Our national pastime: Press criticism

By Jack Shafer
April 10, 2013

In early 1946, Albert Camus emptied into New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling’s ear his plan for a new newspaper.

“It would be a critical newspaper, to be published one hour after the first editions of the other papers, twice a day, morning and evening,” said Camus, who knew a thing or two about journalism, having recently resigned his editorship of the Paris daily Combat.

“It would evaluate the probable element of truth in the other papers’ main stories, with due regard to editorial policies and the past performances of the correspondents. Once equipped with card-indexed dossiers on the correspondents, a critical newspaper could work very fast. After a few weeks the whole tone of the press would conform more closely to reality. An international service,” Camus told Liebling.

Camus never found a backer for his “critical newspaper” and eventually left journalism. But the idea stuck to Liebling like duct tape, and he cited the interview in his 1948 book, The Wayward Pressman, as well as his 1960 Camus obituary in the New Yorker. Camus spoke of compiling complete records of “the interests, policies, and idiosyncrasies of the [newspaper] owners” and “every journalist in the world.” Then, the contents of news stories could be gauged for credibility, he explained.

“But do people really want to know how much truth there is in what they read?” Camus asked. “Would they buy the control paper? That’s the most difficult problem.”

Camus’ dream of real-time news analysis has largely been realized, although no single publication produces it, readers don’t have to pay for it and the analytical product doesn’t appear on newsprint. The Web — and the rush of newspapers, magazines and broadcasters to fill its pages in the mid-1990s — made the first critical (or “control”) newspaper possible in June 1997, when Slate founder Michael Kinsley assigned journalist Scott Shuger to stay up all night reading on the Web the stories that would appear that morning in the nation’s top dailies. Shuger would then compose his critique and post it on Slate as the sun rose on the East Coast, well before most subscribers had retrieved the print versions from their doorsteps or consulted the Web. Kinsley dubbed the new column “Today’s Papers.”

Thanks to Shuger, and myriad others who’ve used the Web as their analytical engine, the universe now swarms with enough press critics and instant press criticism to give Camus’ ghost the willies. The surge in critics and press reporters includes David CarrErik WempleDan KennedyDylan ByersMichael CalderoneTom ScoccaRachel SklarCraig SilvermanJeff BercoviciEric DeggansSara MorrisonHoward Kurtz (and his TV show), Conor FriedersdorfJohn CookGregg MitchellJim RomeneskoRoy GreensladeAnn Freidman and others. Advocacy sites like Media MattersNewsbusters and FAIR keep the political faith while hammering the press. Academics like Jay RosenEd Wasserman and Dean Baker engage in routine media dissection. Entire websites, namely Poynter and Mediaite, keep tabs on the press, as do the sites amending the Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review. Even radio is on the case, with On the Media, as are the alternative weeklies, city magazines and the bleating ombudsmen. (Apologies to the critics not on my list. Also, why so few women? Shani Hilton has ideas.)

Like an algae bloom, press criticism has seeped into every inhabitable niche. Rare is the cable news talk show, magazine feature story, or blog post that reaches its midpoint without some sort of examination and excoriation of the press. The current level of scrutiny would startle the savvy news consumer of the 1970s, even a reader of Alexander Cockburn’s Village Voice “Press Clips” column. Readers from the 1960s would overdose on the saturation coverage. People tend not to recall that Liebling, who died in December 1963, worked only part-time at press criticism while at the New Yorker and was most active between 1945 and 1953. Although he analyzed out-of-town dailies in his columns, most notably Robert R. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, and criticized the chains and the wire services, the New York dailies were his main course. He also lobbed his hottest ordnance not on other journalists but on newspaper owners, whom he thought were scoundrels, dedicating The Wayward Press “To the Foundation of a School for Publishers, Failing Which, No School of Journalism Can Have Meaning.”

So scant was press criticism that shortly after Liebling died, Louis M. Lyons, then-curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, lamented his passing in a May 1964 Atlantic feature. Lyons asserted that even with Liebling on the beat, the press had been “the least criticized institution in our society, though critic of all the rest. No other institution more requires constant and searching criticism, regardless of the hypersensitivity or criticism so often evidenced by too many of its proprietors.”

If we were to resurrect Lyons, he would probably compose an essay on the damage done to society by the armies of press critics. Camus might well skip building his reporter and owner dossiers and simply buy them directly from the PR firms, then crowdsource the labor to produce his critical newspaper to individual news-tasters. And why not? As my Reuters boss, James Ledbetter, noticed way back in 1998 as he was exiting the press critic profession and just as the Web was reaching escape velocity, we’ve all become critics of the press. Political discussions, economic arguments and even sports squabbles frequently turn on a press critique: Which outlet got the story right and which one got it wrong? What story is being neglected or hyped? Who benefited from a publication’s coverage? Which newspaper got us into war? Caused the crash? Which website’s stories are indistinguishable from their sponsored content? And so on.

It was Camus’ wish that more data and heavier analysis would make the assessment of truth-value easier. Liebling fretted that it would “take a lot of the fun out of newspapering.” Yet both were wrong. The flood of ready and cheap information has, obviously, made the extermination of the sort of general idiocy that falls into the Snopes gunsights a tad easier. But elsewhere, information proliferation has only intensified the length and depth of debates to the point that no issue remains settled long enough for a reconsideration of it to deserve the label of “revisionist view.” The bottomless media soup from which we sup is always on boil, always being fed new ingredients and perpetually contested. The resolution Camus sought cannot be found.

Liebling’s prediction that Camus’ new media order would siphon the fun out of newspapering has not been fulfilled. Beating on the press has become as big a national pastime as baseball, the NFL or March Madness, only it’s not a seasonal event. Over the past four decades, the public’s trust in the press has steadily declined — but not because the press has become less trustworthy, but because they’ve caught on to us. That’s enough to make even Liebling laugh.

******

Scott Shuger died in a June 15, 2002, diving accident. Slate discontinued “Today’s Papers” in August 2009, replacing it with a news-aggregation column. Disclosure: I worked at Slate from 1996 to 2011. Send your favorite Liebling column to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Pick a fight with me via my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Albert Camus photograph by United Press International / New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

4 comments

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Interesting column that itself stands in need of adumbration. Indeed CJR and AJR are part of my diet when I have the time as was Jack when he had his Pressbox at Slate, and I take Jack’s word for it for the other names and organs he cites since I occasionally find some of them useful. To try to put it succinctly: with the amount of propaganda and distortion and politically correct writing that is published even by the major news outlets, the amount of needed correction is always lagging behind. Lagging behind, too, is what is called “critique of ideology” and “critique of interest” that gets a bit deeper to certain inbuilt distortions of news reporting. One instance of the kind of ganging up in reporting that I followed closely was the way the disintegration of Yugoslavia was so one-sidedly covered by US news outlets. I have found that it takes an inordinate amount of work for me to be halfway certain that I have a good handle on a story. Then there is that constant shower of scandals of all kinds… major in the instance of the banking industry… minor in matters of the sex lives of celebrities and politicians…

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive

Jack,

Here is E.B. White, writing in 1948:

“Mr. [Henry] Wallace has had a great deal to say about the affirmities and the unfairness of the American press, and we have taken most of his remarks lying down. He keeps saying that you can’t learn the truth from newspapers. We agree. You can’t learn the truth from newspapers. You can, however, buy at any newsstand a ten-cent assortment of biassed and unbiased facts and fancies and reports and opinions, and from them you are allowed to try to assemble something that is a reasonable facsimile of the truth. And that’s the way we like it, too.”

White also believed that society was better off with a multiplicity of newspapers — in those days they were called newspapers; today they’re known as media outlets, or some such — with a multiplicity of viewpoints and opinions. I do think he would have approved of the Internet. Multiplicity to the nth degree. Dan

Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive

I can’t find the original White quote (a rare Google fail), which I wrote down years ago, misspelling one word. He must have meant “the infirmities and unfairness,” not the “affirmities and unfairness. White was not one for nonce words. Dan

Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive

Fascinating. What would Camus think now?

(You want “who,” not “whom,” in “whom he thought were scoundrels.”)

Posted by WilliamMallard | Report as abusive