Out here on the East End, a recent Monday was what seems to be turning out to be a more or less typical day in “the Age of Information.” Hardware problems rendered America Online unable to process e-mail right through the working day. More important, another set of hardware problems, this time at The New York Times ‘ new hyper-tech printing plant, resulted for the second time in three weeks in no copies of the Gray Lady making it out here.
Did either lacuna make a difference? Not really, although I belong to a generation that always misses its Times . A few more failures may inure me to going Times -less, however.
If that happens, what will I be missing? There are a lot of people around today who would be quick to answer: nothing! The paper isn’t what it used to be, they’ll tell you. Look at the recent makeover, color for Lord’s sakes! I mean, really!
That to some extent such detractors have a point seems inarguable. Delivery of the paper resumed the following morning, and a day or two later, there appeared in what is now called the Arts section an article as repellent and “un- Times -worthy” as any I can recall in over 50 years of nearly continuous Times reading, since I first began to devour its sports pages (along with those of the News , the Journal-American , the Herald-Tribune and the World-Telegram and Sun ) back in 1946.
This was a lickspittle encomium of Donald Trump by the paper’s architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, who has taken over the bricks-and-mortar beat. The latter was previously the province of Paul Goldberger, who now continues his inexorable ascent toward the very summit of Trivial Heaven, rather in the fashion of a Guido Reni Madonna, in the pages of the weekly curate’s egg edited by Ms. Tina Brown. Oddly, it was Mr. Goldberger who previously held the blue ribbon for egregious 43rd Street upsuckery, for a piece hailing Ralph Lauren-to readers of this space affectionately known as “the Wee Haberdasher”-as the muse of this brave new era of getting and spending. Immediately after the appearance of this puff, a noticeable upgrading or improvement in Mr. Goldberger’s personal sartorial splendor was observable, although whether a line may be drawn between the inferential dots I cannot-nor would ever dare to-hazard a guess.
Mr. Muschamp pulled out all the stops in his paean to the Prince of Swine, as Mr. Trump has been called in this space since October 1987, although he is not the sort of porker of whom E.B. White’s divine spider Charlotte would write “Some pig!”
In the event, while I didn’t expect the Times critic to dwell on the below-code cement with which the Prince of Swine specs his grandiose projects, Mr. Muschamp seemed most excited that he was on the Swine’s speed-dial list; his “criticism” was basically a fluttery wallow in the thrill of acquaintance. The thing is, it was surprising to find such crap in The Times . But-sadly-not surprising enough.
So what is it, then, with the paper? All around town, the hatchets are out, the sparks fly bright from the media grinding-wheels. Has The Times gone where its detractors claim it has: right down the toilet?
I think the answer has to be, “Yes, but …”
I base this on the following conclusion, which is also premise: The Times prides itself on being the “paper of the Establishment.” The journal to which whoever it is who is doing “the establishing” at a given time turns first with the unspoken question, “What does The Times say?” It will, therefore, at any given time reflect the character (I use the word in its broadest sense) of said Establishment.
If the Establishment changes radically, so must The Times , if only to protect its franchise and reconsolidate its influence. It’s a two-step process: In order to rule the Joneses’ mind, you must first keep up with them. To beat ‘em, in other words, first you got to join ‘em.
Now consider today’s Establishment. All those people on all those lists of the “100 Most Powerful …” in government, media, the “new world order.” The Forbes 400.
This is an Establishment only interested in making money and reading about itself, whose intellectual requirements seem more than adequately served by Vanity Fair and, it must be admitted, to an increasing and, to this writer, discomfiting degree by this newspaper. An Establishment to whom taste-which can be a function of mere expenditure-is the primary hallmark of distinction. Character and grace really don’t come into the equation. Social inequity is beside the point; name-dropping-what in The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald meant by “the consoling proximity of millionaires”-is the thing. You strive to get in the Council of Foreign Relations so you can drop that you belong, not because you give a damn about the Mideast peace process. As a Times Op-Ed pointed out, where were the Sinologists at the White House dinner for the Chinese premier? Instead, those in attendance seemed largely drawn from the class-why is it that the name “Kissinger” blinks from every such list, as if writ in neon-that consists mainly in an ability to take great fistfuls of money above or (more usually) under the table in return for securing the profit of private enterprise at the cost of public standards.
The point is well illustrated by something I heard about George Soros. He is said to have complained to a friend that all the papers talk about is how much money he has and how much he’s giving away, and not about his ideas. I like and admire Mr. Soros, and I feel for him, but this is a world, don’t you see, in which any asshole can have an idea, but to have $500 million to give away, well, that’s something! What’s newsworthy about an idea!
Such an Establishment, in which everything is relative and valued strictly in terms of the “last sale,” is unserved by a journalistic tradition descended from Arthur Krock and James B. Reston and Turner Catledge. It’s that simple. Unserve too long, and you become unsought: As long as you can keep playing, however, there’s a chance you can recoup; tap out, and your seat at the table goes to someone else.
None of this is very comforting to us oldsters, many of whom now think we were a little too quick to hand this country over to the next generation, exemplified by the President, whose values and standards of conduct make Donald Trump look like Francis of Assisi. A generation whose intellectual éclat is typified by the all-new Time , which recently circulated a list of the 100 most important people of the century that included Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando but left out Hitler.
But this is a generational thing. When I was at prep school and college, great numbers of young people subscribed to The Times . It was just something you did, along with memorizing dates and passages from Shakespeare, and studying history. You acquired context, which-among other things-informs wit, which may be why people who really love Maureen Dowd, as I do, tend to be over 60. She knows stuff, probably thanks to good learning habits early acquired at the feet of Jesuits. I’m usually asked by people around 40 if I find her funny. At least they don’t ask me why. I don’t know how I’d be able to explain it without getting into stuff.
Do college kids today still subscribe at the rates we used to? I’d be surprised. Why read a paper that tries to print intelligent letters from readers when any cretin can cut loose in some “chat room”? On AOL’s Influence “channel,” just to show you, The Times has eight click-stops: six under “Good Living,” which is food, etc., just two under “Arts.” “Point of View”? “Education”? Don’t come into it. AOL’s Influence channel, incidentally, is where you can find this paper’s Web site.
A great many things died in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and among them, I can’t help thinking, was what is generally called the “Enlightenment Project.” This was the notion that human conduct was improvable through education, knowledge and reflection. Its greatest manifestation on a mass-market scale may have been the G.I. Bill, next to the abolition of slavery the greatest step toward national improvement this nation has ever taken. For all but a few recent months of its life, The Times has, in its way, been a monument to the Enlightenment Project, regularly visiting the grave, lighting candles, laying wreaths.
By 1968, however, the children of the G.I. Bill generation were old enough for free love, drugs, Chicago riots and the abolition of history. By 1998, their children, to whom education was now little more that a good way to fill up the inconvenient interval between puberty and Goldman, Sachs & Company, had formed a generation to whom the Black-Scholes model for options pricing is more consequential in the great scheme of things than e=mc2.
From the conflation of these generations has risen the Establishment that The Times is determined to serve. You can hate it, but you cannot blame it. After all, it is, like us, only human-determined to survive.