Thursday, December 23, 2010

Horsefeathers Swathed in Mink

A. J. Liebling (1904–1963)
From A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings

“The names of those who came under Liebling’s assault are now mainly forgotten, but their bigotry and jingoism and fakery all have resonant equivalents today,” wrote David Remnick in a 2004 New Yorker essay memorializing the magazine’s former star columnist on the centennial of his birth. One of A. J. Liebling’s frequent targets was the media, particularly the newspapers of New York. In a monthly feature called “Wayward Press,” he exposed shoddy reporting, sensationalist or fabricated stories, and—a favorite object of scorn—headline writers. Between the end of World War II and his death in 1963, Liebling wrote more than eighty columns on the press, which proved to be one of the magazine’s most popular features. Summarizing Liebling’s contribution to the field of media criticism, John Lingan reminds us “that the issues concerning our current newspaper ‘crisis’—perceived journalistic bias, a relative dearth of proper foreign reportage, charges of elitism, the financial tenuousness of newspaper operation—are nothing new.” Indeed, Liebling himself often conceded the unoriginality and futility of his critiques. (“The longer I criticized the press, the more it disimproved,” he once quipped.)

One doesn’t have to look far in “Horsefeathers Swathed in Mink” to find today’s “resonant equivalents” referred to by Remnick. Liebling opens the piece by juxtaposing the still-common “neediest cases” articles that appear annually in the back sections of newspapers with the year-round front-page attacks on the “Undeserving Poor.” As an example of the anecdotal “welfare cheat” used to criticize poverty relief programs, the largely fictionalized “Woman in Mink” (soon promoted to “Lady in Mink”) dominated the front pages of every newspaper in New York City for a brief period in 1947. In his column Liebling revealed the truths behind the myth (or, one might say, the mange behind the mink), and he particularly directs his debunking efforts at the usually staid New York Times. Although he is careful to acknowledge that “exposures of maladministration can only be welcomed by the citizenry,” he insists that “such inquiries must be conducted on the basis of fair play and sound judgment” and, above all, with a regard for the facts.

Notes: The “report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights” referred to on page 751 recommended an end to segregation in the military and the passage of other significant civil rights measures. The “young American actor” Penrod Schofield, mentioned on page 756, is a fictional character in a novel by Booth Tarkington. Tommy Manville (page 758) was a wealthy New York socialite perhaps most infamous for his thirteen marriages to eleven women. PM was a liberal daily newspaper in New York, published from 1940 to 1948.

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There is no concept more generally cherished by publishers than that of the Undeserving Poor. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

(Because Liebling incorporated this essay in his collection The Press, the story begins down near the bottom of the first page of the PDF.)

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