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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

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.

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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.

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