“Way to go!” That was how the writer and critic Lee Siegel greeted the news that, come September, The New York Times will be dissolving its Saturday Arts & Ideas section and incorporating “ideas” stories into the rest of the paper.
Mr. Siegel is not alone in feeling vindicated by the section’s imminent demise. Since its launch in 1997, the section has become a favorite punching bag for intellectual journalists of all stripes, with Mr. Siegel shouting where others have only dared to whisper. (In a New Republic article in 1998, he famously called Arts & Ideas “a weekly banana peel dropped in the path of human intelligence.”) “The problem with the section was the nature of the section,” Mr. Siegel said. “You just can’t isolate ‘ideas’ from the rest of culture, of life.”
For his part, Steven Erlanger, the paper’s culture editor, said The Times was committed to doing “more ideas reporting, not less”-just not in its own designated section. Meanwhile, Patricia Cohen, the section’s founding and current editor, seemed peculiarly agnostic about the demise of her realm. “I created the section, so obviously I think it was a good idea to put these stories together,” Ms. Cohen said. “Having said that, there are many ways to effectively cover any subject, and the paper is still committed to covering those stories.”
Indeed, one could say that Ms. Cohen’s non-response points to the most frequently heard criticism of the section: Its on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach makes for toothless coverage of ideas that already don’t necessarily lend themselves to newspaper word-lengths or style. As one intellectual journalist and Times -watcher summed up the problem: “They don’t use semi-colons.”
“I never felt it had a very strong identity,” Jay Rosen, a press critic and professor at the New York University School of Journalism, said of the section. “I could never figure out what the idea was, although it seemed to me that [columnist] Ed Rothstein, who I respect as a journalist and a writer, was kind of the voice of the thing.”
But Mr. Rosen wasn’t prepared to dance on the section’s grave just yet. “I don’t think they should have killed it; they should have improved it,” he said. “Instead of ‘The section failed,’ why not say ‘We failed the section,’ which would mean ‘This was a good idea’-and it still is-‘but we couldn’t deploy ourselves the right way.’ If you start a religion section and then decide it’s boring, did religion fail? The subject has the responsibility to make itself vivid and alive?” he said.
The problem may be that the section seemed blithely uninterested in wooing the kind of readers who seemed most likely to want to devour it every week. A former editor at the Washington Post Style section, Ms. Cohen said she aimed the section at “the general reader.”
“You don’t need to have a Ph.D. to understand these articles,” Ms. Cohen said. “I think basically the reason Joe Lelyveld chose to hire someone like myself with a newspaper background as opposed to someone in the academic world, or perhaps from Lingua Franca -I know he’d talked to people there before he talked to me-was exactly that reason. It’s a difficult line to walk between the experts-the intellectuals who know their subject in incredible depth-and the general reader.”
Ms. Cohen said she chose not to “replicate” the opinions offered on the Op-Ed page and in the Week in Review. “I think covering ideas as news is actually refreshing,” she said. “From the beginning, I didn’t want to approach the stories with an agenda. The point was not to publish my idea or your idea about a subject, but to cover the intellectual world with the same sophistication and detail that the paper covers other subjects.”
Yet some say this approach was the section’s fatal flaw. “The only idea given sovereignty at a newspaper is, ‘We cover all sides; we take the view from nowhere.’ And that’s fatal to ideas journalism,” said Mr. Rosen. “The best ideas journalism has always been, and is now, in places with an editorial perspective.”
The section’s news formula was easy to parody. Here’s Mr. Siegel’s riff: “Professor A thinks that all urban Americans more than 20 pounds overweight should be exterminated in order to increase leg room on buses and subways. Professor B thinks this violated the civil rights of overweight people. Of course, this is an old argument, one that goes back to the first century, when the Romans would routinely shorten their slaves in order to have a clearer view of the street during rush hours. Professor C thinks that this argument will continue ‘for as long as people share the public space with other people.'”
Another risk of covering ideas as news is the tendency to create forced trends. “The bad thing is, the section looked at the world of ideas the way newspapers almost always do: Either you write about scandal, or you write about big trends,” said Robert Boynton, who directs the graduate magazine-journalism program at N.Y.U.’s journalism school. Or, as Mr. Siegel put it, “If Professor Hoffenstoffen at the University of Okefenokee wrote a revisionist history of the washing machine, then this meant that American intellectuals were now turning to the formal study of major appliances.”
Yet even as a news section, the section wasn’t exactly breaking news. “I don’t feel like it set the pace for coverage of ideas,” said Scott McLemee, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education . “Obviously I still looked at it every week, and I still kicked myself now and then, but I almost never had a sense they were going to scoop me.”
Times have changed. The Arts & Ideas section was conceived during the waning years of the culture wars, when intellectual debates often fell along more ideological lines. Steve Wasserman, the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review , who said he spoke to The Times early on about joining the section but took himself out of the running for its editorship in 1996, said the original idea for Arts & Ideas was to track the “epiphenomena” in the culture that produced, say, a photographer like Robert Mapplethorpe-before the story became a legislative one about curtailing funding to the National Endowment for the Arts for sponsoring erotic work like Mapplethorpe’s.
” The Times became seized with the notion that ideas have consequences. The idea was to report the ideas even before the consequences are made palpable in a political sense; it seemed to me enlightened,” Mr. Wasserman said. Whether the section lived up to its promise is another question entirely. “I think it did fitfully do so, but it increasingly seemed rudderless,” he added. “Early on in the first year and a half of its life, I knew a fair number of writers who turned to it with enthusiasm. After that, it was ever less relevant.”
Scott McLemee agreed that there was a strong whiff of the passé in The Times ‘ approach to the world of ideas. “There was a period of time 10 years ago that what was happening in the humanities lent itself to the culture-war framework-an entrenched position versus avant-garde or postmodern,” he said. “Those kind of fights were winding down, but were still pretty strong. I don’t know when the entropy began to kick in, but it sure did. And it became more artificial to frame things in the same way.”
Alexander Stille, an ideas journalist who has been on contract with Arts & Ideas, said newspaper coverage of culture is more important than ever. “After the end of the Cold War, I think cultural stories gained dramatically in importance. Instead of there being a kind of conflict in the world between ideologies and military alliances, the main problems in the globalized world were fundamentally cultural,” said Mr. Stille, who teaches at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and took time off from writing for The Times earlier this year to write a book. “Sept. 11 is ultimately about a clash of cultures,” Mr. Stille said.
Mr. Stille called it a “strategic mistake” to dissolve the section. “I think there’s a big danger, if you get rid of it as a special section and simply disperse [ideas stories] throughout the paper during the course of the week in the regular news sections, that the effect of those stories is simply diluted,” he said. “If they can figure out a better, more imaginative way of doing something like this, that’s great. The answer is not to get rid of it.”
What about bringing in a new editor? Some people familiar with the section said The Times had tried to replace Ms. Cohen before. Ms. Cohen was offered a job on the national desk in 2000, but she insisted on keeping her place at Arts & Ideas. (Ms. Cohen said she wanted a more flexible schedule and “it’s fun to run your own shop.” ) The rest of the section’s staff, including Mr. Rothstein and two reporters, Emily Eakin and Felicia Lee, is now in limbo, waiting to see where The Times will send them.
For his part, Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor of the Book Review -who before taking his new post was a distinguished ideas journalist himself-said the dissolution of Arts & Ideas was “news to me.” But he offered a ray of hope to those who think the paper of record should be a more forceful presence in the world of ideas. At the Book Review , he said, “we certainly intend to do features of various kinds in addition to reviewing books. Some will be book-related ideas pieces. Absolutely.”