Ten years ago on Sept. 28, this paper and this column began life together. Since then, The Midas Watch has been interrupted only by two periods of artistic disgruntlement and one extended trip abroad. Ten years-and what were once the closely reasoned, skillfully expressed judgments of a vital man in the first bloom of middle age have degenerated into the ravings, musings, ramblings, call them what you will, of an “old blowhard.”
Such is the sobriquet hung on the present writer in the section devoted to media in the annual “Best of New York” issue of the New York Press . The latter is a lively downtown giveaway whose name I hesitate even to murmur here in the sacred precincts of our great organ, the paper of record of Jamie Tarses and someone in TV named “Morton something or other.” (Or is it “something or other Morton”?) As you can imagine, “the Best of …” in this context frequently means “the Worst of …” and indeed the New York Press has frequently been on this paper’s and this writer’s case, but so what: One can hardly expect oil to pay homage to water, or downtown to uptown.
Chagrin born of envy must account for the Press ‘ spite. We have the demographics. Arthur Gimlet, for example, wouldn’t know the Press from The Police Gazette , but never misses an issue of The Observer . Indeed, a neatly folded, fresh-off-the-press copy of our paper awaits him at his regular Wednesday-night table at Balthazar, which he peruses avidly when not otherwise engaged in trying to solve the extractive mystery posed by the specialty of the house, a giant plateau de fruits de mer : namely, how to eat a periwinkle.
That other journals work us over from time to time therefore doesn’t bother me. I expect it, and I don’t always or entirely disagree with what they or most other critics say about my or my colleagues’ work. (Indeed, I agree with everything James Wolcott had to say in the recent Vanity Fair .) All one can do is soldier on.
So don’t let your salmon-colored loyalty hold you back, Dear Reader. By the time this is published, a few copies of “The Best of …” should still be around. The Press ‘ take is by no means comprehensive; no “Best of/Worst of …” media survey could be so described that leaves out Charlie Rose, of whom let me just say ( deleted-Ed .). But it is worth looking into, if only to help the self-examining spirit reflect on a question that has increasingly vexed the Old Blowhard as time has gone by: What has been the media’s role in the cultural transformation of New York north of 14th Street from the true cosmopolis of 20 years ago into a provincial city more narrow and parochial in its preoccupations than, say, Satsuma, Fla.
Considerable, one would have to allow. But perhaps not for the reasons customarily adduced, having vaguely to do with “market-driven” Philistinism, tycoon control of the media or the unholy bargain struck at the turn of the 80’s between proponents of uptown “high culture” and neo-conservative free-marketeers, a now-fraying alliance (see recent Wall Street Journal editorials passim ) that at the time provided the former with political capital and the latter with intellectual respectability. What the Press ‘ survey points up is how completely, and (by extension) how catastrophically, the New York-based media has fenced itself in with self-absorption. How totally the sound of its own voice has been allowed to drown out every other noise, those cries and whispers the press notionally exists to amplify and elaborate.
The O.B. thinks this has been carried to the point that we “the New York media elite” have become so ingrown that we are virtually irrelevant to most people living outside 10 Manhattan, two or three Los Angeles, and five or six Suffolk County ZIP codes. You would think irrelevancy would be like a dagger to the heart of a journalist who cared about the dignity of the profession, but what is relevancy compared to the right table at the Four Seasons? Or perhaps that’s what relevancy really is: the approval of one’s peers, by which is meant the deference of headwaiters and the awareness of one’s existence by a smallish pyramid of perhaps a thousand people worldwide, topped by the handful of names who lead the “Most Important” lists compiled annually by glossy suck books like Vanity Fair (much admired by the editor-proprietor of the Press , just so you know).
Thus the press, which should be a roaring, red-blooded, damn-the-torpedoes force for objectivity, merit, innovation, creativity and social equity achieved by holding the toes of the rich and famous to the fire, has been transformed into a coarsely deferential, self-serving (and, ultimately, in my view, self-cannibalizing), exclusionary, publicist-driven ancien régime des nouveaux . With the exception of The New York Times , which on the whole clings to ancient dignity and sense of mission, and Newsday , not widely circulated in Manhattan, the city’s daily newspapers read like corporate newsletters, house organs of a wagons-circled, limited-access pecking order based on self-congratulation, backscratching, book contracts and talk-show slots, on reciprocity, celebrity and logrolling. Sclerotic, sold-out and gene-thinned, just what you’d expect of a social order based on incest and inbreeding, with money serving as its gene pool. The very model of a rusted-out industrial backwater.
What should be about substance is now all almost entirely about process-as if anyone concerned with what or who is really worth a damn in the great scheme of things gives a s– about what Robert Morton’s up to or the latest editorial changes at Details . Creativity has given way to opportunism as the prime career skill. This makes no sense. What matters about TV, for instance, is whether the shows are any good-are they amusing, inspiring, enlightening, well written, whatever is wanted-not how they got made and what deals were cut along the way. New shows should be written about, may I add, the way Marvin Kitman writes about them in Newsday (day in, day out offering the best lineup of critics in the city) or John O’Connor in The Times : critically, not as if the “critic” had just sent his résumé and a treatment off to Aaron Spelling or the wretched Ms. Tarses or wants to show off his familiarity with the seating charts of Elaine’s or the Ivy. Gossip should be what people don’t what known about them; today, nine out of 10 gossip items are fragrant with the stink of the publicist’s hand.
In the new New York scheme of things, process now seems to be all the media do give a damn about. Not principle, not product. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, who’s seen with whom: not what’s good or true or beautiful or to be sought by a civil and cultivated society. Ninety percent of the ink spilled in the wake of the death of the Princess of Wales ended up sloshing round and round concentric channels of media self-regard. What good did that do anyone? What useful insight was gained?
Of course, this has its amusing side. A bunch of us have an argument going on about which wee beast the managing editor of a once highly regarded newsweekly most resembles when he enters an A-list room, eyes bright and beady as cadmium marbles as they dart hither and thither-not in search of news, but to determine who the most important figure present is, and how quickest to dart through the throng to said figure’s side. A potto? A lemur? A bush baby? A wombat? Me, I’m holding out for the potto, but the wombat faction may well carry the day.
Then there’s the Zuckerman Dilemma, easily as vexing to its Hamletlike eponym as Fermat’s Last Theorem to mathematicians: Does Mort abandon the present profitable formula to publish a Daily News more likely to please the hundred or so people whose respect he so desperately covets, people whose dubious values and mayfly attention-span have already been pre-empted by the New York Post? No: He’s too astute a businessman for that. Should he build from where he is, and publish the gritty populist tabloid the 1990’s city needs and deserves, a house organ for the coming class war, and risk being placed below the salt at Le Cirque and in the corridor at Alice Mason’s? No: He’s too driven socially to do that, and he’s got buildings to buy and put up. Thus conscience-or the lack thereof-doth make cowards of them all.
With media leadership like this, truth languishes, art dies, Trumpery flourishes and Baghdad on the Hudson becomes as parochial intellectually and civically as Satsuma on the St. John’s. Instead of the music of the spheres, our media record the pitter-patter of the usual suspects’ tiny feet as they rush from sound bite to sound bite and back again, quite unaware that in places like Dubuque there are in fact little old ladies who wonder what became of the wondrous, sophisticated, illuminating New York of the spirit they once read about in The New Yorker , the cutting-edge New York people my age once lived in before swine ran wild down Park Avenue, waving building permits and interest-rate swaps. The New York all of us once worshipped back in the Golden Era before Kissinger, Kravis and Krispy Kreme.
Gone with the wind, I guess, done to death by weaving spiders.