Thursday, March 29, 2012

In the Press Archives: A.J. Liebling and Nasser's Egypt

During my research on the Egyptian press, I’ve found a guide in the writing of A.J. Liebling. Liebling was one of the big-name New Yorker writers from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. His work prefigures the bemused, urbane, and literate tone that we associate with the magazine today, and was most recently given tribute by David Remnick in 2004. He wrote famously about boxing, about France, about eating, and about politics, and his work has been resuscitated in edited volumes sporadically since his death in the early 1960’s.

One of his more academically lasting contributions was a column he published for many years called The Wayward Press (which, this week, was revived over a profile of The Daily Mail). Liebling had began his career as a newspaperman, and finished it as a press critic, ripping apart meticulously the faults of newspapers while admitting his unyielding addiction them.

Although he traveled through North Africa while reporting on World War II, Liebling finally made his way to Egypt in late 1956, sparked by curiosity about Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and Britain and France’s ultimatums. He stayed in the Semiramis Hotel, read Egyptian newspapers, and reported from cities along the Suez Canal before moving on to Israel and Jordan. The Egypt trip represented, Liebling wrote later, one of several “shallow dips below the surface of news,” which convinced him that newspapers were not cutting it with their foreign correspondence. After reading about places and then traveling to them, he suggested:

“I might just as well not have read about them before going, because what I found was different. My point here is not that what I see is always exact, and that the harried press association men are always wrong, but that different reporters see different things, or the same things differently, and that the reader at home has a right to a diversity of reports. A one-man account of a crisis in a foreign country is like a Gallup poll with one straw.”

Liebling wrote about news a bit like he wrote about food: as an enthusiast who was often disappointed more than angered by failure, cranky but supportive. In his collected columns, a little bundle simply titled The Press, Liebling bemoans the monopolization of newspapers, of William Randolph Hearsts’ tabloid empire and the increasing prevalence of ‘one-paper towns.’ The press, he bemoaned, was “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.”

“It is an anomaly that information, the one thing most necessary to our survival as choosers of our own way, should be a commodity subject to the same merchandising rules as chewing gum, while armament, a secondary instrument of liberty, is a Government concern. A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there.”

Part of the reason Liebling’s work appeals to me is that it is tied to close readings of lots of newspapers. He makes theoretical arguments through clever metaphors from other realms of life, from sports to food to commerce. Meditating on the absence of good foreign coverage, he wrote: “The American press makes me think of a gigantic, super-modern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at eleven billion dollars, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats.”

And another: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money. The monopoly publisher’s reaction, on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events, is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her into a horse race.”

I’m researching a longer essay on Liebling’s trip to Egypt, 1956-57, which included suggestive parallels to the condition of Egypt during my extended trip: a country in the wake of revolution, which had once relied on tourism, suddenly with no tourists and lots of journalists. Liebling tried, as I am trying myself this year, to watch the news cycle from the outside, figure out how journalists work in a place where there is too much news and too many reporters.

Liebling never met President Nasser, and in fact may have typified the kind of savvy New York reporter that Nasser found so distasteful. But on the “plight of the press” they agreed in startling, unlikely ways. Look back at Liebling’s remark about newspapers being like chewing gum, and then look at this one by Nasser from 1960:

“I consider the press to be more of a mission than a commodity or a piece of merchandise. If the press becomes a commodity it will go the way of trade in any community. Today, in discussing this subject, our starting point should the realization that the press is a mission and not a commodity. This is the true and natural role of the press.”

Nasser’s way of putting it was more that of a Marxist professor and Liebling’s that of a chatty commentator. But their points remain very similar. Liebling dealt with it in the way of most critics, that is, by complaining more and more. Nasser, on the other hand, made a big, daring, experiment out of nationalizing the press. Many would say today that this experiment failed. In fact, Liebling saw the results of Nasser’s vision when he visited Egypt and criticized them too with the same bemused distance (I’ll share more about that here, but this is getting long). Nasser’s failed experiment does not demolish Liebling’s question, which remains as relevant today, in the era of Rupert Murdoch, as it was in the days of Hearst: How do you create a free press? Less than two weeks before Nasser nationalized the press, Liebling wrote his pithiest aphorism in The New Yorker: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

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