It was a copy of Holiday magazine for February, 1950, that had slipped behind the bookshelf and lain there for 32 years. It was devoted to the single subject of ''Washington'' with an article on ''The Press'' by the inimitable A.J. Liebling, which is probably why I saved it. He was analyzing the press and complaining about it, of course, because of its one-sidedness and the arrogant bias of far away editors. As I read it it brought back old days before television.
Of the American newspapers, Liebling asserted, ''perhaps a score have serious Washington bureaus''; they functioned (he said) behind the protective screen of the press associations: ''The St Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, and its rival, the Herald-Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Christian Science Monitor and a few other papers operate with some success on this old principle.'' He cited a few others - the Chicago Sun-Times and News, the Milwaukee and Providence Journals, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle for example, and then added that the list ''invoked by every apologist for the American press, is remarkably short.'' He thought this honored list served a total of perhaps only 3,000,000 readers.
The Liebling complaint reminded me of the great change that has come to American journalism in the past third of a century initiated principally, I think, by television. This permits every viewer to judge for himself and dilutes the power of editorial monopoly. I have just looked through another complaint of the same sort, the ''Washington Merry-Go-Round'' published anonymously in July 1931 by Drew Pearson and Bob Allen and the sensation of the day. Its last chapter on the Press named names and charged that many correspondents didn't write what they thought but what their absentee publishers required. ''There was never a time when an enlightened, liberal and intrepid press was more urgently and vitally demanded in the interest of good government in the United States than to-day,'' they concluded sadly.
Liebling agreed in part with this, but expressed it less stridently. ''Even the most casual newspaper readers know that, beginning in 1932, each winning presidential candidate has had a majority of newspapers against him,'' he wrote. Indeed, that was true. I looked it up the other day. In the 1936 Roosevelt-Landon election for example, the great bulk of the nation's editorial pages supported Landon who managed, poor fellow, to carry only two states, Maine and New Hampshire! As Liebling wrote in 1950: ''In the presidential election of 1948 it was hard to find pro-Truman newspapers except in the northern fringe of Southern states. In New York City, which voted for Mr. Truman, he had one paper out of nine, and that one, the Star, was so weak and small that it gave up the ghost a couple of months after the election.''
A good deal has been written in recent days about the faults of television in covering presidential campaigns and I agree with many of the complaints. Television tends to be superficial with too much attention given to the external flow and too little to the issues at stake. Television plays on the surface. But there were pre-television problems. The newspaper monopoly in a given town or state was not broken by the competition of a different type of coverage. Some publishers were venomously biased. Liebling pays his respects to them. In breaking down the press monopoly, some of the old liveliness and sparkle was lost and some of the newspapers, alas, were not able to stand TV competition and succumbed. But the individual citizen who cares to watch has a vastly wider and more intimate relationship to what is going on and greater evidence on which to judge.
Some 50 reporters on the Truman special train in the surprise election of 1948 unanimously told Newsweek magazine they thought Dewey would win. They got the magazine's ironical post-election citation as members of the Order of Erring Oracles. Wrote contrite New York Timesman James Reston afterward,
''We relied too much on techniques of reporting which were no longer foolproof...we were too isolated with other reporters; and we too were far too impressed by the tidy statistics of the polls...''
Yes, I remember. As Liebling put it, ''A great wave of contrition hit the Washington newspaper world in the days immediately following the joyous catastrophe, and men swore that they would go out and dig for the real truths of politics as they never had dug before. But few publishers encouraged them in their good resolutions,'' the writer added, ''and most of them are back again running errands designed to bolster their bosses' new illusions.'' The article of 1950 ends there. What Liebling didn't know was that television had arrived and that it would have a profound and often salutary effect on the business of political news gathering.