revival—in fact, his next revival starts next month when North Point Press releases the 536-page Just Enough Liebling collection, introduced by New Yorker Editor David Remnick.
Alas, Liebling the press critic makes only a brief, six-piece appearance in Just Enough Liebling. For the real dose, readers must seek a copy of his paperback anthology The Press, last republished in 1981. While The Press enjoys rapid turnover in used-book stores, I suspect that it’s become one of those books more cited than read and that his reputation as the patron saint of press criticism has been passed down by previous generations to today’s crop, which accepts his canonization as an article of faith. If that’s the case, no heresy is committed in revisiting his back pages to investigate his miracles.
Since its founding, the press-critic racket has been dominated by liberals and leftists whose critiques have usually owed more to their political mind-sets than to the media they consume. On the litmus issues of big business, unions, “social justice,” oligopoly, civil liberties, regulation, “reactionary” movements, markets, bias, foreign intervention, and the tyranny of centrism, to name just a few, the press critiques of most left-leaning writers could easily be mistaken for political tracts. Liebling heir Alexander Cockburn, who reanimated literary press criticism in the late ‘70s with his corrosive “Press Clips” column in the Village Voice, spoke for his comrades when he said, “Press criticism in the absence of a political party is ultimately only one hand clapping.” Putting politics first doesn’t necessarily neutralize one’s authority as a press critic, but it sure can make for predictable copy, as the right has proved with its watchdog organizations that sniff around the clock for media bias.
Liebling, of course, made no effort to hide his liberal politics, as biographer Raymond Sokolov writes in Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling, taking reliably liberal positions on unions, capitalism, the press barons, the Red Scare, and defending underdogs and proletarians. Far from daring, he was a conformist, reinforcing the majority culture views of New Yorker readers. He deplored the concentration of ownership of newspapers by chains and wept every time a newspaper folded—even the reactionary, sensationalist rags he loved to pillory. He made great sport of stalking and spearing the press lords William Randolph Hearst, Col. Robert R. McCormick, Roy Howard, et al., for their prejudices and propaganda. And, as Sokolov writes, he “lampooned clichés, ferreted out blunders and illogicalities” in the press. But like few leftist press critics practicing today, Liebling knew how to root against the home team. Of the revered liberal New York daily PM, Liebling wrote:
When you read it steadily for a while, you got the impression that you were reading the publication of some such large order as the Lonely Hearts or the American Treehound Association, whose members shared a lot of interests that you didn’t. Two articles of PM’s faith seemed to be salvation through psychotherapy and damnation through a frivolous approach to amusements.
“Doesn’t anybody have trouble except the Jews and the colored people?” Liebling claimed an unnamed young girl said to him after reading PM.
Liebling probably owes more of his reputation as a press critic to his skill at manufacturing quips and composing toothsome prose than his fans would like to admit. Liebling rarely failed to amuse, no matter what the subject. As the leading press critic of the day writing at The New Yorker, he knew he was performing for the best of all possible audiences. This sample of Lieblingisms only hints at the entertainment value of his collected works:
Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.News is like the tilefish which appears in great schools off the Atlantic Coast some years and then vanishes, no one knows whither or for how long. Newspapers might employ these periods searching for the breeding grounds of news, but they prefer to fill up with stories about Kurdled Kurds or Calvin Coolidge, until the banks close or a Hitler marches, when they are as surprised as their readers.People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments.The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.
Liebling’s press criticism benefited from the political polarity of the ‘40s and the ‘50s, when HUAC was in full swing, our allies the Soviets were becoming our enemy, and the New Deal had stumbled and was searching for its footing. By today’s standards, most journalists were corrupt and undereducated. The press barons literally dictated the news, and Sen. Joe McCarthy painted the skies with paranoia. Since Liebling’s time, the media leviathan has become much more slippery for a critic to handle because it’s become more professional and more self-conscious. It’s hard to imagine the Washington Post or the New York Times or any other newspaper of Liebling’s era exploring its shortcomings in its own pages as both the Post and the Times have over the Iraq war recently. Baron Rupert von Murdoch may be fun to vilify for the sensationalism of his New York Post and the sports-channel ethos of his Fox News Channel, but even Liebling would have a hard time reconciling the baron’s election-cinching endorsement of Tony Blair with his alleged hammerhead rightist political views. Conservative pragmatists refuse to fit inside a polemicist’s template.
As good as Liebling’s press columns are, they’re still several notches below his narrative output—Earl of Louisiana and his World War II dispatches in particular—his food writing, and especially his boxing columns. By letting his politics determine his views of the press, he missed the biggest story of his time—the Cold War—and allowed himself to get too close to Alger Hiss to see his deceit. His inordinate love of print caused him to overworry about the consolidation of newspapers. For instance, he falsely predicted that New York City would become a one- or two-newspaper town by 1975, and because he held a static, zero-sum idea of markets, he could never have predicted how broadcast outlets, magazines, weekly newspapers, and finally the Internet would produce an editorial variety that dwarfs the New York newspaper scene of his youth.
Some great writers inspire other writers. Other great writers intimidate the ones who follow, causing them to suffer the “anxiety of influence,” to borrow a phrase from literary critic Harold Bloom. Liebling invented, almost from scratch, the journalistic genre of literary press critic, but because he wrote as well as he did, he seems to have closed the door on the way out. Liebling’s literary vision is too vivid to imitate, and it’s hard to imagine someone trumping it. So, instead of producing the next Liebling, the field of journalism saddles us with the worry-bead analysis of Tom Rosenstiel and the goo-goo intentions of Jay Rosen, for which there is no audience outside the industry (maybe not even inside it). Daily newspapers, which employ art critics, film critics, dance critics, car critics, book critics, music critics, restaurant critics, and architecture critics by the millions rarely put press critics on staff, leaving the job of press criticism mostly to alternative weeklies, partisan organizations such as FAIR on the left and the Media Research Center on the right, think tanks, and academia.
The energy and resources that could fuel press criticism tend to be siphoned off at newspapers by the pathetic ombudsman, who often reduces his job to explaining the owner’s and the editor’s positions to the reading public. But pity the poor ombudsman: Hammered on one side by readers (who view him as a henpeckable owner’s tool) and on the other by the newspaper staff (who regard him a pest, a hopeless second-guesser, a meddlesome managing-editor wannabe), the ombudsman usually turns bitter and paranoid in his first semester on the job and spends the rest of his tenure mumbling under his desk like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. (I exclude New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent from this assessment, and on his good weeks, the Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler, although I’ve noticed supernatural hair- and weight-loss in both gentlemen.)
A few press writers have escaped the Church of Liebling to stake independent ground. National Journal’s William Powers, the Boston Phoenix’s Dan Kennedy, the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten, the LA Weekly’s John Powers, and Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott come to mind. Their work opens you to persuasion, makes you want to argue, and causes you to read and reread your newspapers and magazines with new curiosity. Each is worth 50 ombudsmen.
What keeps newspapers from hiring press critics and turning them loose? Maybe Saint Liebling figured it out in 1960 when he wrote, “Newspapers write about other newspapers with circumspection” and “about themselves with awe, and only after mature reflection.”
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