It Was Never Pretty
The front page of last Sunday's Metropolitan section in The New York Times had two articles on important subjects. One was about the state of the city from the perspective of local neighborhoods, the other about the availability of abortions. Both of these stories were below the fold. Occupying the entire upper half of the page was a major feature about yoga, with an enormous accompanying color photo. Let me write the topic of that front-page piece again lest anyone think it's a typographical error: Y-O-G-A. No offense to anyone who practices yoga and no doubt derives great benefit from it, but it is terribly disappointing to think that there's an editor at the Times who actually deemed that story more newsworthy than the other two.
In the same day's paper, the front page of the Arts & Leisure section carried the final installment of Anthony Tommasini's series on the 10 best classical music composers, with an outsize portrait of the thoroughly deserving Johann Sebastian Bach. Thoughtful essays on the merits of various major figures in the history of music are always welcome, and Tommasini's articles did include some original observations in a well-trodden arena. But that's not what these articles were about. This was a 10-best list of the sort normally left to news outlets that have only a tenuous claim on the profession of journalism. At one time, the Gray Lady would have looked down her nose at such a performance from a well-earned great height. It was not merely its unavoidable subjectivity that made the series objectionable; every music lover could come up with a top-10 list of his or her own that would vary greatly from the author's, and still be just as valid, which Tommasini readily admitted from the outset. Why a list that includes Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok, but not Handel, Haydn or Chopin? Verdi and Wagner but not Puccini? How ridiculous. And it gets worse: Tommasini wrote that his editors insisted, as a condition of writing the series at all, that he rank them in order from one to ten. How humiliating.
Of course, the Metropolitan and Arts & Leisure sections are not really the heart and soul of the paper (though some metro reporters would cringe at the thought of it). The main news sections of the Times are still filled with hard-core reporting from all over the world, though quite a bit less of it than in times past. Anyone who has had anything to do with newspapers knows that there is a daily competition among editors and reporters for column inches, with the editorial board making the final call on which stories deserve the prime spots and how much of the paper's precious real estate they will occupy. It must be deeply dispiriting to reporters who sometimes risk their careers and even their lives in war zones and other remote corners of the globe, who spend their working days pursuing serious stories like the misery of the long-term unemployed or the plight of orphaned refugees, to see more pages of the paper devoted to sports, food, home design and wedding announcements than to the real news. Granted, there's a lot more news in the online version of the paper, but that is a mere consolation prize to a reporter. Any fool with a computer and an Internet connection can use the web as a personal soapbox (yours truly included). The only byline worth fighting for is still the one in print — just ask any professional writer.
At the same time, there is hardly a newspaper still in print that hasn't faced extinction in the last few years, and that isn't grappling constantly with the challenge of not being drowned in the torrent of the Internet. The reality is that the "lifestyle" sections sell papers — or at least their publishers think they do — and help to underwrite the paper's "real" business. Traditional sources of revenue have collapsed. Classified advertising, for example, once a steady and considerable portion of the industry's income, has all but evaporated in the face of free online competition. Editors and reporters know that the non-news sections of the paper are what's keeping it alive, just as letter carriers know that without junk mail the post office would be finished. But they don't have to like it.
Worst of all, the degradation of the news has not been news for some time. Even at their apex, newspapers always depended on delivering something sensational and out of the ordinary to beat the competition: hence the almost mythical daily quest for a "scoop". It has seldom been a noble profession. The recent Murdochization of American news is little different from the Gilded Age, when wealthy men founded newspapers and practiced the most nefarious smear-and-run journalism for the express purpose of advancing their own business interests, and the interests of other powerful people with similar views. We of a certain age were spoiled by living through serious journalism's only period of high repute, during the middle decades of the last century, when the issues of the day were so dire that the culture demanded a commensurate degree of seriousness from its newspapers. It is hard to imagine the triviality that now counts as news juxtaposed against the grim realities of the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam and Watergate. Nonetheless, newspapers still left plenty of room for the funnies, sports, and advice columns for housewives and the lovelorn. The news divisions of the major television networks, hard-headed as they were in the eras of Murrow, Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley, were perpetual loss-leaders. Their corporate bosses invested heavily in them because they could not imagine a network being taken seriously without serious newsmen on the air. Profit was never part of the equation. No longer, and how the news has suffered as a consequence. So much for market-driven solutions.
Something had to be done to prevent the best newspapers from going under altogether, and the dumbing down of the news was neither unexpected nor a novelty in the history of the business. But for The New York Times to stumble down that road feels truly like the loss of something vital. It has been a gradual process, and the Times, however diminished, is still a beacon in an ever darkening landscape of hostility and silliness. As for the great, independent voices of 20th century journalism, we will probably not see their like again, even on the pages of what's left of the Times.
January 27, 2011
Go to top of page
Return to home page
Send an e-mail
All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.