Friday, April 11, 2008

Bloggy Despotism: 1 of 2

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

That splendid portmanteau quote does serve many purposes. While often misattributed to H.L. Mencken and a few others, it actually is from press critic, journalist and gourmand A.J. Liebling. It appears on page 109 of the May 14, 1960 New Yorker in The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?

Scholars and plain folk are prone to cite that as a reference to being able to publish and advance your ideas. In context, Liebling was covering the American Newspaper Publishers Association meeting and riffing on what we would recognize now as a situation of media mergers and failures. He was calling for Congress to raise the capital gains tax so that publishers wouldn't see selling out to competitors as a wise use of capital for high returns at low taxes. That would act to keep multiple news sources in more cities.

He went on though to decry the trend toward monopoly newspaper towns as far as journalists were concerned. "As to the freedom of the individual journalist in such a town, it corresponds exactly with what the publisher will allow him," he wrote farther down the column.

Liebling, who died in 1963, did not know of computers, much less an Internet or World Wide Web or blogs. However, there's little doubt he would have ridiculed and railed against the sensationalist sameness of MSM today, as he did in his New Yorker columns. He also most certainly would have liked the easy access to many opinions and news sources.

While writing in most blogs falls short of literature and great writing, so do nearly all articles in even our best newspapers. It's always a thrill to find good writing, original reporting and keen insights.

Moreover, as with our situation today, the false claims of the ANPA executives did not convince Liebling. For one, he cited D. Tennant Bryan, publisher of the Richmond, Virginia, newspapers and outgoing president of the association. Bryan "denied that there was a danger of a growing monopoly of news outlets in the growth of single-ownership cities." As the publisher put it, "This danger is minimized by the fact that most Americans today have within easy reach not only their hometown papers, but papers published elsewhere, news magazines, and news broadcasts."

Liebling detailed how difficult it really was to find such papers, which would also no longer be timely when you got them. In many towns, such alternatives were simply not available.

Instead, he noted that multiple and varied news sources were not the final answer, but essential. "Diversity — and the competition that it causes — does not insure good news coverage or a fair champion for every point of view, but it increases the chances." do even mediocre blogs, I add.

So long as you don't consider hours spend researching and writing blog posts, the threshold to this self-publishing is about as low as it gets. While finding blogs you want to read and that have consistent winning (to you) entries can be difficult, it's much easier than hying to an out-of-town newspaper stand or major library to do the same sampling.

The second part of this will deal with my own censorship or editorial judgment, depending on one's view.

P.S. If you like food, wine, Paris and writing, Liebling's Between Meals is essential reading. I'll do a post later about my annual Liebling picnic, involving a bottle or two of Tavel. Liebling considered that the only rosé worth drinking, an opinion apparently shared by Louis XIV. North Point Press republished Between Meals a few years ago. You can get it through online or booksellers with doors as well as at libraries.

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