How Wilful Is Wayward?

How Wilful Is Wayward?

THE PRESS, by A. J. Liebling. Ballantine Books, 1961.

From his “Wayward Press” articles in the New Yorker, A. J. Liebling has put together a damning book. But it will hardly surprise his readers who, after all, also read the newspapers, even if with less professional involvement. Nor will it provoke the publishers—America’s House of Lords, Harold Ickes once called them—either to self-appraisal or a mending of their ways. Since the decline of the press has been paralleled by a decline of press criticism, the publishers are not likely to be driven to anguish by one lone voice. More likely, Liebling will be accorded those faint praises the Establishment wisely accords its antagonists.

Only recently has the press felt itself so secure that it would not label the enemies of its privilege as foes of freedom or Communists. Fifteen years ago Robert Hutchins’ Commission on Freedom of the Press, ironically a child of Henry Luce’s beneficence, was urging that the legal liberties of the press should stand unaltered only as its clearly defined moral and social duties were performed. And at the same time, a committee of the U. S. Senate, in the “do-nothing” 80th Congress, was studying the conditions for the “Survival of a Free, Competitive Press,” with implicit and explicit conclusions about government initiatives somewhat like those of the Hutchins’ unit.

Liebling is aware of how far we have come since official and semi-official scrutiny of the press was a respectable enterprise. Indeed, as he points out, were an agency of the U.S. government simply to express concern, as the British Royal Commissions of Inquiry of 1949 and 1961 did in a far less monopolistic situation, that recent developments “lead inevitably toward concentration of ownership and a reduction in … the number and variety of voices speaking to the public through the press” it would be accused of some infamous heresy. Yet that, as Liebling fully documents, is precisely what is happening in this country.

In truth, we could no more conceive of such an utterance from our government than from Franco’s or Khrushchev’s. The one major pronouncement by President Kennedy dealing with the press asked for a measure of self-censorship at the very moment, immediately upon the abortive Cuban invasion, when the most reasonable plaint would have been that the press had already so censored itself that it had almost totally surrendered its obligation to provide information. The President thus endorsed that view of the relationship of newspapers to the national interest which envisions the continued narrowing of the boundaries of public discussion. When the history of American-Cuban relations is written, the irresponsibility and deceptiveness of our newspapers, by sins of omission and commission, may appear no less ignominious than the Hearst empire’s preceding the war with Spain.<...