Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Problem with the New York <i>Times</i>: A Tale of Two Papers

Posted by on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 1:37 PM

I wonder what Gwens thoughts are on Syria
  • I wonder what Gwen's thoughts are on Syria

In case you missed it, in the last decade or two, the industry of print journalism has undergone revolutionary changes as people have turned more and more to their computers to get news instead of the traditional print sources. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know though, right? But just to recap: newspaper circulation numbers tumbled and media companies attempted (with varying degrees of success) to navigate the new world of digital media. And so, along with the gradual demise of traditionally reported stories and the rise of blogging, has come the need for all media outlets (including venerable institutions that once seemed impervious to tabloid-esque headlines and articles) to come up with stories designed to be shared and commented on, click-bait articles written to inspire page-views and outrage. Eventually, even stalwart news outlets like the New York Times began to pursue reported pieces that seem worthless as anything other than sensational journalism ("Creating Hipsturbia," anyone?). Which, articles about man buns in the paper of record don't necessarily portend the end of civilization, but they're not really a positive indicator about it either.

Nothing I've written so far should be all that surprising to anyone who, you know, lives in the world, and is up-to-date with what's going on in said world. However, lately, in the case of the Times, it's become harder and harder to reconcile the stark difference between the excellent journalism that still takes place, and the borderline insulting pieces that are published in the Styles section (including, though not limited to, 7-page long stories about college girls and the fact that they have sex). I mean, there's only so much that the Times can do to mitigate the damage wrought by their scores of trend pieces on Williamsburg, you know?

But lately, even though the reality that the Times is essentially two different papers is something we've accepted for some time now, it's become more and more difficult to ignore the fact that the simplistic, reductive ideas that the Styles section traffics in, is alll too prevalent on the Op-Ed page as well. The latest example of this is Tom Friedman's (yes, the same guy who thinks that he can extrapolate the experience of all millennials because of something his daughter's college roommate told him) editorial that is ostensibly about Syria, but is really about his pink hair fetish, and also about how little he understands the American mindset, like, at all. At the beginning of a piece that manages to praise Vladimir Putin, speculate about Obama's hairline, and reveal that the author is a lover of nectarines, Friedman steps into the Swiss equivalent of a bodega to purchase some stone fruit and sees that the cashier is a young man with "a huge shock of neon pink hair—very Euro-punk from the ’90s." This young man further entrances Friedman when, by chance, "a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window—not a care in the world." Not a care in the world! Friedman is intrigued by this because, back here in America, there are no young people with vividly dyed hair, blowing kisses all willy-nilly. No, here in America, everyone has been too preoccupied with Syria to be so cavalier with their air-kisses. Friedman laments, "Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: 'Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?' Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar al-Assad."

Yes! Wouldn't it be nice to be Swiss? It's so hard to be American and feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. Friedman clearly gets exactly what preoccupies most Americans. It's world affairs, obviously, not, like, Miley Cyrus's ass. Except, of course, many, many more young Americans care about Miley Cyrus than about Syria. Or, even though that's not exactly true, it is true that it's possible to care about more than one thing at a time. And it's even true to have pink hair and be invested in world affairs. Friedman's sophomoric analysis (which inspired The Awl to recommend that the Times fire all Op-Ed columnists, except maybe Gail Collins) is insulting to Times readers who might be used to skipping the Styles section, but still appreciate the coverage of national and world events, and politics both local and global. Obviously, it's nothing new that the Times Op-Ed columnists write provocatively in an attempt to start conversations and garner large, devoted readerships (see: Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, et al). But there's a way to write provocatively without falling into the trap of idiotic analogies and Friedman—and many of the other columnists—don't seem to be trying to do that anymore, instead falling prey to broad, inaccurate generalizations that offer readers little insight into anything other than the tropes of weak writers.

Again, it's not news that the Times isn't perfect. But it's one thing to have easily mockable Styles coverage—that section is easy enough to discard, or click on only for the occasional hate-read. But when the editorial page features dinosaur-columnists who have little that's new or interesting or intelligent to say, well, then you've got bigger problems. Because now it's little more than two different papers, parts of which offer some of the best journalism available to readers, and parts which offer reductive analyses of important events. The Times can, and should do better.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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