Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Bias at the New York Times? Can't Be!

I just finished reading a book about bias at the New York Times - it would be hard to imagine an easier thesis to prove out, but one must appreciate the effort of one author to slog through a couple years of the malfeasance of the Times. And by "bias", the author had in mind the actual news page, rather than the editorial page, which he considers forthright in its bias. The news page is another matter - a motto of "just the facts" for the NYT news page would draw a lible suit from Joe Friday for sullying the meaning of his trademark phrase. Did that make any sense?

My favorite form of bias spelled out in many examples is the insertion of the "why" in the lead part of the lead sentence of a story. An example of the type: "In an effort to court Hispanic voters, President Bush today enacted an amnesty deal for Mexican immigrants ..." Nowhere in the story is there a quote from the President saying that he thought such legislation was an important purchase of votes in the 2004 election, but NYT reporters have the unique capacity to read the nefarious underlying thoughts and motivations of Republicans. And surprise, surprise, such motivations are always sinister. Pure editorializing dressed up as news. Is anyone stupid enough to actually fall for it?

And therein lies the one big flaw of the book: it overestimates the influence of the NYT by underestimating the skepticism and intelligence of the public in taking reported news at face value. And that skepticism seems to be growing by the day. In any event, here comes Lileks to skewer the NYT in a toss-off blog that is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe, in that it does with style and flair in one page what an entire department of academic sociologists could not achieve through a lifetime of ardent research. Does what, you ask? It captures the picture of the NYT reader to a tee - print it out and put in a time capsule, so our children's children can know that nothing in all those years will have changed:

"But I did want to say something about that silly NYT piece about blogging. All I needed to know I learned from the cover. Doing a story on blogging and putting Wonkette on the cover is like using Janine Garafalo to illustrate a story about the power of talk radio. Sure, Limbaugh has better numbers, but what’s more compelling? A story about someone who attracts 20 million uninteresting people, or someone who attracts 100,000 people who are Just Like Us?

This paragraph was amusing:

Earlier this month, a platoon of right-wing bloggers launched a coordinated assault against CBS News and its memos claiming that President Bush got special treatment in the National Guard; within 24 hours, the bloggers' obsessive study of typefaces in the 1970's migrated onto Drudge, then onto Fox News and then onto the networks and the front pages of the country's leading newspapers.

“Coordinated” is a rather lazy choice of words, if the author means “some people sent emails to other people, and they all worked loosely together.” If that’s coordination, then your average freeway, full of people driving alongside and occasionally signaling their turns, is a massive conspiracy. But he didn’t mean that, I don’t think – it was a coordinated assault! Designed to turn our eyes away from the truth the memos implied and make us stare, like Alex in the chair in Clockwork Orange, at the fonts and superscripts and other misleading minutae.

It’s amusing to learn that the author interviewed Charles for 45 minutes, and declined to sully his article with any quotes from the fellow who helped disprove the memo. It’s like writing a story about the Enigma decrypts and spending most of your time on a fashion critic who wrote bitchy assessments of the clothing worn by the women who typed in the intel.

The article contented itself with lauding the contributions of lefty bloggers; should Kerry lose, this will provide the MSM with the rationale for concluding that blogging is passé and ineffectual, or that lefty bloggers cannot match the Coordinated Forces of the Dark Side, the million monkeys clattering out the dictates of Lord Rove in the hopes they can hit POST before he uses his dreaded Choking Gesture to teach the slackers a lesson.

Anyway: I didn’t really care what the author said, because I don’t have the reverential attitude towards the Sunday Mag I used to have. Truth be told, I can live without it. I no longer regard it as a weekly dispatch to Inner Party members. It’s just a bunch of guys who write stuff. Difference between them and some other bloggers I read? The medium's glossier. Better ads.

The Sunday Times is the weekly sermon: let us reinforce your world view, your sense of belonging to the Thinking Class, the Special Ones. Let the Red Staters spend Sunday morning in itchy church clothes at Perkins, dumping syrup all over their pancakes and yelling at little Lurleen not to pour salt down her baby brother’s jumper; you’re in your elegant spare little apartment with a cup of coffee (frothed on top; sprinkle of nutmeg) and a pastry from that wonderful place around the corner (okay, it’s an Au Bon Pain – hell, they’re all Bon Pain now) and there’s some light jazz on the radio. Morning jazz, if you had to give the genre a name.

Anyway, it’s a sunny fall morning – well, noonish. Now comes the capstone moment when you lay the slab of the Times in your lap and begin the autoposy of the week. Scan the A section headlines - yes, yes, yes, appalling. Scan the metro: your eyes glaze. The arts section – later. Travel – Greece again? Good for Greece. Six pounds of classifieds: discard. No comics . . . there was always comics on Sunday back home. But that was IOWA, for heaven’s sake, what else would you expect but Blondie and Ziggy and the rest . . . ah.

The Magazine.Let’s begin! A little humorous piece – not funny haha funny, but, you know, arch, which is very urbane. Then there’s an essay on words, which is wonderful because you love words, and then a big serious piece about that horrible situation the administration isn’t doing anything about. You’ll read it later – skim the pull quotes for now. Best of all are the ads, because you really wouldn’t want to wear any of that stuff but it’s fun to look at.

Remember back home in Iowa? Nothing like this on Sunday. The paper was thicker than usual, but that was mostly ads for toilet paper and underwear and lawn tractors, and there was that awful Parade magazine. Walter Scott’s Personality Parade. You remember that why, exactly? Because you read it every week, and you wondered who Walter Scott was. Something like Ed Sullivan or Walter Winchell. Fedora, heavy black phone, manual typewriter, friend to the stars but not above flicking a speck of dirt towards someone who’d truly earned it. Then there was a cartoon about a big dog – Howard Huge.

Do they still print Parade? Probably. Probably find ten copies on the counter at Perkins after the Sunday lunch shift ends. Dad used to let you order anything on Sunday morning at Perkins. Perkins always dusted the French Toast with powdered sugar. Remember?

Hey, cheer up! You should try that. You should make French Toast next Sunday. Have your friends over! That’ll be great. I mean, that’s why you came here – this is where smart hip people sit around the table on a Sunday morning, discussing the New York Times in New York. Note: buy Smuckers maple syrup. Or real Vermont maple? Vermont would be better. Especially in those bottles shaped like a maple leaf, very authentic.

But if you announced that you were having a Red State Breakfast it would have high irony value to serve Smucker’s. Let’s photoshop Bush with a bottle of Smucker’s and Wonder bread and print it out and invite everyone who’s originally from somewhere else, even if they always pretend they’ve been here since before whenever. It’ll be fabulous!(three minutes of stillness underscored by Morning Jazz and street noise)

Why are we all like 34 and unmarried? Christ, is it that hard? Maybe you should move to Washington and be a blogger. You can get a house in Alexandria and it’s not like you’re in the suburbs, but you have a house, oh, a house, a real place with a real backyard (even if it’s just ten yards square) and there’s a river and lots of trees and it’s still the East Coast and it’s still important and you get the Times AND the Washington Post, which honestly doesn’t seem like such a f*#$%%in’ DUTY to read every Sunday, I mean, SORRY ABOUT DARFUR, BUT I HAVE MY OWN PROBLEMS.

(The New York Times Sunday Magazine is placed on the top of the toilet tank)

(The New York Times Sunday Magazine slides off the toilet tank, reminding you why you don’t put it there)

(The New York Times Sunday Magazine is strategically placed on the coffee table to alert anyone who comes into your flat that you read the New York Times Sunday Magazine)

(One week later, unread and unobserved, it is replaced by another edition. Cover story: global climate change and tourism threatens biodiversity in Antarctica. But you suspected as much. The whole world is going to hell. Except for New York. New York is fabulous. It just has to be.)

(Two weeks later: none of your friends are bloggers and none of your friends read blogs. So nevermind.) "


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