Friday, January 27, 2023


I'm not sure I could even name a favorite A.J. Liebling column.* Last couple decades, I've been much more in the "what delicate filleting from seven decades ago does this bit of brain-dead yapping from Fox News remind me of the most?" Monday, it was "Antepenultimatum" (Sept. 27, 1946). 

Liebling's topic was a "conspicuously civilized note ... telling the Yugoslavs that if they didn't rurn loose the surviving occupants of two American planes shot down by them, the United States would complain to the Security Council." He likened this to threatening your obstreperous neighbor with a lawsuit, rather than threatening to break his neck: "An ultimatum, I had always understood, is a threat to break the neck. ... Serbia received an ultimatum from Austria in 1914."

Imagine my delight when Fox's No. 4 story Monday morning** (the above is from around 8 Eastern) proclaimed that Poland had announced plans to send the Leopard 2 main battle tank to Ukraine, despite Germany's interest in delaying: 

Morawiecki said Poland had been building a coalition of countries prepared to send Leopards to Ukraine even without approval from Germany.

"We will ask [Germany] for permission, but this is a secondary theme," Morawiecki said. "Even if, eventually, we do not get this permission, we — within this small coalition — even if Germany is not in this coalition, we will hand over our tanks, together with the others, to Ukraine."

Back to Liebling:

Journalists, and especially the fellows who write for the press assocations, have a habit of using the strongest word they can think of in the lead of a story, even when the word really means something else. Headline writers often base their eye-smackers on the strongest word in the lead. That's the only reason I can think of for the use of the word "ultimatum" in every New York newspaper on Thursday, August 22."

You can see why, after a dose of ULTIMATUM GIVES TITO 48 HOURS TO FREE FLYERS, YUGOS GET ULTIMATUM and the like, Liebling "felt like we had left the diving board and would hit the surface of the third World War any second." (And if you too had had enough of UKRAINE: WORLD WAR III OR COLD WAR II? by the end of February, I expect he was nodding along.)

The fun continued when the story moved into the lead around 10 a.m.:

Germany will not stop Poland from delivering Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Germany's foreign minister announced Sunday.

If Germany has mastered time travel to the point where it can cave in on Sunday to the Monday ultimatum, the rest of NATO should worry a bit that it doesn't send the damn things back to, oh, October 1941 or so. But I digress.

Liebling took himself to the references, starting with "a ninety-five-cent dictionary which I bought one time in a cigar store and which gives only one meaning for each word" and ending with the 13-volume Oxford, which gave pretty much the explanation the OED has today: 

In diplomacy, the final terms presented by one power (or group of powers) to another, the rejection of which may lead to the severing of diplomatic relations, and eventually to a declaration of war.

Because the OED is a fine place to play "that's been a verb longer than Missouri has been a journalism school," the next entry (barely two years younger) is worth noting:

A final condition or stipulation; one's last word on a matter.

Not everything in news is subject to the sort of know-it-when-I-see-it framing contagion that makes for crises or tragedies. Newsrooms are -- usually -- still careful to look up "hurricane" or "blizzard" before declaring one, even if they're consistently careless with "hurricane-force winds." And terrorism is often carefully licensed; it's always worth noting when an outlet like Fox calls "terror" on its own and when it waits for permission. sLiebling suspects a form of the latter: "a State Department public-relations official who, asked at a press conference 'if it is all right to call this thing an 'ultimatum,' may have answered, 'Sure, boys, go ahead.'"

With all that logged in, though, there's a point to Libling's prescriptivism: " I fear that I detected, in their taking the gloomiest possible view of the situation, a certain eagerness on the part of most of the newspapers" -- evidenced by what he saw as the Mirror's later regret that the pesky Yugoslavs had complied. Given the choice between Media Conspiracy and Media Stupid, my money is usually on the latter, but when Fox is out ahead of the world on the ultimatum front, I'm always inclined to give the old guy a listen.

* Granted,it's hard to go wrong with "Offers and Demands" (Jan. 26, 1963), but look at the competition
** The story at the link has been updated, though it still has the "5:49 am" time stamp.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Now you're going to make me unwrap my crumbling paperback copy of "The Press" and look up the column. Did Liebling really write "Yugoslavia in 1914" and Harold Ross's fact-checkers let that one through?

7:41 AM, January 31, 2023  
Blogger fev said...

Nope, that was me. Thanks for the correction, and any trip to a crumbling copy of "The Press" is rewarding.

9:31 PM, March 05, 2023  

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