Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Why I Love The New York Times

10 February 1897, via Cincinnati Enquirer.


The most important thing I had to say about The Times the other day wasn't said by me, but the editor who was so rudely dismissed:

This is a feeling I've been kind of working on for a couple of years, especially in Twitter conversations with our old pal formerly known as Thornton, who has his own thesis on the subject of the US press with a foundation I don't totally disagree with—that the solution to the problem of papers that are terrified of looking partisan is to have them be partisan, for which we have contemporary models from The New York Post (bad!) to The Guardian's US edition (good!) as well as the whole history of North American journalism going back to the 18th century until after World War II, when this concept of rigorous institutional objectivity arose along with the concept of special professional qualifications for journalists, who mostly hadn't even gone to college before and now tend to be from Ivy schools and are expected to get advanced degrees from J-school and in some cases getting paid correspondingly, in six- and even seven-figure incomes, and are so abstracted from the world the rest of us live in that they often seem to have no sense of what is and isn't important.

But we need newspapers even if they're bad, and there's something about The Times in particular that is different, for me, not that the critiques don't apply—they do!—but that my relationship to it is different. I don't think of it as a company of which I'm a customer, but like Lauren Wolfe as a kind of community of which I'm a citizen.

This partly stems from my own autobiography—from being a kid in upstate and watching my dad haul the Sunday edition home from the Palace Cigar Store every Sunday morning, three or four pounds of it, with a cigar he took to the bathroom with the magazine for the puzzle while I got first dibs on the Review of the Week, which I was expected to read for school (seventh grade), but partly from the sheer hugeness of the institution, which corresponds to the hugeness of the product, the vastness of its coverage, the enormity of its international reach. It's less like a thing one picks up than a place one goes to, or where one always is, especially now that it's almost entirely online for me. When it enrages me, as it does almost daily, it's personal. I hate The New York Times because I love it. No other newspaper is worth the trouble of hating.

That hugeness is comparable to the big radio organizations I also love, BBC and NPR. I'm literally a citizen of NPR, since I pay them a voluntary monthly tax through my own station in spite of knowing I don't have to in order to have access to it, and I get enraged in the same way, not with the haughty contempt I might have from time to time over some stupidity from CNN or MSNBC or WaPo, but with passion and pain—and I've also lived with it for a long time (does everybody know I used to be a classical music announcer back when practically everybody was a volunteer, at the Buffalo campus station?). It's like being a citizen of a country for me. I don't break up with the United States because it's bad. I vote, and I suffer, and I try to do my part to make it better.

Another important thing about the hugeness of The Times is a sense that it's ungovernable anyway. I can't get with the sense some of you have that it's got a singular, evil purpose, represented by the machinations of Dean Baquet or the Sulzberger of the moment. I understand it's a business, with a primary mission of selling ads, but since the ads are for everything, that's not even a limitation. Like a real community, it's a collection of individuals, working out purposes of their own, officious managers and subversives in the lower ranks, of whom Lauren Wolfe may after all have been one. Where the paranoid sees a buried lede in paragraph 26 as an editorial conspiracy to hide a fact from the reader (why not just leave the fact out?), I see a reporter's move to slip a time bomb past the editor's eye. Things are constantly happening at The Times that the editor doesn't know about. Just as with a great city you don't want to stick to the tour buses and the restaurant at your hotel, so with The Times you should make an effort to explore the byways and the outskirts, the disreputable little joints, the student hangouts, and the parks.

Oh, and the contract columnists, the little petting zoo of opinions in their 800-word cages, are the least important part of the paper. If you don't want to look at Bret Stephens, just walk on by (but follow Krugman's Twitter feed, just in case, and read Charles Blow's new book, The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, with a big interpretation of the miracle that just happened in Georgia and ideas for how it could be replicated elsewhere). When something hilarious happens I'll try to keep you informed.

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