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'Uncensored commentaries'? Yeah, right!

FENWICK ISLAND, DEL. — FENWICK ISLAND, Del. - After the scandal of its faked reporting, suspect datelining, favoritism and PC imperatives, The New York Times announced that it will name a "public editor." The paper's story on the announcement described that as an "ombudsman [with] license to write about issues of our coverage and to have those independent uncensored commentaries published in our pages."

With the approach of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's annual Mencken Day speech Sept. 7 (this year by Terry Teachout, author of the latest Mencken biography, The Skeptic), let me say this about the Times' forthcoming "independent uncensored commentaries": Yeah, right.

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H.L. Mencken couldn't do it, and if he couldn't do it, nobody could. As journalist and journalism critic Richard Pollack once put it, "Mencken practically invented journalism criticism." He was an ombudsman when there was no such word except in Sweden.

Mencken wrote a lot about the practice and practitioners of newspapering. He did that in his Sunpapers columns, in the magazines he edited, in other magazines, in books, in his diary, in a multitude of letters to his many colleagues in the business, in speeches, and in memos and conversations with executives at the Sunpapers, where he worked for more than 40 years (with a few timeouts) until he had a stroke in 1948. He was not only a columnist and reporter there but also a Sunday Sun editor, an Evening Sun editorial page editor, and, for years, a member of the board of directors of the A.S. Abell Co., which owned the papers.

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His own "independent uncensored commentaries" included such rousing insights as: "The average American newspaper, especially of the so-called better sort, has the intelligence of a Baptist evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a Prohibitionist boob-bumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer."

And: "I know of no subject, in truth, save perhaps baseball, on which the average American newspaper, even in the larger cities, discourses with unfailing sense and understanding."

And this on the typical Washington correspondent: "He is a man without sufficient force of character to resist the blandishments that surround him from the moment he sets foot in Washington."

Usually he generalized, but he could be specific, too. For instance, in a speech to a conference of editorial writers, he said of Frank Munsey, a capitalist who had owned newspapers in New York, Baltimore and elsewhere, "I am glad Munsey is dead and I hope he is in hell!"

But when Mencken wrote for publication about his friends and colleagues in Baltimore, he was kind and generous.

In 1976, I delivered the Mencken Day speech. I was invited because I had edited a collection of some of his writing on journalism (A Gang of Pecksniffs). I said then that it was possible, even probable, that he was pulling his punches when he wrote for publication about people at The Sun, The Evening Sun and The Sunday Sun.

Why did I think so? He had begun writing that diary in the 1930s, and in the 1940s he wrote a three-volume Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work. He had both sealed, deposited at the Pratt and embargoed until 25 and 35 years, respectively, after his death, plus a similarly sealed and embargoed four-volume collection of "letters and documents relating to the Sunpapers." Hmmm.

He died in 1956. After 1981 and 1991, researchers were able to read at last his unvarnished assessments of his Baltimore colleagues. They were brutal! His worst deprecations were those involving top-level editors (one had "highly elastic principles"; another was "a bigot" whose editorials were "idiotic"; the Sunpapers writer second only to Mencken himself in national standing professionally was "a notably stupid ... second-rate Southerner") He also mused sourly about his longtime publisher and the chairman of the board.

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These were people he had socialized with for years and who regarded their relationships with him as those of close - in some cases the very closest of - friends.

Maybe the Times can find a critic who is knowledgeable about newspapering and brave enough and is allowed to be just as critical of its policies, performance and personnel as its political writers and drama and movie critics are allowed to be critical about their subjects. But my guess is that his or her work will not always be deemed fit to print by the topmost brass.

The final say-so is the publisher's, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. When Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says the ombudsman's access to the publisher will be "guaranteed," that sounds like a veiled threat to me.

Once the Times had a sort of de facto or ad hoc ombudsman. That was Sydney Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a foreign correspondent, then wrote an op-ed column on metropolitan issues in the 1980s.

Schanberg wrote that the Times was "venal" in dealing with the city's business establishment in connection with a disputed development proposal. The then-publisher, the senior Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, charged him with having "peed" on the Times, fired him as a columnist, and he resigned.

There's an old Swedish saying: An ombudsman who can't pee on his own paper from time to time is no ombudsman at all.

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Theo Lippman Jr. was an editorial writer for The Sun from 1965 to 1995.

For the record

An article in Sunday's Perspective section gave the wrong date for the Enoch Pratt Free Library's annual Mencken Day speech. It will be given by author Terry Teachout on Sept. 13.The Sun regrets the error.


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