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Summer 1998
   
Reflections on the Changing Times
Hilton Kramer
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Emerson, in the chapter he devoted to the Times of London in English Traits (1856), gave us a fair preview of the place that the New York Times would come to occupy a century later in the lives of the educated classes in New York and the political establishment in Washington. "What you read in the morning in that journal," Emerson wrote, "you shall hear in the evening in all society." That was certainly true of the New York Times when I became a regular reader in the 1950s. What the Times reported in its daily morning editions was widely believed by that class of readers to constitute the most important news of the day. Dwight Macdonald's quip—that the New York Times played a role for his generation similar to that of Aristotle in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: its principal point of contact with the real world—may have been an amusing exaggeration, but it pointed to a fundamental truth.

To what extent this may still be true today, no one—including the top brass at the Times—can say with any certainty. While the Times continues to enjoy the favor of this class of readers, and the class itself is now greatly expanded, the paper no longer defines the news for such readers in the way it once did. Nowadays the news stories that we read in the Times in the morning are more likely to be an amplification, amendment, or interpretation of news we have already heard on radio or television or encountered on the Internet. While this may not diminish our interest in reading the Times, it does alter the basis of the paper's appeal, for it places a greater burden on the Times's ability to go beyond the headlines to provide a more comprehensive account of what the news means than is readily available elsewhere. It also shifts the weight of the paper's coverage from news reporting to features about the news—indeed, to features that may serve as substitutes for news.

The downside of this need to explain and supplement the news is that it has had the inevitable effect of eradicating the distinction—once a hallmark of the Times—between news and opinion. Much that now passes for news analysis in the Times is little more than improvised punditry masquerading as disinterested information, and much that passes for hard-news reporting is itself determined by received liberal opinion. What has changed is what the Times—and, alas, "all society"—now regards as "All the News That's Fit to Print."

It is not only that many things hitherto scorned by the Times as inappropriate to its journalistic mission are now an accepted staple of its news coverage and opinion pages—most conspicuously, of course, the reportage and commentary devoted to sex, morals, and "lifestyle," and the kind of gossip, glamour, and scandal they engender. What has come to be called "lifestyle"—a word that in 1969 had not yet entered The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language—has inexorably achieved parity, and someTimes more than parity, with the gravest issues of politics and public policy as subjects for Page One attention. Inside the paper, major new features—and, in fact, whole new sections—have had to be introduced to accommodate this remarkable shift in what is thought to constitute the news of the day. The entire social and moral compass of the paper has been altered to conform to a liberal ethos that no longer draws a line between the personal and the political or—what someTimes amounts to the same thing—between media-induced notoriety and significant issues of public life.

The question to be asked about this debasement of the news is not whether the Times is now more liberal or less liberal than it was in the past. The Times has always been a liberal paper, and it remains a liberal paper today. What has changed is the nature and direction of the liberal ethos itself. In an era in which liberal ideology was primarily concerned with foreign policy, party politics, the labor movement, and an assortment of other putatively "progressive" interests and impulses, the Times largely concentrated its formidable journalistic resources on developments in those areas. Great journalistic careers were made at the Times by reporters who covered wars and revolutions, political campaigns and union strikes, and the power struggles at home and abroad that determined the fate of multitudes. Alongside the coverage of these world-shaking events there had always been a variety of "soft" features—about food, fashion, society, and the arts—but such features, while commanding a loyal readership (especially among women), remained entirely ancillary to the way the Times defined its journalistic mission and allocated its principal resources. It was an era in which real journalists didn't write about quiche.

All this was bound to change when, under the impact of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, advanced liberal thought became fixated on the politics of personal emancipation, which made the personal political with a vengeance. The impact of the counterculture on American journalism took many forms, of course. The most obvious, which we owe largely to the disastrous conduct of the war in Vietnam by two Democratic and then one Republican administration, was the adoption by the mainstream liberal media of the kind of paranoid critique of American society and its political institutions formerly confined to the radical Left. Yet of no less importance in altering the ethos of liberal journalism was the counterculture's radical assault on middle-class manners and morals. The mainstream liberal media quickly embraced the momentous changes in manners and morals that followed in the wake of this assault as a new social orthodoxy—virtually, indeed, a new social contract. It was suddenly permissible, for example, to question the moral legitimacy of such institutions as marriage and the family, while at the same time softening, if not entirely abandoning, traditional attitudes toward non-marital sexual alliances of every variety. It wasn't long before the new code of manners and morals that governed so much of the counterculture's "underground" or "alternative" press, shaping its emancipated rhetoric and its cavalier attitude toward verifiable fact, won eager advocates in the mainstream press as well.

This speedy absorption by the mainstream press of the counterculture's "new" journalism was due in part to the remarkable influence of the radical children of the liberal middle class, from which the counterculture was largely drawn, on their parents' generation. The impact was especially great on all matters pertaining to "lifestyle," a term that can be seen in retrospect to have come into play for the specific purpose of removing notions of the good life from the realm of religion and morals to that of the politics of taste and "preference"—another word that proved useful in the counterculture's effort to eliminate traditional moral distinctions from decisions about the conduct of life. Everything—from drug preferences to sexual "orientation," from furniture to fidelity—was seen to be on offer for your unconditioned choice at the lifestyle bazaar, where new identities were now as obtainable as the latest fashions in denim.

Changes in middle-class manners and morals inevitably produce significant alterations in culture and consumption—in the clothes people wear, the hairstyles they affect, the foods they eat (or do not eat), the entertainments they favor, the music they dance to, the language they feel free to use, and the way they provide (or fail to provide) for their loved ones. It was precisely changes of this sort that prompted Joseph Epstein to observe in the mid-1970s—in an essay called "Boutique America!"—that "the most important influence of that assemblage of 1960s youth and its camp followers was not on politics, or philosophy, or art, or social organization, but on retailing." After all, he wrote, this was "the generation whose chief literary work (a National Book Award winner) has been The Whole Earth Catalog." (You don't have to agree about every item on Epstein's list to see that he underscored an historical development that more narrowly focused political writers had largely overlooked.) If the initial pressure for change came from disaffected middle-class youth, it was soon ratified by their liberal parents, who, having granted their adolescent offspring an unprecedented degree of moral license, hastened to appropriate for themselves the freedoms and fashions their children now enjoyed. Never before in history, perhaps, was it so much the case that the child had become father to the man.

All this was to have an immense effect on the way liberal institutions—the universities, the foundations, governmental agencies, and, of course, the medianow felt obliged to reorder their priorities. It was certainly to have an immense effect on the New York Times, which, beginning in the mid-1970s, was drastically reorganized to minister to the tastes and preferences of the generation—and the market—so decisively shaped by the culture and politics of the counterculture. In this sense is the Times as we know it today largely a product, if not a casualty, of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Changes in the paper did not occur all at once, of course. I joined the Times's cultural news staff as its art news editor in the fall of 1965—on the eve of the storm that was about to engulf the paper and its readers. A dress code was still in force in the newsroom. Men had to wear ties and jackets, and women couldn't wear "trousers." When a colleague who covered the television industry was bluntly told by his editor that "reporters for the New York Times do not wear suede shoes," he believed his career at the paper to be over and left shortly thereafter for a job at the Los Angeles Times, where, presumably, a more advanced policy on footwear prevailed. Within a year or two, however, it was a common sight in the newsroom to see reporters who were covering antiwar street demonstrations attired in jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers—the dress code of the sixties revolution having superseded that of the Times.

Yet from the perspective of more recent developments, it is important to note that in 1965, far from envisioning a dumbing down of the paper's news coverage, the editors of the Times had lately embarked upon a comprehensive program to raise the intellectual level of its arts criticism and cultural news reporting.

Traditionally, the Times had been notoriously philistine in its coverage of culture and the arts. Orville Prescott on books, Bosley Crowther on movies, John Canaday on art: when I joined the Times in 1965, these and other benighted critics still constituted a kind of Maginot Line of resistance to modernist innovation and intellectual seriousness. For a variety of reasons—the emergence in the early 1960s of the New York Review of Books as an influential critical voice was certainly one of them, and another was a belated recognition that New York had become both the art capital and the dance capital of the Western world—this entrenched philistinism was no longer deemed adequate to the new situation in which the paper found itself in the mid-1960s. More and more people in more parts of the country were more interested in the arts than ever before, and the old philistine responses would no longer do for them. As the Times's then executive editor, Turner Catledge, said to me when I was hired: "As far as the arts are concerned, our readers have gotten to be too smart for the kind of stuff we've been giving them."

The Times was by no means alone in attempting to deal with this altered situation. It was the same concern to keep abreast of new thinking in the arts that soon brought Harold Rosenberg to The New Yorker to write about art and Robert Hughes to Time magazine in the same capacity. A smug, insouciant dismissal of every new development—whether it was Minimalist sculpture, Absurdist theater, or a Hollywood movie like Bonnie and Clyde—was becoming a journalistic embarrassment. The search was thus on for a cadre of more sophisticated critics.

But where was the paper to find them? In the past, the Times had made it a practice to appoint its critics from the ranks of its own reporters. Always a bad idea, this someTimes produced really ludicrous results—a famous music critic, for example, who was said not to be able to read a note of music. Yet it had come to be assumed in the newspaper world that it was a virtue in a critic to have no more specialized knowledge of his field than most members of the audience. When, at last, the editors woke up to the realization that it might be a plus for an arts critic to know at least as much about his subject as, say, a sportswriter or an economics correspondent, it became necessary to look outside the Times for new talent.

Ada Louise Huxtable, who had begun her career in the department of architecture and design under Philip Johnson at the Museum of Modern Art—and whose criticism I had published in Arts Magazine when I was an editor there in the 1950s—was the first of the new critics hired. It was a significant appointment, because the Times had never before employed a full-time architectural critic: traditionally, architecture had been relegated to the real estate news beat. Next came Clive Barnes, an English writer on dance, then little known outside of dance circles in this country. Lincoln Kirstein and Edwin Denby had enthusiastically recommended him to the Times. When I arrived for my first interview with Clifton Daniel, the Times's managing editor, almost the first thing he announced to me was that the paper had just hired Clive as its new ballet critic. As I was an avid follower of Clive's dance columns in the London Spectator, I took this to be a good sign, and so, clearly, did Daniel—about me, that is, because I knew who Clive was. I soon learned, too, that Kenneth Tynan, then the most celebrated theater critic in London, had just turned down an invitation to be the Times's chief drama critic, at that time considered the paper's most important critical post. (Tynan instead arranged to write a series of longer theater articles for The New Yorker.)

Exactly who recommended me I was never able to discover. During my first year on the paper, dozens of people—at the Times and in the art world—came forward to claim credit. What I did discover after I joined the paper was that John Canaday had vehemently opposed my appointment. John had thoughtfully left a copy of his hostile memorandum to Clifton Daniel prominently displayed in the art department's files, where I would be sure to find it soon after my arrival.

That, too, was a sign—but of another kind. For it was naturally a matter of fierce resentment on the part of the sitting critics at the Times that so many newcomers—most of whom they had never read or even heard of—were being brought in to improve the paper's coverage. Only once did this simmering hostility explode into an ugly confrontation. That was in the spring of 1970. On the day it was announced in the Times newsroom that Ada Louise Huxtable had won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism—it was the first year the Pulitzer committee made such an award—John Canaday went berserk. He marched into Ada Louise's glassed-in office, which was next to his own, loudly vented his rage with a stream of appalling obscenities at her expense, and then left the building. It was a ghastly scene that left everyone—John included—in a state of shock.

Although few people realized it at the time, this episode effectively marked the end of the reign of the old guard on the Times's cultural news staff. Three years later I officially succeeded John as the paper's chief art critic while retaining my position as art news editor. John was hoping to become the Times's chief drama critic, but he settled instead for a brief, uncelebrated tenure as the paper's restaurant critic, an appointment that effectively brought his inglorious career to a close.

By the early 1970s, however, the project to upgrade the paper's arts coverage was overtaken by a business crisis destined to have a far greater impact on the character and quality of the Times. The paper's corporate managers discovered—much to the shock of the editors—that the New York Times was no longer a hugely profitable enterprise. Costly and outmoded labor practices, together with competition from television, changes in urban demography, and something less easily defined—call it the spirit of the age—had combined to impede the growth of the paper's readership, its advertising revenues, and its profits. It was no longer a certainty—or so I was told at the time—that the Times itself, as distinguished from the New York Times Company, was still even operating in the black.

It was also said at the time that no editor of the Times prior to the 1970s had ever been obliged to operate under a strictly drawn budget. That was now to change—and so was the content of the paper itself, as the editors scrambled under emergency conditions to think up new ways to win back the readers and advertisers the paper had lost and to attract as many new ones as possible. To serve as a guide to what was to be, in effect, a wholesale revision of the Times's journalistic appeal, the paper's management engaged professional market analysts to poll potential readers and advertisers, and within the paper itself an elaborate network of task-force committees was organized to brainstorm proposals for meeting the needs that the market analysts would uncover.

By an accident of circumstance, I had a ringside seat at some of these deliberations, for in the spring of 1972 I found myself obliged to assume the thankless task of serving for a three-month period as the cultural news editor of the daily Times. My immediate predecessor in that position, about whose total ignorance of the contemporary cultural scene a number of us on the cultural news staff had vociferously complained, was a veteran Times reporter who had never wanted the job and communicated his distaste for it—and for us—on a more or less daily basis. As I had been one of his most vocal critics—the breaking point came for me when I was denied extra space for a review of the Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art: our cultural news editor had never heard of de Kooning and could not see what all the fuss was about—I did not feel in a position to refuse when asked to take the job while a permanent replacement could be found. It was owing to that temporary appointment that I found myself in the spring of l972 attending the meetings at which the market-analysis experts disclosed their grim findings to the editors of the Times.

Foremost among those findings was the shocking news that the Times then had no significant readership under the age of 35. It seemed that the dropout generation of 1968, as it was someTimes called—those wonderful, gentle, idealistic, long-haired, pot-smoking, sexually liberated antiwar protesters, extolled by such dignitaries as Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox as "the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic generation this country has ever known"—had no interest in the New York Times. As to what would be required of the Times to attract this new generation of selfless political idealists to its pages—well, that was when the findings of the market-analysis experts got to be really depressing. Interest in foreign news, the experts reported, was practically nil and interest in national news scarcely better. The arts and entertainment, which by this time included rock music, scored a good deal higher. Yet the bottom line was really this: according to the surveys, the two principal questions that could be counted upon to engage the interest of this potential under—35 readership were, What to do with its time and What to do with its money. In short: lifestyle. This was the news that gave birth to the new New York Times in the 1970s.

To understand the course upon which the paper's editors then embarked, it is essential to bear in mind that by the early 1970s the Times was the sole remaining daily broadsheet newspaper of general interest in New York. Its last serious competition—not in terms of circulation but in the quality of its journalism—had been the New York Herald-Tribune, which folded in 1966. In the years immediately following the Trib's demise, the senior writers and editors at the Times had considerable difficulty in determining exactly what their competition might now be. The Washington Post was not then a contender; it did not command the prestige it subsequently acquired with its Watergate scoops in 1973, and it was not, in any case, widely read in New York. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal did not yet enjoy the kind of readership beyond the business and financial community it has acquired today. With the disappearance of the Trib, the Times was suddenly in the paradoxical position of feeling imperiled by its own eminence and isolation, for it found itself for the first time in its history having to look "down-market," so to speak, for models to emulate in charting its new course.

One of the models just then presenting itself for emulation—with an insistence that many of the paper's top editorial executives found highly unnerving—was New York magazine. Abe Rosenthal—who presided over the creation of the new New York Times in the 1970s as executive editor—frankly admitted to an interviewer that New York "used to drive me out of my mind." It is easy to see why. Abe had made his journalistic reputation as a foreign correspondent in Warsaw and New Delhi, and as city editor of the Times he had successfully revamped its traditional standoffish coverage of New York itself to give the paper's readers serious local coverage. But his New York wasn't New York magazine's New York. For Abe, having to think seriously about features like "The Ten Best Hamburgers in New York"—precisely the kind of "service" feature that was making New York magazine a howling success—was a new and someTimes bewildering prospect, as indeed it was for many journalists at the Times.

New York, which had begun life as a Sunday supplement to the Trib, re-emerged in 1968 as a brash, plugged-in, glossy weekly that exerted an immense and immediate appeal for readers in the under-35 market and their born-again elders. It was already proving formidable competition for the aging New Yorker under William Shawn, which, though it had itself quickly adopted the radical political views of the counterculture, had remained in most other respects too stodgy, too verbose, and too buttoned-down to satisfy the liberated tastes and appetites that the counterculture had unleashed upon middle-class life. Something like that was the problem now faced by the Times, too, and New York would soon play a key role in its transformation.

What the brilliant founding editor of New York, Clay Felker, understood about the counterculture more clearly than any other uptown journalist was that its preoccupation with style, status, and gratification had laid the foundations for an alternative mode of middle-class life and thus for a media market that would prosper if it offered sufficiently "hip" and flattering guidance to the new modes of etiquette and consumption that were in a headlong process of formation. Undeceived by all the blather about political idealism, Felker understood that the dropout generation hadn't really dropped out, after all. It had no need to. No sooner had it challenged the manners and morals of the middle class into which it had been born than the latter hastened to jettison its conventions and proprieties and to embrace the new dispensations. Notwithstanding the costumes of poverty they affected and their vaunted repudiation of bourgeois materialism, graduates of the counterculture still had plenty of money to spend and plenty of leisure time in which to spend it on what interested them. They still needed places to live, and tips about the right kind of clothes to buy and the best places to hang out. In or out of wedlock, moreover, they were still producing kids, putting food on the table, arranging for acceptable schooling, and—contrary to their noisy repudiation of the bourgeois work ethic—getting good jobs. New York tapped into this growing market, which by the early 1970s was no longer exclusively a youth market, with what seemed like a perfect comprehension of its proclivities and pretensions.

Also making a considerable impact on the under-35 market was the Village Voice. Though it had been launched as a weekly newspaper mainly devoted to opinion, gossip, and culture in the 1950s-Norman Mailer had been one of its founders—it only acquired a significant readership beyond the precincts of Greenwich Village bohemia when the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar activism of the 1960s, and the emergence of the Gay Liberation movement in the early 1970s transformed it into a bible of the counterculture. Its influence on the Times may have been more surreptitious than New York's—and it was certainly less openly acknowledged by the Times itself—but it was nonetheless real, especially in the kind of coverage the Times would now devote to pop culture, the downtown "scene," and the detritus of the sexual revolution.

The top brass at the Times professed to look with disdain on the Voice: Abe Rosenthal once described it to an interviewer as "an urban ill, like dog shit in the street—to be stepped over." For its part, the Voice unremittingly attacked the Times for its insufficiently radical political and cultural coverage. But by the time the new New York Times took shape in the mid-1970s, the two papers had more in common than either was willing to acknowledge. If the Voice remained raunchier in its language and more intemperate in its rhetoric, especially on racial and sexual issues, it, too, had to give more and more attention to the consumer interests of its own "down-market" readership, providing features on fashion and restaurants, while the Times, in turn, began to devote more and more space to subjects that had long been staples at the Voice—rock music, most conspicuously. The Times was even acquiring some Voice writers and editors for its cultural and opinion pages.

The point is, New York magazine and the Village Voice had between them effectively outflanked the Times on the lifestyle front before the Times woke up to the need to elevate lifestyle to a place of central importance in the paper. If New York was more "nouveau" bourgeois and the Voice more flagrantly bohemian in their respective styles, there were nonetheless many points of convergence in their take on life in New York—particularly, of course, in their joint rejection of that earnest air of middle-class civility and respectability that still pervaded the pages of the New Yorker, the newsweeklies, and the Times. Together, then, New York and the Voice proved to be irresistible models when the Times set about the daunting task of remaking itself by introducing what were, in effect, daily magazine sections devoted to "Living," "Home," "Weekend," and so on. And the pressure that New York and the Voice would now exert upon the new New York Times became all the greater when, in 1974—at the very moment when the paper's editors were under the gun to create a new journalistic agenda—New York acquired ownership of the Voice, a merger described by Time magazine as "a marriage of sandals and Gucci loafers, of body odors and Bal `a Versailles, of radical cheek and radical chic." This was precisely the kind of journalistic union that the Times was now intent upon achieving for itself.

The changes that followed upon this radical makeover of the Times encompassed more than providing expanded "service" sections on food, home decorating, and the arts and entertainment, however. The priority given to lifestyle journalism in the special daily sections soon changed the tone and style of the entire paper. Local, national, and foreign news coverage had also now to be written in a more relaxed, personal style, and to be accompanied by more and bigger pictures, along with new graphics and "pull quotes," as aids to a readership that was presumed—no doubt accurately—to have a shorter attention span than that of older Times readers.

Television was often cited as the cause of this diminished attention span among younger readers, and television certainly played a huge role in this change. Yet at the Times, print journalism still counted for more than television, and it wasn't until the impact of television had made itself felt in the creation of such publications as People magazine and USA Today that the Times began looking at them as even newer models for its future. By the time I resigned from the Times in the spring of 1982, the influence of People on the Times was pervasive in every section of the paper, beginning on Page One, and USA Today was much discussed as a sign of what the Times might look like when it got around to printing its daily and Sunday editions in color.

From their onset in the 1970s, these changes took a heavy toll on the morale of the paper's newsroom, for it was becoming increasingly apparent that the glory days of national and international reporting were drawing to a close. Except in moments of crisis at home or abroad—occasions when the editors of the Times still felt obliged to provide the paper's readers with massive coverage, if only to compete with television—serious reporting was now becoming an endangered vocation. That was no longer where the main action seemed to be at the Times, nor where promotions were likely to be made in the next generation. All the glamour and opportunity was now concentrated in the softer sections of the paper.

As for the effect of all this on the newsroom reporters, I have a particularly vivid memory of a Wednesday evening in the 1970s when the Thursday "Home" section of the Times was making its debut. As I was working late that evening—probably to meet a deadline for the Friday "Weekend" section—I took a break to wander into the area of the newsroom where the first copies of the next day's paper were usually brought down from the composing room around 9:30. Among those who had gathered there that evening was Homer Bigart, renowned as one of the Times's star reporters and something of a legend in the profession.

When the paper appeared and we started to look through its pages, there was a sudden hush. There, in big block letters on the front page of the "Home" section, was a headline that read: REVOLUTION IN FAT PILLOWS. Everyone turned to Homer, who looked both embarrassed and horror-stricken. "Well," he said, as he threw his copy of the paper back on the pile, "I guess that's one revolution I'm not going to cover," and left the building. Everyone understood it was an historic moment.

One of the areas of the paper most directly affected by this decision to give lifestyle a priority status in the Times was my own. In the new New York Times it was said that coverage of the arts would be expanded—given more prominence, more space, more manpower, more resources of every kind. It didn't quite work out that way in practice, however. In terms of size, the new Friday "Weekend" section, introduced in 1976, was certainly ampler than the news "hole" for arts coverage that the cultural news editor had to negotiate daily with the "bullpen," the committee of editors that tightly controlled the division of space in the paper. But "Weekend" was only partly to be an arts section. Its principal mission was to offer readers information on—what else?—how to spend their time and money on the weekend, and this often meant places to go and things to do that had nothing to do with the arts. On every other day of the week except Sunday, the space actually available for arts coverage was significantly diminished. When the full complement of daily special sections was finally in place, the arts were relegated to the back pages of those sections, sandwiched between the lengthy features on food or home decorating and the TV listings.

Then, too, what now qualified as serious arts coverage was changing as the rush to make the Times "read young" acquired more and more momentum. The fine arts—classical music, ballet, and the visual arts—could still command important space for major events, but the accelerating coverage lavished on pop culture had the effect of first diminishing and then effectively eliminating coverage of the kind of small-audience recitals, performances, and exhibitions that are essential to the variety and vitality of New York cultural life and give it an intellectual density seldom found in like degree elsewhere in the country. Yet it was precisely events of this sort that were unlikely to show up in the market-survey analyses now determining what the Times should cover.

Another ingredient in the changed outlook of the Times's arts coverage was the paper's newly felt compulsion to beat the competition—such as it now was—in reporting new "trends." I put the word in quotation marks because it became something of a joke among the writers charged with the awesome responsibility of divining—or, as was often the case, fabricating—some trend-setting development in the arts that New York magazine or the Village Voice or more recent arrivals like Rolling Stone had not yet condescended to publicize. In the 1970s, the Times was still desperately attempting to live down the days when it was usually the last place in town to recognize some new fashion in the arts, and as the 1970s was a period in which new fashions in the arts were announced in virtually every press release that landed on our desks, this compulsion to be first with what might be "next" became something of a mania with the editors and a considerable dread for the writers.

Thus it was that in my last years on the Times, the principal critics and reporters on the cultural news staff had to attend weekly lunches with the editors at which the first question always was: "What's new?"—meaning, of course, new that week! To fortify ourselves for the ordeal of these weekly interrogations, a few of us would repair before noon to Sardi's Bar, a Times hangout conveniently reachable down a back stairway to 44th Street, before ascending in higher spirits to the editors' dining room on the 11th floor. It was on one of those occasions that I was made to realize how preposterous this whole enterprise had become. For on that day, when the question "What's new?" was asked, I astonished myself by quickly responding with, "Nothing—nothing's new," and my editor came back just as quickly with the question: "Is that a trend?" Everyone laughed, of course; but then it fell to one of my hapless colleagues to draft a memo, which might then become the basis of a feature article, on this sudden paucity of new trends.

Memos and lunch meetings, which inevitably generated more memos, were now the order of the day. In my first years as art news editor on the "old" New York Times, I had never been asked to write a memo about anything. Neither the cultural news editor on the daily paper nor the editor of the Sunday arts section ever queried me about what I or my colleagues on the art staff would be writing about before we turned in our copy. It was my responsibility to see that newsworthy art events were covered and to alert the Sunday arts editor about developments on the art scene that might be appropriate for coverage on the front page of his section. Otherwise, we had a free hand. Bureaucratic intervention was all but nonexistent. On the Sunday art page, I even wrote the headlines and captions for my own articles.

With the emergence of the new New York Times, however, bureaucracy—often Byzantine in its complexity—became part of the daily routine. This inevitably altered the tone of the arts coverage. If an art event was to be featured on the front page of the "Weekend" section, for example, its point of view had to be either "positive" or "controversial"; otherwise its coverage would be consigned to the back pages. It wasn't the purpose of "Weekend," after all, to tell Times readers what to avoid on the art scene, either because it was grossly overrated or simply meretricious. In the 1970s, with the SoHo galleries having become an international center of grossly overrated and meretricious art that was (for that very reason perhaps) extremely chic, the pressure on critics to be upbeat in their judgments inevitably caused problems—for me, at least. But there was never any shortage of writers eager to provide the required gloss.

The pressure to be upbeat also had its sources in developments outside the Times. In the 1970s, New York City was itself in a parlous condition. The crime rate was zooming, the quality of life was in sharp decline, the middle class was in flight, and the city was seen as unfriendly to the kind of business and investment that were its only hope for long-term recovery. All this was a matter of intense concern to the Times management, which correctly understood that its own growth and prosperity were inevitably tied to the fate of the city.

What effect this anxiety in high places had on the paper's coverage of local city news, I cannot say with any certainty. Under the editorships of Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, the Times's news coverage of New York and its suburbs was certainly much improved, yet I rarely found that those news columns, however interesting in themselves, accounted for my own observations of life in New York at street level, so to speak. On the only occasion when I spoke out about it, asking why there was never anything in the Times about the Korean immigrants who had largely supplanted the Jews, Italians, and Greeks in operating dry-cleaning businesses and produce markets in the city, I was given the brush-off. It didn't occur to me until much later that the editors I had been speaking to rarely, if ever, entered such establishments themselves and therefore had no idea of what I was talking about.

It wasn't until black activists staged a menacing boycott of a Korean produce market in Brooklyn during the Dinkins administration that the Koreans turned up on the Times's radar screen, and even then the Times's ill-judged support of David Dinkins and its general reluctance to be disobliging to the sensitivities of the city's black political establishment in the paper's news columns severely compromised its coverage.

About the effect of the Times's anxieties about the fate of New York on the paper's cultural coverage, however, I can speak with more certainty. Simply stated, the Times set out in the 1970s to sell New York to its readers, wherever they might be. Hence the emphasis on the kind of upbeat coverage of cultural life in New York that made the city sound like a perfect model of everything that was most exciting, stylish, cool, glamorous, and advanced not only in the world of the arts and entertainment but in the arts of living as well. Never mind that the writers of some of these celebrations of New York life went home at night to apartments with triple locks on the doors and iron bars on the windows, or that their kids were hiding their lunch money in their sneakers on the way to school in the vain hope that the bigger kids waiting to rob them wouldn't find it—or, for that matter, take a fancy to their sneakers.

Looking back on that period today, there are abundant ironies to ponder when one realizes that the upbeat image of New York so tirelessly advanced in the lifestyle sections of the Times in the l970s and early eighties has come a lot closer to realization in the 1990s as the result of the election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor—a political milestone in the history of New York that the Times adamantly and often unfairly opposed when Giuliani first ran against the discredited tenure of David Dinkins. By that time, of course, I had myself left the Times and was writing disobliging criticisms of the paper's coverage of such matters in my "Times Watch" column in the New York Post.

“The Times feels spongier now, and it has lost much of its old zeal for hard news,” wrote John Corry in 1994, in the memoir of his career as a reporter called My "Times": Adventures in the News Trade. He spoke of the "different rules [that] now apply": "The Times sees itself more as an agent for social change and an advocate of good causes," he wrote, and as a consequence "its news columns now have less urgency and far more editorializing," all in the service of the paper's "liberal social and political agenda." All of which was true in 1994, and all of which has gotten markedly worse in the full-color, six-section daily Times of 1998. It is an odd and unsettling experience to see a great institution like the Times shrink in importance as it expands in size, but that is what we are witnessing today.

It is in this respect, perhaps, that the Times has come more and more to resemble the liberal social programs of the welfare state, which the paper itself has done so much to advance and which are also, of course, deeply implicated in the lifestyle phenomenon. Like many of those social programs, which are now understood to be unwieldy and unworkable when not malignly antisocial in their consequences, the Times began life by addressing a clearly perceived need, yet over time it has developed into an institution engaged in a frantic search for needs to be addressed.

By mortgaging its future to the vicissitudes of lifestyle, moreover, the Times has forfeited the very thing that had always given the paper its distinctive identity: its gravity. Now, like so much else in American life at the end of the twentieth century, it is an institution adrift on the whims and pathologies of a style-besotted culture relentlessly engaged in ratifying

the worst features of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Consider the distance that we—and the Times—have traversed since the late 1960s. For middle-class readers of New York magazine in 1968, for example, it was still something of a shock as well as a guilty titillation to find, along with features on "The High Cost of the Hamptons" and "the new nude look" in women's fashions, articles that extolled the virtues of "America's first youth riot" at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, that heaped praise on the "exhilaration of nihilism" felt by the kids who participated in that riot, and that reserved the greatest admiration for the "lyrics" of a Jim Morrison song called "The End," that went:

The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall . . .
He came to the door
And he looked inside.
"Father?" "Yes son."
"I want to kill you.
Mother—I want to. . . ."

The writer of these articles in New York magazine in 1968, who is now an executive editor of the Village Voice, called "The End" "a mighty myth of catharsis, with an Oedipal backbeat," while acknowledging that "violence is [Morrison's] major motif." Middle-class readers of the New York Times 30 years later are now used to encountering many similar views in so-called reviews of rock, rap, movies, television, and less easily identifiable cultural phenomena, and are no longer shocked by them. For this is what the Times—and "all society"—now accepts as its lifestyle.

As for the distance the Village Voice has traversed in 30 years of setting the pace for what the Times will find it necessary to keep up with next week or next year, consider this item from the June 16, 1998, issue of the Voice: "In kicky NoLIta, where the scions of Soho meet the barons of the 90s boom, photographer Terry Richardson is having his first solo show. The walls of the Alleged Gallery on Prince Street are covered floor to ceiling with evidence of his arrival. Ripe tits, big dicks, and dead cats—the insignias of Downtown decadence—compete with images of missing children, predatory clowns, and drunkenness in all its puking splendor. Now and then, a blowup stops the eye: a self-portrait featuring Terry's cum smeared across his face; an homage to filmmaker Harmony Korine starring his toothbrush stuck up Terry's ass. And in the back room: turds! turds! turds!"

If those weekly cultural news—staff lunches are still in progress at the Times, I can well imagine what sort of discussion this item—written, incidentally, by the same editor who gave us that homage to Jim Morrison 30 years ago—must have engendered. And further into this same Voice article, there was this further reference to "the decade's emblematic crime: the schoolhouse shoot-out," accompanied by the news that "There's a Downtown version of this killer-kid pose that, for all its artifice, is a real expression of a new kind of cool." Who can be sure that by the time this issue of City Journal is off the press, the New York Times will not have found a way to sanitize these and similar "insignias of Downtown decadence" for Uptown consumption?

 

 

 
How a once great journalistic enterprise became hip and trashy.
City Journal Summer 1998.
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