Having written a biography of H.L. Mencken, who is, like Abraham Lincoln and Dorothy Parker, one of those people who gets credited with having said a great many things he didn’t actually say, I’ve long been suspicious of the provenance of a quote that is almost always attributed to A.J. Liebling, usually in this form: “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” (Not surprisingly, I’ve also seen it credited to Mencken.) It’s a great line, and it’s the sort of thing Liebling would have said if he’d thought of it–but did he?
I thought of asking the New Yorker-obsessed proprietor of Emdashes if she could shed some light on the matter, but then it hit me that as a happy owner of The Complete New Yorker, I might be able to use that unwieldy but nonetheless invaluable tool in order to pin down the quote. So I popped in a CD-ROM and started clicking away, and within minutes I had the facts in hand.
Sure enough, Liebling really did say it, or something very much like it: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The remark was a parenthetical throwaway tucked into a “Wayward Press” column called “Do You Belong in Journalism?” published on May 14, 1960, and his subject, it turns out, was the rise of the one-newspaper town.
Here’s part of what he wrote:
A city with one newspaper, or with a morning and evening newspaper under the same ownership, is like a man with only one eye, and often the eye is glass….
What you have in a one-paper town is a privately owned public utility that is Constitutionally exempt from public regulation, which would be a violation of freedom of the press. As to the freedom of the individual journalist in such a town, it corresponds exactly with what the publisher will allow him. He can’t go over to the opposition, because there isn’t any. If he leaves, he ends his usefulness to the town, and probably to the state and region in which it is situated, because he takes with him the story that caused his difference with the management, and in a distant place it will have no value. Under the conditions, there is no point in being quixotic….
In any American city that I know of, to pick up a paper published elsewhere means that you have to go to an out-of-town newsstand, unless you are in a small city that is directly within the circulation zone of a larger one. Even in New York, the out-of-town newsstands are few and hard to find….The news magazines–without going into their quality, which would explode me–carry little news, in the course of a year, of any one particular state or city, and what they do carry is usually furnished by a stringer who works on the local paper. News broadcasts offer even less, because often the newspaper owns the radio station, and because television and radio have been pulling steadily out of the news field and regressing toward the animated penny dreadful.