Provoking the Press author Kevin Lerner exhumes press-critical journal from the ’70s

Here’s how Kevin Lerner characterizes the 1970s in his new book Provoking the Press: (MORE) Magazine and the Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism: “The 1970s were a time of conspiracies, cults, the all-surface-no-depth imagery of Andy Warhol, the self-revelation and self-promotion of the birth of reality television as represented by the television series An American Family, and also a period of multiculturalism, feminism, a lack of self-confidence and an eventual turn to conservatism, with the ‘squares’ becoming the hip by the time of Ronald Reagan’s election.” That heaping helping of descriptive analysis serves as the background for Lerner’s book, which examines not only the ’70s cultural stew but also the role played by the journalism of the day, as seen through the lens of a small, all-but-forgotten magazine called (MORE).

The magazine’s title was a reference to the mark reporters once placed at the bottom of a page of typed copy that indicated another page to follow. For the journalists to whom it was familiar, (MORE) was an apt title. It promised to reveal that there was – or that there should be – more to journalism than the country’s newsrooms acknowledged or even recognized at the time. Lerner’s book is an examination of how hard its founders and contributors worked to provide journalism’s missing pages to hidebound, self-satisfied newsrooms across the country.

Lerner, 42, is an assistant professor of Journalism at Marist College whose interest in the magazine and the era it covered is fired by his dual fascination with journalism and history. His wonder years were spent in the north Texas city of Arlington. When college beckoned, he was eager to get as far away as possible from Texas. He wound up at the University of Pennsylvania, where he saw his dream of being a writer of some kind (“probably racy spy novels”) dissolve under the weight of the English major’s “Great and Boring Novels” curriculum.

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Kevin Lerner

But his eyes were soon opened to the pleasures of literary nonfiction. Before long, he’d been accepted into Columbia University’s prestigious Journalism program.

While his future was taking shape there, he still considered himself a New Yorker-writer-in-waiting. He had a few close brushes. He’s the proud owner of a handwritten rejection note from the magazine. “And I did meet [New Yorker] editor David Remnick once,” he humbly offered over coffee at New Paltz’s Commissary last week. “He tapped me on the shoulder at a Greek restaurant and asked me how long the wait was.”

Since graduating from Columbia in 2000, Lerner has navigated through the then-emergent field of what he calls “CD-ROM journalism” all the way to his present position at Marist, where he began the saga of (MORE) as his dissertation.

Lerner drily noted that (MORE)’s critical mandate came at an unusual time: The ’70s were mainstream journalism’s greatest decade. Two cub reporters for the Washington Post had effectively brought down a hugely popular president. The New York Times had established a landmark First Amendment legal victory by publishing the Pentagon Papers. Though Richard Nixon’s hatred of the national press was boundless, he never publicly called its members “enemies of the people.” How could he or anyone else do so, when Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman embodied Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the movie version of their book, All the President’s Men?

But all was not well within the smoke-and-clatter-filled offices of newsrooms across the country, especially as the decade progressed. A new breed of reporter – college-educated, impatient for change, increasingly contemptuous of imposed “objectivity” – found themselves chafing at the industry’s conservative, reactionary and unquestioning ethos under which they were expected to do their jobs.

For J. Anthony Lukas, a co-founder of (MORE) and two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner, the absurdity of “objective” reporting became apparent while covering the notorious Chicago Seven conspiracy trial of 1969 for The New York Times. Lukas recognized it as a political show trial, but was under orders to treat it objectively, as a standard-issue criminal trial. When one of the defendants, antiwar activist David Dellinger, responded to a police officer’s testimony by shouting “Bullshit!” Lukas had to go to the mat with an editor who forbade such language. They finally agreed on the phrase “barnyard vulgarity.” The times – and the Times – were that puritanical.

Lukas was still a Timesman in 1971 when he and Richard Pollak and William Woodward III launched (MORE). It was to be – and indeed, it became – a “critical journal” that gave voice to newsroom grievances and alternate ways of viewing and reporting the news. It was, as Lerner makes clear, reformist rather than revolutionary. While it might have owed a debt to the antic, iconoclastic underground press of the day, it could be just as serious – and intellectually challenging – as the New York Review of Books.

And it attracted some of the brightest and the best reporters of the day: Nora Ephron, David Halberstam, Nat Hentoff. Its annual counter-convention was named after A. J. Liebling, whose elegantly written press criticism in The New Yorker was the unattainable ideal that many of the magazine’s writers often strove to emulate.

But (MORE) didn’t survive the decade that it covered. It died in 1978 at the hands of the usual villains: a tiny staff, shoestring budgets, an insecure advertising base and an ultimate failure to make the magazine appealing to a wide-enough general readership.

(MORE)’s focus on journalism captured the ’70s, with all their transitions and breakthroughs and stepping-off points, as no other publication then or since. And, while Lerner acknowledges that history doesn’t repeat itself exactly, there are some inescapable parallels to today’s similarly roiling decade. Not only are “the media” viewed as an enemy of the people by the president and his devotees, but also as a problematic frenemy by otherwise-reasonable people across the political spectrum. The book’s subtitle, The Crisis of Confidence in American Journalism, could easily be applied to a book about today’s conditions.

Attacks on a profession that has grown old and gray since its halcyon, heroic days are as common as online come-ons. But (MORE) wasn’t about attacking the press. And neither, Lerner says, will such attacks from any political quarter improve the chances of Americans discovering what Lerner unabashedly calls the real journalist’s quest: truth.

Today’s journalists, he believes, should effectively own up to backgrounds that right-wing critics condemn them for: that they come from good schools, that they live in “elitist” enclaves like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. “But they need to say, ‘We are doing our best to tell you what is happening. We’re not trying to trick you; we’re not in anyone’s pocket.’ I think we’d be better off as a media ecosystem if we had more different points of view.”

There’s even, he says, a parallel to (MORE) to be found today. Call it a sort of decentralized body of work that can provide the critical function that was (MORE)’s mission. Lerner believes we’re in “a golden age of gadflies” whose work is providing top-quality press criticism. He lists the Columbia Journalism Review, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and Eric Wemple, David Folkenflik and On the Media at NPR, Jack Shafer at Politico and Brian Stelter at CNN.

And the future of journalism? “I’m hopeful. With everything that’s going on, it helps to be a historian, in that you can see that we’ve gotten out of other things…I think that journalism is going to continue. I don’t think that the industry that we have right now is necessarily going to be what supports it, but in some ways, that’s what makes it so great to be teaching Journalism right now: because so much is going on, we don’t know what the future’s going to be.”

Kevin Lerner reading/book-signing, Saturday, June 22, 3 p.m. Barnes and Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue (Route 9W), Kingston; https://stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/2226.

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