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.
“It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, his death will bring,” the Times, quoted by Chapman, had editorially noted.
There have been none in the News’s editorial orientation. It has continued on, as if guided by an Iron Mike, until it now refers to itself on its editorial page as a “nationalist” newspaper, implying that all others, except the Chicago Tribune, are “internationalist,” which = Socialist, which = Uknowhat.
Reuben Maury, who wrote the pro-Roosevelt, pro-Social Security, pro-TVA editorials for the Captain—Maury went there in 1926—and who wrote the anti- Roosevelt editorials after the Captain changed his mind, is now writing pieces about how McCarthy was right, and others under heads such as “Socialism in the Sickroom” (medical care for the aged) and “Fascism on the Farm” (Administration agricultural program). Both these ran on the same day, June 5.
C. D. Batchelor, the equally suggestible editorial cartoonist, furnishes gems like that of June 8, showing Uncle Sam, with a skull in his left hand—the skull labeled “Peace Hopes”— in a cemetery filled with headstones marked “League of Nations, RIP,”
“Nuclear Test Ban,” and “To Let.” The News’s isolationist chauvinism of 1940 has changed to an extremely bellicose brand. Batchelor, who used to draw “War” as a lady with a skull for a face, may begin any day to make her look pretty.
Maury’s notion of proving that McCarthy was right —the Captain, incidentally, died before McCarthy appeared, and might not have liked him—is to lift to the editorial page a news item about a State Department announcement that it had dropped sixteen employees as homosexuals. McCarthy’s most famous charge was that the State Department contained 205 card-carrying Communists, not one of whom he produced. The incidence of homosexuals is probably about the same in the State Department as in newspaper offices.
On none of these points does Mr. Chapman, who is a nice fellow, say anything. Is he afraid of the ghost?
With the News’s swerve to the right, in 1942, its circulation leveled off. The period of growth had ended. Between 1932 and 1942 circulation rose from 1,400,000 to very nearly two million. It was still that in 1959, the last year noted on the graph of comparative New York newspaper circulations that serves as endpaper to Tell It To Sweeney. In the same period of seventeen years the population of New York City had risen by a million, of what the census calls the New York Metropolitan Area by a great deal more.
Whether this contrast between a gain of 43 per cent in ten years and a flat standstill in the next seventeen was a coincidence or had any significant correlation with the paper’s switch is a great “not proven.” The author, while he concedes that “in the first happy days of the New Deal” the News had stated that its support of Roosevelt had “stood well in the top row of reasons for its growth,” concludes dutifully that the change “had no measurable effect on the paper.” It has, however, suffered arrested growth in a growing market, where there were four morning papers, including the News, in 1959 as in 1942.
The Times, which does not compete with the News, in the same years increased its circulation by 50 per cent, according to the same obliging graph.
Patterson himself, as a young man, once wrote that a new newspaper proprietor comes to town full of zeal for the underdog and avid for circulation, fights for the first, gets the second, and joins the fat cats when the money rolls in. Then, he went on, growth ceases and deterioration begins.
The News has reached its plateau, but has not yet fallen over the edge, a position the curious reader expects even an informal historian to comment on. I am tempted to try for myself, but that is not a reader’s function. Between ourselves, I hold with the early Patterson.