Ever since crews began clearing debris from Ground Zero, the strong and sometimes acerbic writing of The New York Times ‘ architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, has helped trigger a citywide-and worldwide-debate over what should stand at the site of New York’s greatest civic disaster.
Critics love to provoke, of course, but with the Ground Zero discussion down to a pair of finalists chosen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, another question is being asked: Is Mr. Muschamp-long a lightning rod for criticism-getting too cozy with his advocacy? Some within the architectural community think so, charging that Mr. Muschamp exhibited a conflict of interest in his read-by-everyone review in the Feb. 6 Times, which promoted the two-tower Ground Zero plan helmed by an architect he knows and has worked with-Rafael Viñoly of the THINK group-while aggressively diminishing the other, Daniel Libeskind’s single-tower, “bathtub”-preserving design.
As the Daily News reported on Feb. 9, a member of Mr. Libeskind’s Berlin office sent out a mass e-mail calling for a grassroots letter campaign to demand Mr. Muschamp’s ouster. The e-mail called Mr. Muschamp’s review-in which he skewered Mr. Libeskind’s plan as an “astonishingly tasteless idea”-“incoherent and almost crazy” and stated that “this time, Muschamp went too far.”
“Please get rid of this guy,” the e-mail said.
That a member of Mr. Libeskind’s team would be so outraged by Mr. Muschamp’s review is hardly surprising. (Talk about a conflict of interest.) What’s more, neither Mr. Libeskind nor his wife, Nina, was aware the letter had been sent out, and the e-mailing employee later apologized for his actions and withdrew his call to arms.
But other architecture heavies, unattached to either Ground Zero plan, are also put off. Robert Ivy, the editor of Architectural Record , was among those who saw Mr. Muschamp’s dismissal of Mr. Libeskind and his praise of Mr. Viñoly and THINK as part of what they see as his habit of praising the work of architects he knows at the expense of others. Mr. Viñoly, Mr. Ivy and others contend, has received years of favorable treatment from Mr. Muschamp, and was included in the group of architects Mr. Muschamp hand-picked for a Sept. 8 Times Magazine article about the Ground Zero redevelopment. (That article itself was controversial, since critics charged it moved Mr. Muschamp from a mere reviewer to an active participant in the lower-Manhattan redevelopment process.)
“We all know the admiration he has for Rafael Viñoly and his work,” said Mr. Ivy, who, in a December editorial in the Architectural Record called for The Times to hire a second architectural critic to broaden the paper’s coverage. “Viñoly’s a wonderful architect and done wonderful work, but I think his [Mr. Muschamp’s] admiration has clouded his perception. This wouldn’t be a question if he didn’t attack Libeskind in the way he did. He sees it as a clear-cut case when it’s not.”
In a similar vein, Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter, said: “I think the temptation on the part of any critic is to write about the people he’s most familiar with. His ideas tend to be very insular and didactic. I’ve said this to him over lunch and it’s like hitting a wall. His work would be commendable if it weren’t so selfish and didactic.”
Mr. Muschamp is unmoved. In an interview with Off the Record, Mr. Muschamp declined to talk about the e-mail from Mr. Libeskind’s staffer, but appeared to relish the clamor.
“I like conflict,” Mr. Muschamp said. “I made my views on this very clear: One of the reasons it’s great to write about architecture is that it promotes conflict.”
As for Mr. Libeskind, Mr. Muschamp said: “I’ve said marvelous things about Libeskind’s work in the past. I felt the Jewish Museum in Berlin was admirable. Attempting to analyze why one does it and why doesn’t do it for me is perhaps the subject for a column itself: One’s poetry and one’s rhetoric.”
Mr. Muschamp described himself as “fairly independent” in his judgment. “But I’m in the discrimination and assessment business,” he said. “I feel like that’s what The Times is paying me to do.”
Mr. Muschamp has been down this road before. In 2000, Judith Shulevitz called him on the carpet in Slate for his role in helping both to select, and then to appraise the design for, The Times ‘ new headquarters. But this time, critics argue, there’s more at stake. Mr. Muschamp’s work directly involves one of the greatest and most debated architectural undertakings in New York City history. At a time when, as Mr. Ivy pointed out, “you have bartenders asking about Daniel Libeskind,” critics think Mr. Muschamp’s writing has been too abstract and not tied to real questions of urban planning.
Said Mr. Bell: “I wish I could say he’s been productive.”
Susan S. Szenasy, editor of Metropolis , another architecture magazine, said she felt Mr. Muschamp had missed a great opportunity.
“He’s a real seasoned thinker, and he really could create better understanding,” Ms. Szenasy said. “But he’s only added to the confusion. He’s only interested in writing about whatever historical architectural reference he can dig up. Does that help us? Does that make clear what exactly we’re talking about? No.
“We’re confused,” Ms. Szenasy continued. “People are going to the THINK plan because when we lose something, we want what we know. Do we really want the towers back? Well, we want something.”
But the Times critic sounded nonplused-and content to ride out the complaints. Asked about what he saw as his role in the World Trade Center story, Mr. Muschamp said: “I’ve never had a vision for the site. The issues here are less architectural than they are educational. I don’t think I’m outspoken as a critic. I didn’t wake up this morning thinking, ‘Who can I offend today?’
“Judgments need to be made,” Mr. Muschamp continued. “There are ideas in certain circles of architecture that hold architecture back, and hold the city back from being like Paris and the other great cites of the world.”
Mr. Muschamp added that he was aware he “made people uncomfortable.”
“I’m not really frightened,” he said. “I don’t care what people think of me.”
For most of Time ‘s 80-year history, nearly every man, woman and child from the United States, Nigeria, Guam and Aquaman’s kingdom of Atlantis who wrote a letter to the publication got one in return. Some were form letters, of course, but most were actual personalized responses from the magazine’s “letters correspondents.”
One Time source called that “part of the tradition that set Time apart.”
But now that practice, like other anachronistic but strangely wonderful traditions cast aside since the ill-fated Time Warner–AOL merger in 2001, has come to an end. After letting two correspondents go after the merger in 2001, the magazine recently cut two of the three remaining correspondents in February (the department secretary was also let go). In addition, Time stopped its “Letters Report,” a weekly newsletter that summarized and analyzed the mail the magazine received each week for some 400 Time editorial employees, which had been published since 1938. The latter will be replaced by a much more abbreviated online version.
John Shostrom, Time Inc.’s representative in the Newspaper Guild, blamed the company’s cash-dropping New Economy partner.
“We find it completely ludicrous that a division whose profits increased 17 percent in 2002 is suffering job cuts,” Mr. Shostrom said. “America Online has been a disaster, and we’re paying for America Online’s sins. If we were a free-standing company making a 17 percent profit, we’d be fine.”
Asked about the recent decisions, Betty Satterwhite, Time ‘s letters editor and the chief of the letters department, said: “What can I say? The company lost $100 million last year. It’s an ongoing process, and departments are being reviewed annually-probably monthly these days. They’re looking at individual departments to cut, and we got looked at.”
Time managing editor Jim Kelly referred the matter to deputy managing editor Steve Koepp. Mr. Koepp, who began his career at Time in the letters department 22 years ago, in 1981, said the practice had outlived its practicality.
“You don’t have to spend half a day to craft an elaborate response to a particular story,” Mr. Koepp said. “Now we get the vast majority of mail from e-mail, which can be answered quickly. It isn’t an elaborate process anymore. If you break it down, each one doesn’t need to get an individual response.
“It’s something I feel nostalgic about, because I could see the value in a reader getting an individualized response,” Mr. Koepp said. “But say 20 years ago, when someone took the effort to sit at a typewriter and write a letter, a typewritten letter on cream-colored stationery seemed like the appropriate thing. If people send us a quick e-mail, a quick e-mail back seems like an appropriate thing.”
Ms. Satterwhite added: “We get a fair amount of mail from readers that’s the equivalent of form letters, too. It’s a whole new world of communication.”
When asked if the move had anything to do with AOL Time Warner’s recent disastrous earnings results, Mr. Koepp said: ” Time has its own budget, and it meets its own budget as it sees fit. We always evaluate how we can spend our money in the best way possible. This is the outcome of that process.”
Robert Cushing, the magazine’s last letters correspondent, said he’d try to do the most with diminished resources.
“We will be answering many fewer letters with personal replies,” he said. “The main concern is to sort stuff for the letters page. Those that really, really need a reply will get it. Those calling attention to an error will get a reply; big shots, Congressmen will get replies. But a lot of the other stuff, forget about it.”
When word came down that assistant news editor Tom Jolly would be taking charge of The New York Times ‘ sports department, it ended months of navigating difficult waters with what one Times sports staffer deemed a “lame-duck crew.” First, the department and the paper received criticism for its coverage of the Augusta National controversy. Later, it became a magnet for First Amendment protests after word leaked out that executive editor Howell Raines had killed pieces by two sports columnists, Harvey Araton and Dave Anderson, that disagreed with the stance of paper’s editorial board on the issue.
While Mr. Raines had promised members of the staff that a successor to the departing Neil Amdur would be in place by the end of 2002, Mr. Amdur remained into February, long after his own retirement party last December.
So what took so long? According to several sources at The Times , Mr. Raines had deemed Terry Taylor, sports editor for the Associated Press, his top choice for the job. Ms. Taylor had, according to sources, spent a lot of time at The Times ‘ headquarters on 43rd Street during January and had several discussions with Mr. Raines about the future of the section. However, when it came time for a decision, Ms. Taylor turned down The Times ‘ offer, opting to stay at the A.P.
Ms. Taylor’s rejection all but ended the chances that the paper would spend more time trying to interview and recruit another outside candidate, and it quickly acted on Feb. 5 to put Mr. Jolly in charge.
Ms. Taylor and Mr. Jolly did not return phone calls seeking comment. A Times spokesperson declined to comment.
The New York Times continues to reshuffle its foreign bureaus. In 2001, Frank Bruni, Elaine Sciolino and David Rohde all took top spots in Rome, Paris and New Delhi, respectively.
Now, the paper’s set to make changes in Japan. According to Times sources, Norimitsu Onishi, who heads the paper’s bureau in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast, will take over as bureau chief in Tokyo. Meanwhile, according to one Times source, current bureau chief Howard French will become The Times ‘ man in Shanghai in the summer of 2004, following a year of intensive lessons in Chinese.
Mr. French, when contacted by Off the Record, declined to comment. Mr. Onishi did not respond to a request seeking comment by deadline.
In addition, media writer Felicity Barringer will become the new United Nations bureau chief. Ms. Barringer (who declined a request for comment) will replace Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Preston, who’s becoming a deputy editor in the newly formed investigations department.
“It’s not perfect,” Ms. Preston, who’s only been at the U.N. since last August, said, referring to the timing of the move. “But we needed to get the department up and running.”
As for her short tenure at the U.N., Ms. Preston said: “I started when Dick Cheney made his first speech about Iraq. Last week was Colin Powell. You don’t get any better than that.”
On Saturday, Feb. 8, the New York Post went predictably bonkers with a story headlined “Nutty nudes protest war,” about a group of naked people who registered their displeasure with the Iraq buildup by spelling out “No Bush” while lying in the snow in front of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain on Feb. 7.
It made for a fun read, one that played rather neatly into the Post ‘s gung-ho attitude about an Iraqi invasion and its general glib dismissal of protesters, naked or not. But the full-color photo accompanying the piece was a little bit of a coffee-spitter, since even though it was a long-distance shot, it clearly contained multiple vaginas.
While the Post is not exactly a family newspaper-indeed, it may be the newspaper you don’t bring home to Mama-the Spencer Tunick–esque nudie parade was nevertheless a bit of a surprise. To think of all the innocent young children who pick up the Post every day to read the straight-and-narrow musings of John Podhoretz and Michelle Malkin, only to flip the paper open to a big thatch of … pubes.
Post editor in chief Col Allan thought the buck-naked splash wasn’t a big deal. “You should get a sense of humor,” Mr. Allan said through a spokesperson.