Monday, August 24, 2009

Once More -- It's More Than Paper and Ink

A blogger named Lewis Grossberger -- who probably would object to my referring to him as "a blogger named Lewis Grossberger," in that he seems to post identically on more than one blog, has written books, was a columnist for MediaWeek, teaches Humor and Comedy Writing at NYU, and graduated from Syracuse, of which my son will in nine months be an alumnus, and therefore I Simply Should Know Who He Is -- takes Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt to the cleaners over a skanky column in the Times about J.C. Penney Co. (see, a department store link at last!) opening a store in Manhattan. No, not to the cleaners. He puts him through the chemical process of dry cleaning. He pulls every thread from his garment.

The skanky column isn't the media divide. (I read the lede of it aloud to my boss. She laughed and thought it was really funny. I was queasy about it myself.) Newspapers have always done weird things. The divide is between Clark's saying this:

Writer Cintra "Wilson told me she usually writes about 'obscure stores that don’t exist outside of Manhattan,' and she thinks of her audience as '1,300 women in Connecticut and urban gay guys in Manhattan.' She said it was 'kind of provincial of me' not to realize how big The Times was and how her audience would expand when she reviewed a store like Penney’s." ... Wilson's "sort of arch tone is pushing it even when reviewing the highbrow likes of Christian Louboutin, Gucci or Christian Lacroix. It really doesn’t work when taking on a mainstream retailer like J. C. Penney."

And Lewis' saying this:

"Hoyt, Keller, the rest of you fatuous, Sanforized twits, let me explain something to you that for some reason they don’t teach in journalism school. I’ll make it simple: Funny not bad. Funny good! People like funny. Funny make people larf. People larf, people feel good! They maybe buy paper again. True, funny usually offend some jackball or other. Too bad! Why you always scared silly of a few whining dunces? Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke."

In other words, Wilson got to write what she thought of as, well, sort of a blog, which was published in the New York Times, and probably was treated basically as a blog by its readers -- we know you, Cintra, we're hip to you and you're hip to us -- and decided to blog (in print) about how just, eew, middle-American polyester Penney's is. (Does this mean that -- gasp -- Manhattan is suddenly Like the Rest of America?) Readers saw the headline about Penney's -- readers who weren't hip to Cintra -- and read it because, well, lots of people buy clothes at Penney's and are interested in Penney's. Cintra basically said they were all fat and tasteless. (Penney's said the average weight of a woman in the U.S. is 150. They also said, basically, that they quickly realized that was not the case in Manhattan.)

Readers wrote in to say they were offended. The Times was putting down the Average American. The Times was making fun of everyone who couldn't have been in "Sex and the City." Not some writer named Cintra Wilson. The New York Times was making fun of them. So, Clark Hoyt, Bill Keller, everyone at the Times basically lines up and says, yeah, this was a Bad Thing for us to do. And Lewis Grossberger responds: They don't get it! It's fucking funny! Otherwise the Times is JUST LIKE SHOPPERS AT PENNEY'S! It's just a big, lumbering, middle-class, middle-income, middlebrow organization. It's Brian Williams vs. Jon Stewart. (Forget that recent poll that showed Stewart to be Walter Cronkite's successor as the Most Trusted Man. As the writer in Entertainment Tonight noted, it was results of online readers of his column who bothered to respond, not an actual poll. They might get Cintra, too.)

In other words, a lot of this never-ending argument isn't old media vs. new media. It's square vs. hip. It's we get it vs. you don't. It's the quasi-public-utility approach newspapers adopted when competing newspapers largely went by the wayside in the 1970s and 1980s (our job is to serve everyone and thus we should never purposelessly offend anyone) vs. those who feel that the job is to just do it and if you don't like it, it's because you're stupid, not me. It's once again saying, our real problem is that we should have better customers. Unfortunately, newspapers -- even the New York Times -- are more like Penney's than Bendel's, and so this is what we have.

(Full disclosure: Worked with Clark Hoyt on a couple of projects when we were both part of Knight Ridder. Found him to be a straightforward person. His view of a responsible press would not include taking cheap shots at Penney's customers even if he were still working for the Free Press.)

(Second full disclosure: Boy, how embarrassing, that I got Cintra Wilson's first name wrong -- even after I went back to Clark Hoyt's post to double-check that I had it right, because something seemed wrong about it. And then I had it wrong anyway. Who double-checks the copy editors? When they blog, no one, which is why everyone needs an editor. At any rate, I've corrected it throughout the copy, and thanks for catching it!)


Brian Cubbison said...

I knew we could expect insight from the foremost authority on the subject of newspapers and department stores.

Dying is easy; comedy is hard. The New York Times writer was shooting for something between and H.L. Mencken, and she failed. Jon Stewart's gift, regardless of politics, is that he uses a sharp wit against powerful buffoons. That's different from casting snark and cheap shots. That's something The Washington Post's Dana Milbank also learned.

There's the matter of context, which does have a new media element to it, like the young blogger whose too-much-information diary entry for a few friends is suddenly read across the nation. The New York Times blogger was writing for a niche that suddenly became The New York Times.

If the Times wants to be, then stand up for what this blogger did. Say "hey, that's her niche" and don't look back. But the Times wants to think it's not that niche, and it's embarrassed when it discovers otherwise.

Perry Gaskill said...

First of all, the original column was by Cintra and not Chandra Wilson. Who copy edits the copy editor?

Personally, and this is difficult to explain, I found the Wilson column un-funny, somewhat mean spirited, and it seemed to lack a self-deprecatory element for balance. Wilson is probably a wit at Upper East Side parties, but it's not surprising her writing doesn't travel that well beyond the Hudson River.

All of which raises a more interesting issue, and that's the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the New York Times itself. By trying to be both the national newspaper of record, and the hometown rag for Planet Manhattan, the Times has placed itself in a position of trying to please readers who care if "Halston died for the sin of masstige" and other readers who shop at WalMart.

Anonymous said...

So, "Funny make people larf." Fine. There could have been more humor without the meanness; many items in the Onion manage to skewer middle America without sounding so holier-than-thou.

Snideness and superiority, Mr. Grossberger, make people barf.

Davisull said...

First, Perry Gaskill, thank you for your catching my error, and I would reply in person except I do not see a link from your post. I have corrected the post and put in an apologia.

Second, I agree very much with your point that the Times is schizophrenic, and further think that this has had a bad effect on journalism in general. A newspaper is, almost by definition, a middle-of-the-road business. It's the mass media, after all. This drives some journalists mad for the same reason that David Broder's pleas for consensus infuriate true believers. There are compromises in serving the mass that you would not have to make if you were writing "Inside Trenton" to 10,000 political junkies.

The argument over "the death of newspapers" is in part an argument over whether there is any room for a middle path. The death of Oldsmobile and Pontiac seems to indicate otherwise -- except those people are all buying Toyotas or Nissans instead. We don't have the May Co. or the Bon Marche anymore -- but we have Wal-Mart and Target.

What's disappearing is the upper-middlebrow-mass -- which is the category that newspapers and their journalists used to fit cozily into.

I was reading where Oscar Levant once said of Leonard Bernstein's 1950s CBS programs something like that he was explaining the unknown truths of music that had been known for centuries. True, but known only to a small percentage. He was explaining them to the upper-middle mass audience. That's an audience the Times has made its own, and other metro newspapers followed. But you can only make daily journalism so sophisticated. The cognoscenti in any field will always know more than the newspaper does about their own interests. The Internet has allowed an explosion of cognoscenti. The mass audience is still there, but more downscale.

rknil said...

Lots of words, but not much meaning, David.

The real problem is you fail to see the irrelevancy of hot-air balloons like John McIntyre.

For far too long, newspapers justified their personnel dealings with idiotic statements like: "There's ink in my veins!" or "We want a 'good fit.'" By being vague and subjective, they could justify any hire and quickly dismiss any bad choice with a flippant, meaningless comment.

As a result, newsrooms were plagued at the lower levels with non-performers and at the higher levels and blathering buffoons like McIntyre, Howie Owens, Pam Robinson, and others who do a lot of screeching but who don't solve too many problems.

Newspapers may have been packed with stuffed shirts who thought what they offered would always be relevant. They were wrong; time to admit it.