Remembering the Wayward Pressman

The New Yorker marks the centennial birthday of the late A.J. Liebling, a writer whom I regard as the funniest American journalist of all time.

Liebling, a quintessential New Yorker born on Manhattan's East Side, covered subjects like boxing, food, and World War II with affection for people on society's margins and colorful flakes like Louisiana Gov. Earl Long.

He may be remembered best as a press critic. Liebling devoured newspapers like a weblogger, poring over a dozen each morning for "Wayward Press" essays on the sins and self-importance of his profession. When Josef Stalin died in 1953, Liebling composed a hilarious piece on the American press never letting distance or a lack of first-hand knowledge interfere with the certainty of its reporting:

Within a week after Stalin's announced demise, the American public knew that he had died of natural causes or had been murdered subtly, either on the date named by Pravda or several weeks earlier; that the people of Moscow had demonstrated grief but (a Journal-American scoop) the demonstration had been a carefully organized fake; that his death portended either a hardening or a softening of policy toward the West, which, in turn, would lessen or increase the chances of open war; and that his death would either precipitate an immediate struggle for power among the surviving leaders or impel them to stand together until they got things running smoothly. It was freely predicted that in the event there was a struggle Malenkov would destroy his associates or his associates would destroy him. The subject permitted a rare blend of invective and speculation -- both Hearst papers, as I recall, ran cartoons of Stalin being rebuffed at the gates of Heaven, where Hearst had no correspondents -- and I have seldom enjoyed a week of newspaper reading more.

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