Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Times tries men's souls

It all started with college football. The Times, with its weekly computer rankings, ends up with a top 25 that as comprehensible as the results of blind man slapping magnetic poetry all over the refrigerator. It wasn't a matter of disagreeing with the newspaper's rankings. Disagreement honors the other side with reason. This is slop.

It was a small crack on a mundane subject. When, on June 19, 2002 the paper ran a front-page article about Britney Spears's restaurant Nyla, I was confused, maybe a little entertained. I assumed it was a mistake, or a one-time lapse in judgment. But now, goddammit, that tiny fuckin' crack has turned into one big, stupid canyon.

And the nicest, smartest girl in class got a boob job and skanked out.

The Sunday Styles section has become a balls-out disgrace -- to the Times, maybe even the whole goddamn world. China's navy build-up and Medicare's financial woes got you down? Don't be sad, Amy. Look! It's a bunch of rich, lazy fuckers who like to eat lunch! Lunch, Amy! Look! There's Rob Dimin!
Mr. Dimin wore a black baseball cap with an orange Princeton "P" pulled low over his forehead. "It's the only time to come here," he said. "Weekdays, when everyone else is working."
If this article teaches us one thing, it's that someone should rampage through Downtown Cipriani on a Tuesday afternoon and slug all of its patrons in the balls -- if not for the personal pleasure of seeing overindulged motherfuckers scream, then to limit their procreation.

OMG! Jessica broke up with Ian! OMG! Then she walked around everywhere bawling and annoying the shit out of people on public transportation! And the Times is suffering a total lapse of judgment in validating this dysfunctional menace by publishing her confessions!

The newspaper is in total breakdown. Its Arts and Sports sections are wrecks. Too shallow to appeal to genuine fans, the sections are prone to arbitrary fixations, like two autistic lovers afflicted with OCD. Remember the crusade-like quality of the papers coverage of Hootie Johnson and Augusta National? No? Just as well. The new film reviewer, Manohla Dargis, confuses the overuse of adjectives with analysis and review. Check this sentence-and-a-half from an Amityville Horror review:

[T]hese days, even the dumbest horror movie scares up decent big-screen business before being shuttled off to DVD perpetuity. Just as crucial, horror is relatively cheap to churn out, especially when the supporting cast features interchangeable no-name guys and gals, and the real star of the show ...

The rest of the article is like that. It's all overarching qualifiers, platitudes, sputtered nonsense with bursts of snark and conclusory opinions, like a freaked-out college freshman reviewing movies for the school newspaper, trying to write smart, producing a self-parody. The Times reviews bad movies badly. The Times reviews good movies badly.

None of this is to bitch-slap feature stories, arts criticism, or style writing per se. Between Tom Shales and Lisa de Moraes, the Washington Post achieves more via two writers than all of the Times's arts writers muster on their best days. There are many great critics; aside from Michiko Kakutani, the Times employs none of them.

I cancelled my subscription in July, 2003, and the only time I regret it is when I need a crossword fix. Even the Sunday paper hurts. The first act is to throw out the Sunday Styles section and the revamped, ultra-luxe real estate section, but still, you're reminded of their sick, pitiable existence. Just as often, though, it's hard to resist peeking at the latest over-the-top exegesis on the latest "trend" or downtown hotspot. The Times, therefore, turns into a vice and source of guilt, not one-stop-shopping for global information.

This wouldn't be a problem if it were a different newspaper. The problem comes when you finish reading about Darfur, and then, a section later, hit an article about Paris Hilton. So you flip from genocide to an article that serves as a PR hack's splooge recepticle. Not content to be the paper of record, it also wants to compete with US Weekly, Teen People, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Sassy, Stuff, The Robb Report, Tiger Beat, and that shitty syndicated show hosted by Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray.

But these audiences will never overlap. The Times is in a Darwinian moment. It must adapt or die. Presumably, it's facing the same crisis of declining readership confronting most daily newspapers, in which case the paper's pop-culture moment is pure economics. But it's never going to draw people who give a shit about Britney Spears or pricks eating lunch all afternoon, and by letting the tail wag the dog, it drives the rest of us away. I also wonder whether the ongoing rankings of most-emailed articles has undermined editorial judgment, and wacko sites like Gawker and Curbed have seduced the reporters into a hip-chasing purgatory devoid of perspective.

But I miss the Times. I miss it and it hurts, like a phantom limb. I want my paper back. I want it to ax Sunday Styles and the new Thursday section. I want it to run only wire stories in the sports sections. I want itto fire all arts critics (except for Kakutani) and hire people with talent. When it runs a feature on the front page, I want it to choose wisely and respect its readers. I want it to cover elections like they matter, not like they're Survivor episodes.

I want a lot of things. I want the most out of life. But most of all, I want a Joseph Lelyveld restoration.

*This post has willfully ignored the Jayson Blair story and the mass of criticism over the likes of Jodi Wilogren, Ad Nags, Judith Miller, Elizabeth Bumiller, etc. Their crimes of commission and omission have been duly noted elsewhere on the internets.

**Cole Slaw Blog is pleased to announce that it will now feature an ongoing weekly critique of the Sunday Styles section. This may expand to include the section's Thursday demon spawn. Our critiques will be based on the premise that these sections fucking blow, and warrant no sympathy or respect.

No comments: