This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
A. J. Liebling, the twentieth century’s foremost press critic, wrote only one piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. (He died shortly after the publication of CJR’s sixth issue.) His review of a history of the New York Daily News provides ample glimpses of the wit and vigor he deployed under The New Yorker’s “The Wayward Press” banner. The below paragraph ran above the review in CJR’s pilot issue.
In the following review, America’s most widely read observer of the press discusses a chronicle of America’s largest newspaper. Mr. Liebling, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism whose byline appears most often in The New Yorker, is the author of many books, including a new paperback, The Press.
When a man writes a book about a newspaper where he is still employed, there are likely to be serious omissions. In the case of Tell It to Sweeney: the Informal History of the New York Daily News. (Doubleday, 1961) by John Chapman, who is the News’s esteemed drama critic, the omissions have greater potential interest than the inclusions. The words present form a typographical parenthesis around those that aren’t.
Chapman, for example, furnishes a considerable body of uniformly respectful reminiscence about Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, who founded the News in 1919 and died in 1946. This is territory more than amply covered by previous biographers. He says nothing of the characteristics or proclivities of the men who have shaped its policies since then—a stretch of 15 years. He notes, indeed, that by Patterson’s will F. M. Flynn and Richard W. Clarke, now president and vice-president, respectively, of the News, “as trustees but not legatees, were to head the management team which now was to direct the destinies of the News.” But he says nothing at all about what kind of fellows they are, whether either ever had an idea, or if so, what.
Nor does he describe the authority wielded over the News, or say that it is not wielded, by the officers of the Tribune Company, of Chicago, although he furnishes a simplified diagram of “the basic corporate structure of the New York Daily News” that shows that the Tribune Company holds control. He does not name the owners or officers of this paramount organism at all, much less discuss their notions, although he does furnish some dead-pan notes on Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, Captain Patterson’s cousin and survivor, who ran the Tribune Company until his death in 1955. When did informal history end, in 1946 or 1955? Upstairs in Chicago, downstairs in New York, what are the new brains like? The essential information about a newspaper is the character of its owners.
Newspapers are not waifs. They reflect their source, and Chapman leaves us without a clue. This is the more annoying because he himself sets up the question he never answers:
“When Patterson died in 1946 the road ahead for the Daily News was chancy,” he says. “Should the paper be preserved as a monument to its creator, following as best it could the dictates and odd whims of its founder? Had it really been a one-man show, and should it henceforth be operated by a ghost?”
Has it been? When Patterson died, he was in an acute phase of illiberal chauvinism that had lasted since his bitter quarrel with Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1941. He had, as Chapman relates, been a warm and potent supporter of the President from the beginning of his first candidacy, in 1932, until their open split over the Lend-Lease Bill. The News had supported all of Roosevelt’s social legislation, and had been a prime advocate of United States recognition of the U.S.S.R. The break came, not over any issue of left versus right, but of Patterson’s ingrained isolationism against Roosevelt’s belief in the need to intervene. His paper had followed his swing as fast as a sports car follows the wheel, but it is conceivable that that man of “odd whims” might have swung in some other direction had he lived. Roosevelt was dead, war against Germany no longer an issue. He was, after all, an old socialist, although he had been a rich one.