“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, June 05, 2003


LI is frankly indifferent to the fall of Howell Raines. We are interested, however, in the space it takes up. Since we are living in a shift in cultural power to the right -- which is reflected in the gradual erosion of the great establishment liberal papers, which are either turning hawkish -- the WashPost -- or are finding organizational problems used as fulcrums to create press coverage that leans to the right -- the NYT - we are interested in criticism that is happening outside the box. As James Wolcott, in a surprisingly toothy article in Vanity Fair puts it, the press is entirely down on both knees before the Bush P.R. machine. Wollcott is not coy about the implication of fellatio, which is still the primo image of servitude in this culture, for reasons we aren't going to explore right now. Anyway, we think it is odd, to say the least, that the press scandals du jour are about the misdeeds of some minor hacks, since really, Blair's mendacity about the sniper didn't 'do' anything, and Rick Bragg's prose extravaganzas about the swampy inlets of Dixie did even less -- but Miller's reports on Iraq, which simply channeled the standard pap from Chalabi, did a lot. John Power at the LA Weekly delivers left view of the sitch:

"This fixation [on the Times] comes as no real surprise; The New York Times occupies a privileged place in our ruling elite�s psyche. It is the establishment organ, the paper that must be reckoned with by anyone interested in wielding power (or even in distributing an indie movie). For those on the right, The Times is a perpetual bugbear and indispensable target � its pre-eminence lets them feel beleaguered even when they are running things. To them, The Times� recent tailspin is sheer jouissance, the giddy B-side of Fox News� orgasmic ascent. They�ll be breathing hard about it for months.

"Not so the establishment liberals, who have long treated the paper as a beacon of enlightenment. Indeed, it wasn�t so long ago that KCRW used to read Times stories aloud on the air (God, that was embarrassing), like dispatches to a primitive local culture. If you believe Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, The Times is the liberals� catnip, so you can imagine the head-clutching agony that greeted the sobering discovery that its reporters could be every bit as reliable as, oh, Geraldo Rivera."

Powers makes the point that the NYT is boring, arrogant, and reliably voices elitist positions -- whether these come out as left or right is secondary.

Anybody who has had the misfortune of running into a NYT man at a conference will have had a taste of what it must be like to be a peasant running into a Marquis at an inn. Arrogance is too mild a word. And we have to agree that the Times, since 9/11 at least, has not been the same. It has been boring. It has been incurious, to say the least, about the mounting list of the administration's lies and spin. It's coverage of the corporate scandals never scratched the surface -- try as some excellent reporters in the business section did to connect the dots. It's coverage of Iraq has been lackluster, riddled with error, and is now in full amnesia stage -- support the troops, but put the casualty counts near the real estate ads. Long ago Joan Didion pointed out that the NYT is not nearly as good as the LAT. We agree. Here's Power's view:

"Anxious to defend their profession�s honor, media columnists have spent weeks moralizing about Blair and Bragg�s dishonesty without ever grappling with the underlying reality that Michael Wolff first pointed out in New York magazine. The print world increasingly cares less about accurate reporting and more about vivid prose. Reporters� careers rise or fall on what Wolff calls their �tradecraft,� the ability to sweeten reality with style-conscious writing, even if that sometimes means pushing a bit beyond the literal facts to a kind of more artistic �truth.� (Think of all those stage-directed White House conversations in Bob Woodward�s books.) In their different ways, the run-amok Blair and vainglorious Bragg just pushed too far."

Actually, we wish this were the truth. But we think that the problem is very different. That "tradecraft" has become so cliche-bound that it is as unlikely a medium in which to broadcast the "truth" as a set of plumber's helpers would be with which to play Beethoven's nineth. The media has generated a whole subculture of experts whose job is to be quoted in the media. Thus, about Iraq, you were much more likely to hear what the 'Arab street' was thinking from a reporter who couldn't speak arabic, quoting a general who couldn't speak Arabic, quoting a think tank honcho who couldn't speak arabic. The astonishng thinness of context of the discourse about Iraq, leading up to, into, through, and passed the War is amazing.

The press in this country has always been opportunistically oppositional. Now, however, as they clot together in behemoth corporations like so many cholesterol molecules around a fat man's heart, they have become simply opportunistic. And being run, for the most part, by illiterate CEOs, they are eager to participate in the systematic looting of the American population's narrative intelligence -- its ability to read, to follow complex stories, to develop a rich sensibility about causes and psychology and fate and tragedy, etc., etc. The level of storytelling intelligence has been steadily lessened in this country, even as the amount of text, and the numbers passing through college, explode. Newspapers, which developed as the enlightenment develped the story sense -- for every newspaper, with its columns of different stories, its material organization, requires a reader who has, at least in a historical sense, passed the Tristam Shandy threshhold of narrative understanding -- have no interest in seeding future readers. They believe that appealing to younger readers means dumbing down the story-lines -- which is about arrogance. As anyone knows, kids develop, or don't, the ability to narrate as they get older. If they are stuck in an environment in which that narrative ability is contextually retarded, they will respond with less ability. That's why education has traditionally been about older people teaching younger people. It is now about older people exploiting younger people for money. And that is disgusting.

Luckily while the narrative sense might atrophy, the tacit knowledge that one is being robbed is still operative -- hence, the great turn-off with regard to the press. Dumbness is not fate -- but it will be selected, in the market, if the level of the market's taste is debauched.


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