The Wayward Press: Tom Wolfe’s Obituary for A. J. Liebling in the New York Herald Tribune, December 1963

While rummaging through some old documents I came across a copy of the obituary for A. J. Liebling written by Tom Wolfe. Now a famed novelist and writer, Wolfe was then a young reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. This copy was the gracious gift of Harold Rosenberg, a legendary sportswriter in New York in the 40′s and 50′s. I met him at a family gathering of my college roommate, Robert “Buzz” Bernstein, back in the 60′s. I had mentioned my interest in A.J.to him, and Mr. Rosenberg said that Wolfe had written A.J’s obituary for the Trib. He then volunteered to dig up a copy from the Trib’s “morgue” , which I received a few weeks later. [1]

Mr. Rosenberg was — as is almost always the case with experienced journalists — a wonderful man. He later was the chief publicist for the New York Jets in their early days. I regret that I met him only this one time.

Journalists are among the least-appreciated craftsmen in our society. They dedicate their lives to learning how to tell stories in simple prose. We take their artistry for granted.

As a professional programmer I regret deeply that the writing of code is now deemed more valuable than the writing of journalists.

Reporters, like skilled programmers, are a dwindling breed.

I fear we shall appreciate the important role of journalists only when their craft has become a lost art, as the internet-driven process underway that is destroying print journalism nears its end.

The assault of technology on journalism is not a new story. For example, one of my closest friends from my high school days in Albuquerque, New Mexio, was Gene Griffith. His father, Paul Griffith, was both a newspaper publisher and one of the nicest people I have ever met. Born in Iowa, Paul was a long distance runner, as were two of his sons, including Gene. He moved to New Mexico, and was the publisher of a newspaper in Eastern New Mexico when Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash.

When I knew him, Paul Griffith spent his days being an outstanding person and also the operator of a linotype machine at the Albuquerque Tribune. It might have been the Albuquerque Journal, but that doesn’t matter, since one of the landmark decisions of the Supreme Court in the 1930′s was to allow the Journal and Tribune to merge their operations, so that both papers could survive.

My single most memorable memory of the craft that was required to publish a newspaper came one evening when Gene took me on a visit to see his Dad at work.

I have seen many wondrous technologies in my life, but the two that stand out are these:

  1. Seeing a black-and-white photograph develop under one’s eyes in a darkroom, as a chemical process that reaches down to the molecular level unfolds its magic;
  2. Seeing an ingot of lead fed into a linotype machine and watching hot type emerge at the other end. [2]

It was while watching Paul at work that I came to appreciate the magic that was print journalism, back when A. J. Liebling was one of its craftsmen. The former I learned a few years later when I had my own darkroom, and I think it worth noting that no digital technology can ever match the glory that comes from large glass plates using traditional photographic processes.

Computers are nice, but silver halide molecules are even nicer!

There is nothing, save perhaps the printing press itself, that comes closer to technological perfection than seeing cold metal turned into hot type.

Setting technology apart, I agree with Red Smith that the closest man has come to perfection is “90 feet from home to first base.”

As a example of a good reporter at work, here are some photos of Wolfe’s obituary for Liebling:

For example, note Wolfe’s mention of Ibn Khaldun, a famed Arabian historian, and author of the “Muqadimmah.” I once mentioned Liebling’s fondness for this work to Jack Schwartz. Jack said a few weeks later that he had read the work, and agreed that it was quite good. (I have read only part of it, and need to revisit it when time permits.)

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Note:

1. “Morgue” is the set of old clippings of articles published by a newspaper, “back in the day.”

2. Samuel Clemens, “Mark Twain,” was so seduced by this technology that he almost bankrupted his family, and so had to take to the road to give lectures. I vividly recall Hal Holbrooke’s solo performance of “Mark Twain Tonight” that I saw around 1960, when I was fifteen or so. You can distinguish those who have seen that performance by asking about “Halley’s Comet.”

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