Feb 1 2006

On the Shoulders of Giants

The unbroken tradition of press criticism

On the occasion of FAIR’s 20th anniversary, it is appropriate to recall some of the early press critics who helped blaze the trail that FAIR has so honorably followed.

George Seldes

Like FAIR, George Seldes was dogged in his quest for journalistic accuracy. Seldes had been a journalist for five years in 1914, when the first shots were fired across the trenches of the Western Front. After covering the Great War, which killed 8 million people, he would say (Freedom of the Press):

I now realize that we were told nothing but buncombe, that we were shown nothing of the realities of the war, that we were, in short, merely part of the great Allied propaganda machine whose purpose was to sustain morale at all costs and help drag unwilling America into the slaughter.

In the years that followed, he continued as an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent, but he never allowed himself to be used that way again, keeping the oath he had taken on Armistice Day “to tell the truth from then on.”

By the late 1920s, Seldes turned from journalism to books, two of which—Freedom of the Press, published in 1935, and 1938’s Lords of the Press—established his reputation as a press critic. In 1940, he launched one of the most important press reviews in the history of American journalism, the newsletter In fact. (The “f” was defiantly lower case.) This critique of news reporting quickly gained a circulation of over 100,000, and by 1947 reached 176,000. In an interview 40 years later (Killing the Messenger, Tom Goldstein), Seldes would say, “The critic can help keep the press honest.”

Seldes is considered the link to the “great muckraking era,” as he called it, and the relentless investigative journalists, reformers and critics writing at the beginning of the 20th century such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Upton Sinclair and Will Irwin. Seldes acknowledged his debt to Irwin, saying (Witness to a Century), “In 1911 [Irwin] published the first series of articles in America criticizing, even exposing, the newspapers of his time.”

The muckrakers came to prominence following the era of yellow journalism that reached its zenith in 1890, punctuated by the fierce battles for newspaper sales between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Looking back, the press was criticized for the lack of professional standards, for caving into advertiser patronage, inventing news through hoax, falsifying headlines and suppressing stories to serve moneyed interests. These indictments against newspapers as servile patrons to profits and business exploitation were expressed by Upton Sinclair, whose 1919 book The Brass Check addressed the press as “you who take the fair body of truth and sell it in the marketplace, who betray the virgin hopes of mankind into the loathsome brothel of business.”

Indeed, Seldes never forgot that the threats to freedom come not only from government, but also from the corrupting influence of big business. But in 1950, In fact became a casualty of the Cold War, which Seldes had so persistently criticized. He had received numerous letters from frightened subscribers who said the FBI was recording their names through their local post offices.

In the introduction to his 1987 autobiography, Witness to a Century, Seldes reaffirmed his unabashed dedication to honesty, truth and fact with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. “I am a firm believer in the people,” Lincoln said; “if given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

A.J. Liebling

In 1945, the press critic A.J. Liebling took over the New Yorker’s “Wayward Press” column, a feature introduced by Robert Benchley in 1927. Though he directed his critical gaze mostly toward New York newspapers, Liebling became one of the country’s most important critics until his lamentably early death in 1963. Joe Liebling was first a writer, one of the old school, a traveler with a wide knowledge and diverse interests whose memorable reportage from Europe during the war was often outfitted in fluent metaphor.

He usually wrote about the world with a sense of bemused irony, but his observations of the press could be much more caustic. It is often said that he fought his fiercest battles against publishers, and served as a kind of ombudsman for reporters. Editors were the ones in the newsrooms who “never even wanted to see the world outside.” And the columnist, he once wrote, was an expert “who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen” (Reluctant Reformation, Lee Brown).

Much like the essential role played by FAIR in exposing censorship and media compliance in the wake of 9/11, Liebling was an indispensable voice during McCarthyism when few were willing to challenge the bullying rollback of free speech. He expressed his outrage at the tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) with his accustomed wit.

In a 1948 column, “The Whole Story” (reprinted in Liebling at the New Yorker), he dissected a voluminous report of HUAC hearings held between July 31 and September 9. He called it a drama that was Shakespearean “except for the poverty of the idiom.” He chided his colleagues for the superficial, splintered coverage of the ongoing hearings, and their refusal to do a better job once the full report was released. He noted that the “anomaly of a committee that describes itself as the greatest open court in the country on page 846, [and] no court at all on page 926,” might be of interest to the public.

He lamented the failure to correct the record of charges made against Alger Hiss by Whittaker Chambers. Liebling likened the treatment of Hiss in the press to that of a

man spattered with dirty water by a passing taxicab on a rainy day. If he is angry enough, he may run after the taxi, but by the time he gets to the corner, it is five blocks away, splashing somebody else.

When the American Newspaper Publishers Association held its convention in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria in 1972, the for-profit criticism journal More, in the spirit of Liebling’s disdain for publishers, put on the A.J. Liebling Counter-Convention nearby. More was in its ninth issue and already had a subscription list of 5,000, with national newsstand sales of 3,000. The alternative meeting was attended by notables, “new journalists,” professors and disgruntled men and women of the media frustrated by the shortcomings of their profession.

I.F. Stone

I.F. Stone famously admonished reporters never to have lunch with their sources. Stone believed that once a reporter got too close to those in positions of wealth and power, the independent stance needed for good journalism would be lost. He was contemptuous of journalism that allowed government and big business to do as they pleased. For Stone the best journalism was provocative and “gutsy.” I.F. Stone’s Weekly, his one-man newsletter that appeared between 1953 and 1971, was certainly that, and it included a good deal of observations about his own profession.

Covering the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, a hate crime, Stone (10/3/55) was outraged by newspapers that “make it appear that those at fault were not the men who killed the boy but those who tried to bring the killers to justice.” In 1961, he charged (12/6/61), “As if orchestrated out of Washington, mass circulation media are beginning to condition the public mind for nuclear war.” (Both columns were reprinted in The Haunted Fifties.)

FAIR’s documentation of war’s civilian casualties and human costs, and critiques of media disregard for recognized humanitarian principles, follow in the steps of Izzy Stone’s observations about Korea. There exists today little collective memory of the Korean War, a conflict in which Gen. Douglas MacArthur extended centralized control over the press, denied access and instituted blanket censorship. Reports that did come out of Korea were awash in jingoism. I.F. Stone was often a lone voice of reason.

In The Hidden History of the Korean War, published in 1952 in the midst of the war, Stone detailed some of MacArthur’s communiqués about the air campaign. (Three years of U.S. bombing of North Korea killed perhaps 2 million civilians—one-quarter of the population—dropped oceans of napalm and left barely a modern building standing.) One communiqué, dated February 2, 1951, told what happened after about 50 soldiers were spotted around a village: “24 F-51 mustangs poured 5,000 gallons of napalm over the area.” A captain was quoted, “You can kiss that group of villages goodbye.”

Stone called the information “horrifying,” pointing out that “a complete indifference to noncombatants was reflected in the way villages were given ‘saturation treatment’ with napalm to dislodge a few soldiers.” They

reflected, not the pity which human feeling called for, but a kind of gay moral imbecility, utterly devoid of imagination—as if the fliers were playing in a bowling alley, with villages for pins.

As Extra! readers may notice, though the writing styles have changed, the criticisms of the press remain disturbingly familiar. As Liebling said in a discouraged moment (Reluctant Reformation), “The longer I criticized the press, the more it disimproved.” But let us not imagine what it might be like without those at FAIR who keep the traditions of these pioneers, who relentlessly challenge the assertions of the powerful, who pore over official records, who track press accuracy, who challenge media racism and who even attempt to encourage human and public values in an industry that shapes and distorts the world according to its own vision of power, business and profits.