Oromaner on Lerner, 'Provoking the Press: (MORE) Magazine and the Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism'
Kevin M. Lerner. Provoking the Press: (MORE) Magazine and the Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2019. 290 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-2186-5.
Reviewed by Mark Oromaner (Independent Scholar) Published on Jhistory (November, 2022) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57951
Oromaner on Lerner, Provoking the Press
Prior to being asked to review Provoking the Press: (MORE) Magazine and the Crisis in American Journalism, I had never heard of (MORE). This was in spite of its New York-centric nature, my New York City background, and the fact that my father introduced me to the importance of reading a number of daily New York-based papers. Kevin M. Lerner, assistant professor of journalism at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, has written a well-documented, well-written, informative, and enjoyable read that has filled this lacuna in my education. Anyone interested in the recent history of journalism in the United States or New York City will also benefit from Lerner’s work. Finally, all readers will learn from the backstage actions and reactions of press leaders such as A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times and Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post. Lerner’s sources included institutional archives, histories, interviews with participants and other knowledgeable persons, and personal correspondence.
In telling the relatively brief history of (MORE) (1971-78), Lerner demonstrates that while
(MORE) never intended to tear down the establishment press, it was critical of the “bland, staid,
small-c conservative press that was reaching the mainstream” (p. 4). (MORE)’s management, staff, and contributors had strong ties to establishment journalism. J. Anthony Lucas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the Times, joined with former Newsweek media editor Richard Pollak to edit the publication. The founding trio was completed by the independently wealthy Post reporter William “Woody” Woodward. The trio formed a corporation, and, as a way of acknowledging the traditions of journalism, named it Rosebud Associates.
Although examples of criticism of the press in this country can be traced back to the late eighteenth century, and publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review and the Chicago Journalism Review existed prior to the 1970s, there were no contemporary institutionalized attempts to bring change to the norms of journalism. Finally, in the 1970s, a sustainable business model emerged to support the diffusion of press criticism to a broad, general audience. Two of the major ways (MORE) differed from other publications were that it attempted to reach an interested public in addition to the members of the journalistic profession, and, rather than supporting norms, it “sought to question them, in many cases, overturn them.” In particular, contributors to (MORE) saw objectivity and detachment “as too limiting a way for journalism to describe the world” (p. 12). What American journalism needed was a gadfly that would, among other things, remind writers that the scientific-sounding norms “objectivity” and “detachment” had come “to mean something more like ‘balance’ or even disinterestedness that many reporters felt stifled them and denied them their independent voice” (p. 40). Objectivity assured newspapers and their owners that they would not become too inflammatory and alienate readers or advertisers. (MORE) failed to achieve many of its goals. For its entire existence the publication never reached a circulation in excess of twenty thousand and never directly reached a large audience outside of the profession. However, through its direct influence on readers and through them, audiences outside the profession, (MORE) did have some impact on the intellectual aspects of journalism. As for financial support, (MORE) had to compete within a capitalist system and in particular with the role of advertising in the support of newspapers. (MORE) was always aware that it could go only so far in its criticism without risking whatever influence it had.
In the 1960s newspapers increasingly hired reporters who had been to college and were quite
sympathetic to many of the values of the youth culture. They were uneasy with the professionalization of journalism and particularly with the norm of “objective” reporting. Experimental writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese provided “alternatives to the dry, balanced, unbiased, and uncontroversial reporting that they had been trained to do—and that their editors and publishers insisted that they do” (p. 92). The New Journalism, as exemplified by writers such as Talese, Wolfe, and Joan
Didion, provided models of writing that rejected the norms of objectivity and detachment. And a
number of regional journals provided a direct influence to (MORE). In addition, two years before
the founding of (MORE) Talese had published The Kingdom and the Power, about his former employer, the New York Times. In 1979, a year after (MORE) was sold, David Halberstam published The Powers That Be. Both Talese and Halberstam had connections with (MORE). Finally, there was the model of the independent, muckraking I. F. Stone, the first recipient of the Liebling Award presented at the A. J. Liebling Counter-Conventions. The Counter-Conventions gave an opportunity for like-minded reporters from throughout the nation to interact with one another and with elite representatives from (MORE) and other media. All of this contributed to “reporter power.” The period of the 1970s was a transitional one during which news gatherers, writers, and editors asserted themselves as being more important than publishers. (MORE) played a role in supporting these changes and in reporting them.
From its initial regular publication in October 1971 until December 1973, (MORE) was a New York-centric publication. It was based in New York City, and it was more likely to focus on publications in that city than in any other. It especially focused on the New York Times. However, like the Times, it came to view itself as a national publication. It opened a one-man office, staffed by Brit Hume, in Washington, DC and held two of its five conventions outside of New York, one was held in Washington, DC, and one in San Francisco. Many of (MORE)’s recurring themes were established during its early years. These included journalists’ growing distrust of advertising, corporations, and the the government; monitoring of identity and interest groups in stories and in newsrooms; protection of journalists and their sources; protection against obscenity and censorship cases; and press ethics and accountability. Although (MORE) was not reluctant to criticize reporters, “the publication was much more likely to follow the lead of its patron saint, A. J. Liebling, and give the lion’s share of the distrust to the publishers” (p. 66). (MORE)’s aim was not to change institutions; rather, it was to keep the watchdogs from becoming lapdogs. Any real change in journalism was to be based on a more responsible and responsive press.
It was during this period that the United States faced some of its greatest challenges, including
cultural changes, the war in Vietnam, and the civil rights and student movements. For the most part the establishment press supported the power structures. “Watergate, on the other hand, showed that a mainstream paper (Washington Post) that was willing to devote time and resources to a story could actually break through the wall of spin that the establishment put up” (p. 110). (MORE) recognized that even after Watergate, writers still had to be hired and needed an outlet for their work. As long as it served to goad the establishment press, that press would not fully accept (MORE), and the alternative press would reject it as having been too accepting of the mainstream.
Lerner devotes almost fifty pages to the interplay between the “venerable watchdog newspaper”
(the New York Times) and the “gadfly” (MORE). Specifically he explores (MORE)’s attempt to get the
Times to run corrections on a daily basis on a prominent page. This would be a demonstration of
accountability and transparency. The Times does run corrections on various days. Since most of these are of a factual nature, I am not sure that they contribute much to accountability and transparency. However, I find a recent Sunday Opinion section (July 24, 2022) to demonstrate self-criticism on the part of the Times. The title of the section is “I Was Wrong” and the section contains revisits by eight Times opinion columnists to correct predictions and bad advice. The
institutionalization of a “I Was Wrong” section or a “We Were Wrong” section would demonstrate that (MORE)’s call for self-criticism, probably along with other factors, did have an impact on the venerable watchdog newspaper. Lerner points out that “the ideas that (MORE) advocated eventually found their way into the pages of the Times” (p. 150). However, as in this example, eventually can be a long time.
The second incident examined involves the work of the Harvard organizational scholar Chris
Argyris. Argyris was given access to the Times in order to research its organizational structure.
However, he was unable “to make direct interventions in the management structure of the Times” (p. 170). At the paper’s request Argyris disguised the name of the paper and those of staff who were named in the book, which was titled Behind the Front Page: Organizational Self-Renewal at a Metropolitan Newspaper. Although I doubt that readers with even a modicum of knowledge of newspapers would not easily identify the paper, “(MORE), which engaged in very intentional press criticism, decoded Argyris’s book, publicly forcing the Times to confront its managerial shortcomings” (p. 170). The refusal of the Times to examine itself in the same critical manner that it examined other prominent power centers “serves as a demonstration of the underlying anti-intellectualism of major news institutions, an unwillingness to turn their critical eyes on themselves” (p. 174).
In 1976 the magazine modified its design and name to More: The Media Magazine. The revised
More would add to its coverage television, film, radio, advertising, publishing, public relations, design, and marketing. This modification leads Lerner to comment that readers who were most concerned with the role of journalism in a democratic society “may have been dismayed at the turn toward attempting to reach a general audience” (p. 194). The role of journalism involved, above all, “the practice of gathering and disseminating news” (p. 193).
Even with participants such as Seymour Hersh, Nora Ephron, Brendan Gill, Nat Hentoff, and Liz
Smith, among others, “the counter-conventions ended with a bit of shrug, lost in the shifting
management of the last two years of the magazine and in the shifting priorities of its publishers and editors” (p. 201). The demise of More followed. However, soon before Michael Kramer sold
More to Dick Pollak, he prepared a list of what he termed “heavies.” His hope was to build circulation and donations to help keep More in business. A partial list of his eleven pages of heavies is included in the book (pp. 203-5). Lerner observes that “these are pacesetters for American journalism, and they were all reading-or at least subscribing to More as of 1977” (p. 206).
In a not-clearly-described process, More was sold to James B. Adler, owner of the Congressional Information Service, during 1977. Adler promised to expand the Washington coverage and to refocus the magazine on independent press criticism. However, in spite of all attempts to save More, the May 1978 issue announced that it would cease publishing after the June issue. More was sold to the Columbia Journalism Review. In spite of its demise as an independent publication, Lerner concludes with the fair statement that “maybe the magazine had influenced the press it covered. Certainly, it had managed to annoy the media, the primary role of a gadfly” (p. 215).
(MORE) may have acted as a gadfly and provoked some of the press; however, it was not the first to do so. In addition, there were the radical alternative publications. Lerner contributes the valuable insight that “(MORE) served as a bridge to bring some of these fresh ideas to the mainstream” (p. 219). Ironically, it appears that the mainstream journalistic affiliations of the publishers, editors, and contributors enabled (MORE) to play the role of gadfly. Today’s critical press, directly or indirectly, is standing on the pages of what some may refer to as a liberal, rather than radical, ancestor. Provoking the Press is an excellent introduction to the story of that ancestor and to what members of the journalistic community can do to enhance self-criticism and, perhaps, accountability. Radical approaches may be needed if the current crisis in American journalism is to be reversed. This is particularly true when former president Donald Trump calls the press “the enemy of the people.”
Citation: Mark Oromaner. Review of Lerner, Kevin M., Provoking the Press: (MORE) Magazine and the Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57951This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.