Sunday, March 30, 2008

A. J. Liebling's War

As a charter member of what has been called the Church of Liebling, I have good news for fellow worshippers.

Liebling's coverage of World War II for the New Yorker has now been gathered into a volume of 1089 pages by the Library of America. Like everything else he wrote, by reporting what he saw and heard, Liebling conveyed more about his subject than all the TV cameras and embedded journalists have told us about Iraq.

I have had the temerity to borrow his name for the URL here, but it's likely Liebling would have been ambivalent about blogs. As a press critic, he was a premature blogger himself, looking behind the news and picking apart the work of those who delivered it, making connections between the motives and methods of the messengers and the frequent unreliability of the message.

But a reporter at heart, Liebling hated experts. He mistrusted anyone who claimed "to have access to some occult source or science not available to reporter or reader...the big picture."

He didn't like editors much, either. "They come to newspapers," he wrote, "like monks to cloisters or worms to apples. They are the dedicated. All of them are fated to be editors except the ones that get killed off by the lunches they eat at their desks...The survivors of gastric disorders rise to minor executive jobs and then major ones, and the reign of these non-writers makes our newspapers read like the food in the New York Times cafeteria tastes."

Above all, he hated publishers. "The function of the press in society," he wrote, "is to inform, but its role is to make money. The monopoly publisher's reaction, on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events, is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her in a horse race."

And that was before Rupert Murdoch.

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