- - Saturday, December 14, 2019

The phrase that America’s media-critic-in-chief has added to the English language — “Fake news!” — is catchy. But the sentiment is old wine in a new bottle. The press has always been under scrutiny in our democracy, its credibility experiencing far more downs than ups. 

Of relatively recent vintage is formal press criticism that’s dedicated to watchdogging the media. One of the first instances, according to Kevin M. Lerner, dates to the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Walter Lippman critiqued The New York Times’ coverage of Russia’s 1917-20 civil war — he said the newspaper failed to maintain the cordon sanitaire between the news side and the editorial side.  

If press criticism’s track record isn’t long, neither is it exciting. Watchdogging the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate usually produces studies that only media people read. But once upon a time, the late New York Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas aspired to attract a wider audience with MORE, a journalism review that lasted from 1971 to 1978.

Mr. Lerner, who teaches at Marist College, has written a history of MORE whose wider subject is how the events of that era — the Vietnam War, the violent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the ensuing trial of the “Chicago Seven” and the Watergate scandal — affected the press as an institution.

Mr. Lerner pretty much confirms what we knew about the deflationary and inflationary effects of those turbulent events: Respectively, an erosion of trust in U.S. institutions and a swelling of journalists’ sense of their own importance. But “Provoking the Press: MORE Magazine and the Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism” offers interesting slices of 1970s life, and shows that angst about our sickly news environment is habitual. Knowing this ought to help us put our worries in perspective. 

MORE was where reporters at mainstream outlets could vent their frustrations — those who, writes Mr. Lerner, “found themselves significantly to the left of their employers.” Edited by Lukas of The Times and also Newsweek’s Richard Pollak, the New York-based monthly ran articles by top writers, including Ken Auletta, David Halberstam, Nat Hentoff, Richard Schickel, Garry Wills, Nora Sayre, Calvin Trillin, Murray Kempton, Roy Blount, Lindsy Van Gelder, Christopher Hitchens and Michael Kramer. 

Even as MORE pointed out the faults of establishment journalism, its editors resisted adopting every countercultural enthusiasm that came down the pike. Lukas, especially, held the political radicals at arm’s length and liked to lampoon, in the pages of MORE, the New Journalism of people like Hunter S. Thompson. The monthly was fueled by “the energy of New Left anti-institutionalism” yet strove not to be dismissed as an “alternative publication.” 

That Lukas had little patience for Radical Chic can be seen in his Times reporting. When the organizers of the protests in Chicago were charged with conspiracy, he covered the 1970 trial. He captured the shenanigans of the defendants and their supporters, like the novelist Norman Mailer. The latter took the stand and dilated poetically (until the judge shut him down) on his feelings as he witnessed the clashes between police and protesters.  

Mailer probably hated MORE. It irreverently printed pieces that had been spiked by mainstream publications. Susan Brownmiller’s negative review of Mailer’s negative book on feminism ran in MORE rather than in Life magazine, which had originally commissioned the review. Mailer apparently leaned on Life’s editors, who “engaged in duplicity and conflicts of interest” in killing Ms. Brownmiller’s piece.  

MORE was part of a golden age of magazine-writing. Whether the 1970s was a golden age of press criticism (Mr. Lerner claims so), I have my doubts. True, it did badger The New York Times into prominently displaying corrections of errors. Credit for that reform must be shared, for Mr. Lerner notes that MORE was inspired by an influential essay on journalistic ethics in Commentary magazine by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

MORE’s writers set about tracking (and deploring) the consolidation of ownership of media properties and admonishing reporters not to “take freebies from the people they covered.” It held a workshop for reporters on “how to fight subpoenas.” 

Why didn’t the publication last? Well, most don’t. They cost a lot of money. In MORE’s case, coverage of Watergate took over the monthly and it “seems to have gone into something of a lull of creativity” after President Nixon resigned. 

“Watergate changed the self-regard of the press significantly,” Mr. Lerner writes, politely. One of MORE’s chief contributors, Nora Sayre, was less polite in her book “Sixties Going on Seventies”: “As the waves of Watergate broke afresh each day, the press embarked on a gloat-glut: many reporters were congratulating themselves as though they had cracked the story. Quite a few felt that the media had regained its credibility only because Nixon had lost his.”

Well said. Contrary to legend, it wasn’t the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein that bagged Nixon; nor will it be Jim Acosta who boots President Trump from office, should that happen. If impeachment ends the Trump presidency, it will once again be due to the actions of the other two branches of the federal government. Any reports to the contrary will be fake news.

• Lauren Weiner is a writer in Baltimore.

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By Kevin M. Lerner

University of Missouri Press, $34, 277 pages

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