Melvin J. Lasky

Newspaper Culture (I)

(The Language of Journalism)


THESE pages are, I readily admit, the result of a life-long addiction: a compulsive, if also pleasurable, devotion to the reading of newspapers. One of my earliest memories of my father is of him sitting in his chair in our living room, reading The New York Times, pursing his lips to overcome a slight stammer and calling my attention (I was an obedient, if uncomprehending toddler) to some story or other that had pleased him or puzzled him in that morning’s paper. One of my last memories of my aged mother was her reminding me to take away from her night-table, next to the bed in which she spent her last days, a crumpled bunch of clippings which she had been collecting for me, as she always had over long and opinionated decades (they were mostly polemical columns from her favorite New York columnists).

            When I reflect for a moment on how I came to write this volume (and those to come) on ”newspaper culture” or what the papers say, I find myself nostalgically aware of how the elements of nature and nurture played their role. Like most New York school-boys I learned at an early age how to fold one’s newspaper and discreetly turn the pages on crowded, strap-hanging interborough subway rides. In those years, consistent with one’s revolt against the father, the morning paper was not his Times but my Herald-Tribune, not his World-Telegram but my New York Post.

            As time went by, the side-effects of the addiction became part of the intellectual kicks of a more academic environment. We had a small circle of students in City College, dominated by our awesome mentor in all things historical or topical, Dr. B.N. Nelson. We met once or twice a week, after classes, in some uptown or downtown cafeteria where we chatted earnestly about what happened to be new, by which we meant the news that we had happened to find strange or illuminating in the day’s papers. Nelson dignified the gossip by calling it the study of ”the visible surface of things”, and he would regale us (he was a medieval historian) with tales of famous palimpsests and their secret sub-texts. We were learning to be penetrating, to discern ”hidden meanings”; and we devoured even the sleazy tabloids and stuffed, like bookmarks, our academic textbooks with apposite cuttings. I recall my adolescent pride when I earned the circle’s (and the master’s) praise: I had ”solved” a famous pre-War murder case. In a lost corner of a jump-story in the Daily Mirror or the Journal-American(both of which were still being published then) I had found a revealing item reporting the names of the books and authors which the brutal young killer (named Lonergan, I recall) had been reading before the commission of his crime, thus establishing a ”deeper” motive or, at least, a literary motif. (What had Caesar’s murderers been reading before the Ides of March? What titles were at hand in Canterbury when Thomas à Becket was laid low in the cathedral?)

            I think of it now as constituting a special kind of what scholars call empirical research. In the hazy perspective of memory our ”investigative reporting” was roughly equivalent to Michael Ventris’ breaking the Greek code of Linear B (and opening up the true history of classical Cretan culture) or Theodor Mommsen’s poking around with ancient coins and epigraphs (in order to re-tell the story of the Roman Empire like-it-was). But, truth to tell, the pastime was for over half-a-lifetime sheer fun and games, and no such newspaper addicts were ever alone. The Nelson circle over five-cent cups of coffee –in one of the Bickford’s cafeterias near Washington Square or Morningside Heights – became, in time, a cosmopolitan international. There were many in far-away exotic places who, above and beyond their intellectual duty to the printed word, pored over the quotidian press, underlining quotations, scribbling in the margin, tearing out as neatly as one could the precious finds which could one day provide exquisite footnotes to history. I exchanged cuttings with François Bondy in Zurich, Edward Shils in Chicago, Dr. Hellmut Jaesrich in Berlin, George Urban in Munich, Leo Labedz in London, Friedrich Torberg in Vienna; and when we chanced to meet, armed with faits divers, the occasion soon became a small press festival. We recited our special scoops and eagerly bartered Xerox copies. Torberg was especially good on suggestive misprints, Bondy on embarrassing double negatives, Shils on clichés and buzz-words, Labedz on what in the East European press the GPU/KGBhad failed to notice. Some of us were building up a formidable library of clues to the larger meaning of things which had been preserved, according to our hypothesis, in the visible and readable surfaces of the day. The old credo still obtained, as in the early days when we were (as Eliot says) dropping questions on our plates and measuring out our lives in coffee-spoons.

            AND SO the addiction was both nature and nurture. Still, who knows newspapers who only newspapers know? This is often one of the shortcomings of our schools of journalism. What the papers say is dissected in a near-sighted ”content-analysis”; journalist pronounces upon journalist (for good stories, or engaged campaigning, or defective ethics). But a far-sighted critique would be to focus on that larger set of values, ideas, and attitudes which the democratic press is deemed to be fulfilling in our media-dependent society…or failing miserably. For my own part, flaunting no comprehensive philosophy of communication or totally committed politics, I confine my analysis of the language of journalism, the uncertainties of its faltering style, its hectic quest for incisive meanings (and the other media matters with which I will be dealing in this book) more to an implicit critique – naturally involving elements of my personal attitude, my own sense of logic and reason (and, I hope, of humor) – and rather less to an explicitmessage and all-encompassing media manifesto. I have been influenced by H.L. Mencken’s devotion to the drama of the word, not by his half-intellectual tendentiousness. I have been attracted by Marshall McLuhan’s thematic adventurousness, not by his over-heated or undercooled categories.

            While I am about it, I might as well confess to a number of other sources which might help the reader to explain what I have been, consciously or unintentionally, doing in these thousand pages. To some, I fear, the enterprise might appear a gigantic emptying of file-boxes (a conventional reproach for work studded with detail): outing huge collections of newspaper cuttings, and second-guessing them with glosses and annotations about style, meaning, vocabulary, and the like. There was once a book by B.H. Haggin, a distinguished New York critic, entitled Music for the Man Who Reads Hamlet; and this is a sort of a companion effort for readers who take thought…take the trouble to work at – and work through – their newspapers; for the media we may have may be our best, if not only, source of knowledge of the external world, offering us a singular chance to grasp what is happening in our times. Assembling many and diverse things, it will, I trust, be taken to be the work of a man who was, as befits his calling as an editor and publisher, subject to many and multifarious influences. Some were intellectual onslaughts: difficult to accept, painful to resist. Others were eccentric, if lasting, impressions on a New York school-boy whose mind was first exposed to logic and the scientific method by Morris Raphael Cohen and Ernest Nagel…and also to their very opposite: the romantic fallacies of Marx and Trotsky, illogical and unscientific, but which may still have left traces in the pages to follow. Still others taught me to be concerned with ”the color of things” and not only with their meaning, with the shape and sound of words and not merely with their artless message. Among them were two old-timers at The New Yorker: Frank Sullivan who instructed a generation of literary aspirants – standing at the crossroads, looking through the window of opportunity – how to sneer (with a smile) at a cliché; and A.J. Liebling on how to laugh at ”the wayward press”. Without further explication my ideal reader will be detecting further traces of influence from that elegant master of language, Jacques Barzun; from the late Sidney Hook, an indefatigable polemicist who nevertheless preached ”the culture of controversy”; from S.M. Levitas, publisher and fatherly censor at The New Leader, a social-democratic paper in Manhattan, with whom I learned how it is that some difficult truths sometimes, somehow, get lost in the printing shop, on galley, on page-proofs just before press-time… and from his young Managing Editor of the time, Daniel Bell, who wrote an enviable weekly column entitled ”Clippings without Comment” (I often provided the comment by sub-editing into the text pointed captions). The earliest professional advice came at a green teen-ager from his curmudgeonly ”faculty advisor” at the Clinton News, Raphael Philipson…and equipped with the elementary journalistic rules of how to write a lead (who-what-how-when etc.), and where to cut a story (from the bottom), together with a dozen proof-reading marks (to stet what had been cut), I went on to become a sports writer, a film and theater critic, a book reviewer, and a special foreign correspondent for the New York Sunday Times – what a distinction in its day! – associating with the likes of Lester Markel, James (”Scotty”) Reston, A.R. Rosenthal, Sydney Gruson, C.L. (”Cy”) Sulzberger, et al.

            One last pre-War recollection and acknowledgement: of my gratitude to Dwight Macdonald, unforgettable editor of Partisan Review (and, later, Politics) who became before his death in 1982 (and especially after) a so-called ”American cult figure” (largely because of his intensely eccentric criticism of the movies. He published in Partisan Review my very first serious article and invited me to my first Greenwich Village cocktail party (1941) at which I, to my eternal embarrassment, asked only for a glass of milk; but as a result of which my very sober conversations with Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, and Clement Greenberg left me with a new sense of intellectual acuity. Macdonald was a Yankee cracker-barrel ideologue with whom, after inviting him to London to help edit Encounter, I fell out uproariously. But for me, and for many young writers whom he favored, he was present at the creation of a special New York intellectual culture: in part political commitment, in part high journalism, bound together by an admirable cranky devotion to language and personal style. I thought of him often in the writing of the book.

            I shall leave to the unswayed opinion of the reader what I owe to the lesson of the subsequent forty years during which, in Berlin and in London, I edited two international intellectual journals, Der Monat (1948-1962) and Encounter(1958-1990), both devoted to literature and politics and enjoying some recognizable relationship to the newspaper culture of our time.

            Last and least – but still pertinent to the wild profusion of echo and allusion in the pages to come – I must mention that grand and infuriating work by that 17th-century master of flamboyant allusiveness, Robert Burton. I was introduced to his classic but little-read book, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), by a once famous London man-of-letters, Daniel George, who was preparing a small paper-back edition of what he judged to be ”a storehouse of learning, wisdom, and entertainment.” I have been reading in it ever since. I still have not determined what all the three beguiling volumes amount to in terms of theology and/or intellectual discipline, but it profited me even where it corrupted. (Samuel Johnson thought he overloaded the books with quotation; Burton was a ”chain-quoter”.) I have not been the same since. Whatever it may have been that Burton was after, possibly to win indisputably a long-forgotten argument and save a precious truth, he drew upon everything that came his way, from ”the whole world’s literature, sacred and profane, for precept and example, for legend and history and fiction, for every possible illustration or embellishment of his theme….” Who can fail to envy his magisterial performance?

             IF, in the beginning, there was the word or, as the biologist Richard Dawkins might say, the literary gene, compelling and word-devouring; and then there came to it an intellectual and academic element which the German philosopher Hegel, also a newspaper addict, considered a stimulant to insight and even truth…there is a third influence which derives from the transatlantic factor. It is the fact that I have lived most of my professional life as an editor and journalist as an American in Europe. This has proved to be ”a defining moment” in several senses.

            Most Europeans have had two souls in their breast, cultivating (on the one hand) their Eurocentrism with a pride in the Old World as the still living source of civilization and alternating (on the other) with a secret Goethean surmise that ”Amerika, du hast es besser,” a notion of America having it better – doing it better, making it better – as befits the last best hope of mankind.

            Most Americans had their roots in the Old World and uprooted them, exhibited pride in having established a New World, but periodically showed pious signs (as in the troubled credos of Jefferson, of Hawthorne, of Henry Adams and Henry James) of admiration and envy of lost motherlands.

Journalists are no exceptions to the rule of ambivalence. There have been recently two notable judgements on the state of Anglo-American deference, one from an editor of  The New Republic, the brilliant American weekly, who happened to be a Briton, the other from the American editor whom he replaced. The former (Andrew Sullivan) comes down on the Goethean side: American journalism, he finds, is indeed ”better”. It doesn’t have the flash and the wit and elegance of English writing but, then again, doesn’t have its superficiality, irresponsibility and, in the end, its unseriousness. His reply to the query, ”Why do the British chatter so wittily but say nothing of any substance?” is, substantitally, a contrast with –

 ”...the admirable earnestness of The New York Times and the Washington Post, with their po-faced foreign reporting and deadpan political analysis....The subjects of race, ethnicity, pluralism, feminism, sexuality have all seen their most vivid exploration in the US. When the Brits discuss race or the underclass they import American writers...The London Zeitgeist tends towards entertaining dilettantism, rather than addressing serious public concerns....[What is] readable, witty and sprightly, reeks of lassitude and decadence....The country positively sighs with cultural exhaustion...”

 Be that as it may (and it is true), the opposite – as in the famous paradox of Karl Kraus – is also true. The Oxford man’s ”Yankee-philia” is matched by the Washington man’s ”Anglophilia”. As Michael Kinsley admitted, in the mirror-imagery of recurrent transatlantic illusionism, his own deference ran the other way – in admiration of the nimble quickness, the fluent finish and, to be sure, the good grammar (most of the time) that is expended on a London newspaper’s daily output.

”...Perhaps it’s just my Anglophilia, but I still think that English journalism is remarkably lucid and intelligent, on average, compared with that in America....”

 We will leave it at that: a tie, a draw, a Mexican stand-off , and yet another example of the Anglo-American difference which is that of a shared culture separated by a common language

The standards and innovations, virtues and vices, differ in transatlantic perspective, but I treat them together in an interchangeable and, at times, a unified perspective, just as a literary critic, inquiring into the state of the contemporary novel or poetry or modern English-language literature in general, must perforce deal with writers from both sides of the Atlantic: James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and Saul Bellow, Kingsley Amis and John Updike. Paying attention in this way can illuminate the inter-related manner the Americans as well as the British report on the world around them.

            The reader will also note my effort to introduce a third ”newspaper culture”, in order to have a sort of control-test in matters of national parallelism (sophistication, populism, taboos) and international diffusion (slang, profanity, buzz-words). And so I have used in many chapters the serious German press, above all that distinguished West-German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which matches up with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the International Herald-Tribune (published in Paris but owned jointly by the Times and the Post). In England the sources for most of my references are to The Times (now owned by the ur-Australian, Rupert Murdoch), the Daily Telegraph (now owned by the Canadian, Conrad Black), and The Guardian(formerly of Manchester distinction). Occasionally I have added some weekly and monthly magazines in accumulating examples to attest to the splendors and miseries of our Anglo-American journalism. Two London dailies, both of which in their way aspire to be taken ”seriously”, also figure in the handbookish case-study materials assembled (viz.the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard). I have written as if The New Yorker’s famous ”old lady in Dubuque” (immortalized in Harold Ross’ phrase for the great non-reading reader in tennis shoes) – even if she doesn’t subscribe to any of the publications herein examined for what they tell us about the state of life and letters today – will be influenced or even, sooner or later, be caught up by the ”cultural mechanisms” I have been considering. For better or worse, I see the ”filtering through” or trickle-down effect everywhere in our copy-cat cultures.

 I USED to try and follow more newspapers than I do now, picking up at the nearest international kiosks Le Monde fairly regularly, along with the Corriere della Sera (not to miss a reportage by Luigi Barzini) and, later, Indro Montanelli’s Il Giornale. Rather more frequently I took the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, leafing through them all diligently, clipping them assiduously. The cannibalized remnants were, mostly, stuffed away in small used envelopes, but every now and then an odd batch of miscellaneous cuttings were air-mailed to a friendly editor abroad or to a foreign correspondent who might be stimulated to do a bright, thoughtful piece. 

            But I never lived long enough in France or Italy or Switzerland to feel any special empathy with their journals, to peer over the top of my newspaper and make out the three-dimensional realities in strange local colors which the reporters were supposed to be recording. With some effort I discouraged myself from trying to match what these papers were saying with the kind of life-and-letters I had come to experience in lands where I had lived long chunks of my own life. So I decided more modestly to confine the research for this book to the United States, where I was born and educated (and in whose armed services I did war-time duty); to post-war Germany where I edited and published a German-language monthly magazine (and it achieved a certain cultural influence and notoriety); and to Britain where my Anglo-American intellectual journal, Encounter, rarely gave me (and, I dare say, my readers) a dull moment.

            And now that my life is approaching a ninth decade, and I still manage to devour my bundle of the daily and periodical press, I realize poignantly, almost with a sense of distress and displacement, that my autobiography is a pieced-together patchwork, a tale of three cities. Without renewing daily contact with the latest messages coming from New York, Berlin, and London I can no longer be sure – as the philosopher said (to refer to Hegel once again), explaining his own nervous devotion to the morning press – that the realities are out there. To be sure, I pay attention less to the ”new appointments” than to yesterday’s obituaries but, for all that, I continue to be curious, as an old and obsessive devotee should, as to whether my former school-mates are still around and what my old clan of writers and poets, those ever-warring intellectuals, have now been up to. Over and above that, the unfolding account of yesterday’s events, of what by tomorrow will already be history – the continuing story, the headlines for what happens next – still keeps me on tenterhooks. We all live our lives with print and paper, and sooner or later we too become a news-item or, with luck, a jump-story to be continued next day.

            In all of this I have tried wherever possible – and it has not been uniformly possible – to repress my own subjective value-judgements as to the merits and demerits of the American, the British, and the Continental European traditions of journalism. I have spent most of my life reading what these papers have to say, and I have, as an American publisher, tried to pick and choose among attractive foreign models for printing a page, telling a story, for supporting a cause or winning an argument. As an inveterate magpie – my first published pieces were published in a school-boy journal of that name in the Bronx – I have always succumbed (alas) to the sentimentalism that, wherever I was, the grass was always greener on the other side. This is the nervous tic of bi-national, and indeed, cosmopolitan experience. The past induces nostalgia – my father reading his copy of the New York Times for fifty years of his life, and trusting every word the paper thought fit to print. The future is another country: now England (where every writer knows his Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and his prose echoes accordingly), now Germany (where they compose stories and dispatches, editorials and feuilletons, as if the high-brow readership included Goethe, Heine and Nietzsche). As for my first loves – the New York press which included such defunct unforgettable rags as the Daily Mirror, the Sun, Roy Howard’s World-Telegram, Hearst’s Journal-American, and the superb New York Herald-Tribune – one’s provisional prejudices and tentative judgements vary, as I say, with the distance or the locus in quo of the reader, and also what I, a transplanted American in Europe, have been forcedto recognize as the recurrent ”transatlantic illusion”. The great ocean divides; sail across it, fly over it, turn our backs on it, the great tides still unite and separate New and Old Worlds.

I have chosen some thousand ”practical examples” and have made an effort to relate them to some general attitude toward life and letters. I do not pretend, as I say, to have a general theory either of literature or language; and I like to think of Rousseau – discoursing in his essay on the Origin of Language (written in the early 1750s but published only after its author’s death in 1781) – rather modestly closing with an apology for his ”superficial reflections, but which others more profound may arise.”      What might arise –

 ”...would be the subject of a very philosophical examination to show by examples how much the character, the morals and the interests of a people influence their language.”

 I can only hope that my collection of examples, my chrestomathy (the tag is Mencken’s), can lead the reader in the right direction to a greater critical reflectiveness.

 FINALLY, three lines of heartfelt acknowledgement. To my patient wife, Helga Hegewisch, who was busy writing her own books and generously refrained (most of the time) from taking umbrage at the litter in the house, and from criticizing my ”messing about” with ”mere” newspapers. To my beloved sister Floria Lasky Altman, keeper of the family tradition, who kept the clippings coming. And to my friend and self-styled amanuensis Marc Svetov who (like most admirable and indispensable assistants, with an eye for bibliography and an ear for punctuation) earned the classic soubriquet: without whom this work would have been finished so much earlier.

                                                                        M. J. L.

February 1999.



Page II: Professor Benjamin Nelson, who died in 1977, was the teacher who first opened the world of scholarship to many young (and very provincial) students at City College. He wrote a major work on The Idea of Usury (1969) which he modestly referred to as ”only a long footnote” to the ideas of Max Weber on the Protestant ethos and the rise of capitalism. He was also author of a book on Freud and a collection of essays. I will be subsequently referring to him in the analysis of how our papers cover the story of an Islamic ethos and the rise of capitalist societies in the Middle East.

Page IV: H.L. Mencken (1880-1956): his most enduring work is his three volumes on The American Language (1919/1936). His memoirs of his ”newspaper days”, as well as the anthologies of his articles from his monthly journal, The American Mercury, are replete with stimulating remarks on ”newspaper culture.”

Page V: The text-book by Cohen and Nagel which we treasured, studying philosophy in our student days, was entitled An Introduction to Logic and the Scientific Method (1934).

            Of the two ”old-timers” at The New Yorkerone, the versatile humorist, Frank Sullivan (1892-1976), is largely forgotten. A.J. Liebling (1904-1963) is still remembered, not only for his witty studies of ”The Wayward Press” but also for other pieces of reportage (on sporting events, on restaurants serving grand food, and especially on World War II, e.g.Normandy Revisited (1958) and The Road Back to Paris (1944)). The anthologies of their ”best writings” are still worth looking into, especially Sullivan’s pieces on ”Mr. Arbuthnot” and his adventures among clichés. They both figure prominently in the histories of The New Yorker by Dale Kramer (1951) and Brendan Gill (1975).

Page VI: Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) left the Henry Luce establishment in the 1930s and emerged as a revolutionary Marxist (of the Trotskyist persuasion). Because of his achievement and talents in journalism, as an editor of Fortune Magazine, he brought an unprecedented freshness and vigor to the tired rehashing of old dogmas which passed for prose on the Left. There is a biography by Michael Wreszin (1994), many studies of his career – by Gregory D. Sumner (1996), Stephen Whitfield (1984), etc. – and a number of readable anthologies of old articles: Against the American Grain(1962), Discriminations (1974), Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1957; reissued as Politics Past, 1970), among others. His film criticism, especially that written for Esquire Magazine from 1960 to 1966, had a large, devoted following, and was collected in a paperback, Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1969).

            Jacques Barzun (1907-   ), well-known as an historian of ideas – I heard him lecture when I attended Columbia University. Among his widely-read books: Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1958), The Use and Abuse of Art  (1974), Teacher in America (1945), and Berlioz and the Romantic Century (1950). Of special importance to this book is his introductory essay to the volume on New York Times’ newspaper style by Theodore Bernstein (who wrote the Times ’ style book of the day,  Watch Your Language: A lively, informal guide to better writing, emanating from the News Room of The New York Times (1958)).

            On Sidney Hook (1902-1989) and the ”culture of controversy”, see his calm and sovereign autobiography, recounting a thousand stormy arguments of a long, polemical life: Out of Step (1987).

Page VI: There is a brief history of Der Monat which was published in Germany: Marko Martin, Orwell, Koestler und all die anderen: M.J. Lasky und ”Der Monat” (Mut Verlag, 1998). There are many histories of Encounter ”in progress” but none has yet been published.

Page VII: Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Love (ed. Daniel George, paperback in the New English Library, 1962). The full scholarly text – ”it can be eloquent, vigorous, coarse, poetic, concise, prolix” – has been published in three annotated volumes by the Oxford University Press: The Anatomy of Melancholy (eds. Faulkner, Kiessling, Blair, 1989/1994).

     The original book, published in 1621, went through five editions in Burton’s lifetime (he died at the age of 63 in the year 1639).

            I have delimited this Anglo-American comparative strategy to modest proportions: for I intend to be mainly concerned  with English-language journalism, and within that vast enterprise the mainstream publications of New York, Washington, and London.

            It would be fascinating and instructive to examine how the controlled Chinese press and the free Japanese newspapers have coped with the difficulties of modernism: slang, profanity, new coinages, buzz-words, etc. I have taken only an occasional side-glance at what the Germans have been doing as they wrestle with such problems of newspaper culture.

Page VIII: Andrew Sullivan, ”You Cannot Be Serious: Why do the British chatter so wittily but say nothing of any substance?”, Sunday Times, 26 November 1995, News  Review, p. 5. Michael Kinsley, Prospect , October 1995 (London), p. 4.)

            I have often written on the ”transatlantic factor”, and the reader may find a useful and, I suspect, revealing history of American attitudes towards Europe (on Jefferson, Hawthorne, Henry Adams, Henry James, et al.) in an essay published in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Morton White’s anthology of Paths in American Thought (1963). It originally appeared in Encounter : ”America and Europe: Transatlantic Images” (January 1962, pp. 66-78).

Page XIII: See Richard Kluger’s loyal tribute to past glories in his history of ”The Trib”, The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (1986).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essai sur l’origine des langues: où il est traité de la mélodie et de l’imitation musicale, available in a paperback edition, published in 1993 (Flammarion, Paris); and the remarks by R.A. Wilson, in his Miraculous Birth of Language (1937), chapter III: ”Rousseau (1712-1778): The Old and the New”.)



Preface, Language of Journalism