Worshipping at the Church of Liebling.

Media criticism.
Aug. 25 2004 7:59 PM

The Church of Liebling

The uncritical worshippers of America's best press critic.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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."

******

Send your criticism of my criticism to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.