American newspapers have been looking down their collective nose at the British press for as long as I can remember. No, longer than that. Browsing a battered 1961 edition of The Press, a collection of navel-gazing pieces by AJ Liebling from The New Yorker, I was amused, but not surprised, to stumble across the views expressed in 1946 by Charles Gotthart, a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent filing from New York (the Big Apple being as foreign as Timbuktu to some Chicagoans).
Gotthart had been sent by his paper’s proprietor, Colonel Robert McCormick, to write a series on newspapers and magazines of "the East". The headline on the first piece read THE ALIEN EAST: A THING APART FROM AMERICA, so one can see immediately where Gotthart was coming from – and it wasn’t New York. Nor Britain, for early in his observations he wrote: "With all its shortcomings, the eastern press is still superior to that of England, where journalism is not acknowledged of equal rank with other professions." He went on to observe that New York’s reporters "are vastly better off than their British brothers, who call themselves ‘journalists’, and have to use the back entrances and servants stairs". Liebling was scathing – and very funny – in deflating the pompous Gotthart, but the idea that British newspapermen are an undisciplined, ill-educated bunch of backdoorsteppers lingers still in some journalistic areas of the US. Come to think of it, it lingers in some areas of the UK, too, but that’s a different story.
The truth is that, overall, Britain has the best press in the world. There is much to criticise, and I am among those who frequently do so, but a leisurely drive through New England and a long weekend in New York earlier this month reconfirmed my view that most American newspapers are about as dynamic as candyfloss and as nourishing as a hotdog.
The majority of small city papers are useful only for finding what’s on at the movies or on TV. The monopolies that most non-national British papers now enjoy may have done nothing to improve local journalism – in the area of suburban and rural weeklies, the removal of competition has been catastrophic – but many dailies and evenings retain a cutting edge that is totally absent from their flabby and appeasing American counterparts.
In New York, neither the Post nor the Daily News matches the professionalism of any of the British national tabloids. I do not pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the city and wonder if Colin Myler, the former Mirror Group editor now less than a year into the managing editorship of the Post, has yet adjusted from the rarefied atmosphere of Canary Wharf to the cacophony of the city that never sleeps.
The Murdoch-owned Post is a sloppy product: a front-page splash about the jail sentence looming for a public relations hotshot who "mowed down" 16 people with her father’s Mercedes failed to report the severity of the injuries to the unfortunate pedestrians. Little of the news content appears to be dug up by staff reporters, and – eat your heart out, David Yelland and Peter Hill – a story about a Mississippi man jailed for having sex with a horse was relegated to four downpage paragraphs on page 25. (The Post failed to reveal the sex of the horse but did record that the perpetrator was also ordered to avoid any further contact with it.) The fact is that big-circulation American papers are as parochial as ever they were. The PR woman’s accident over which she was about to stand trial happened last year, so presumably most New Yorkers were familiar with the story. For anyone else picking up the Post, it was irritatingly short on facts. And the horse whisperer – sweet nothings, I presume – was up to equine high jinks in Mississippi. Had he galloped into Brooklyn to take his love to dinner, the story might have made page three.
When, a few years ago, I was travelling frequently in and out of Los Angeles, I was constantly amazed that the LA Times carried so little news from the East Coast of the country, let alone from abroad. In other major cities, it often seems that coverage ends at the city limits.
There are notable exceptions, of course. The New York Times may be stuffy and frequently guilty of lazy headlines, but it contains some fine writing. The Washington Post, although lacking the dynamism of its Watergate days, remains a journalistic force.
But it’s about time they all stopped looking across the Atlantic with such disdain. Most American newsmen would last five minutes on the Street of Misadventure.
No sooner had I congratulated The Observer for holding a humdinger of an executive think- tank, at which three editorial heads of department ended up with injuries after some enthusiastic "bonding" and a friendly football match (Press Gazette, 19 July), than I stumbled upon a report of an awayday that made The Observer’s sound like a tea at the vicarage.
I am indebted to Montreal columnist John Kalbfleisch, writing in The Gazette, for news of the annual picnic of the Montreal Typographical Union, No176 – a wayzgoose to British printers – at Ile Grosbois, one of the Boucherville islands in the St Lawrence.
Early in the proceedings, a Miss Howlett was struck in the shoulder by a rifle bullet: "Fortunately, the bullet merely grazed her and immediate fears that she had been seriously injured were unfounded," writes Kalbfleisch. Later, when several hundred picnickers were standing on a wooden pier waiting to board the boat back to the city, a section of the pier collapsed and some 40 men, women and children were pitched into the river. As the water was only about three feet deep, hauling them out wasn’t too difficult, but in the panic one of the rescuers, a policeman, lost both his vest and his gold watch.
This catalogue of calamity took place 100 years ago and, along with Kalbfleisch, I marvel at the sang-froid of the Gazette reporter of the time, who concluded his story thus: "Leaving out the excitement that came at the conclusion of the day’s outing, the picnic was one of the most successful ever held under the auspices of the Montreal Typographical Union."
Note to Observer executives: must try harder.
In my last Medialand column I criticised the Sunday Express and reporter Paul McMullan for failing properly to substantiate claims that a particular massage parlour had advertised in Loot, the advertising paper owned by Associated Newspapers. I got it wrong. Although a sentence in the story was ambiguous, had I read an accompanying picture caption I would have realised the establishment had indeed advertised its wares in Loot. My apologies to the paper and to Paul McMullan.