Even so, the Times remains the closest thing we have to a national media outlet of record, and for that reason it remains a cultural touchstone. It may be late to the game as often as not, but if something breaks the surface of American life with enough force, the Times can be counted on to remark upon it eventually, much in the same way that the Oxford English Dictionary officializes the latest texting slang, TTFL. But even with that proviso, the lens through which the Times sees the world is maddeningly partial.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Someone who splits the world into “Americans” and “foreigners” is going to have a very different worldview from someone who views nationality as a file with 196 folders, and you can predict with remarkable accuracy which one of them is more likely to make fun of Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan.[/gn_pullquote]
You can tell a lot about people by how they categorize the world. Someone who splits the world into “Americans” and “foreigners” is going to have a very different worldview from someone who views nationality as a file with 196 folders, and you can predict with remarkable accuracy which one of them is more likely to make fun of Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan. Though individuals’ categories are often obscured, newspapers declare their categories in stentorian font, forcing them to reveal more about their true inclinations than they might be comfortable revealing in a declarative statement. Imagine the New York Times, for instance, stating, “We believe that sporting events are more newsworthy than scientific discoveries.” They would never say that, of course, but the fact that they have sports sections seven days a week and a science section just once a week says that very same thing.
Of course, to a large extent, the Times is merely following the public’s interests. Americans care a lot about sports, and less about science. If the Times printed stories about all the twists and turns of scientific research, and not so much about the twists and turns of the Yankees and the Jets, they’d lose readers. So it’s hard to fault them for that (especially since most papers’ sports sections dwarf the Times’, and vice versa with the science coverage), and it’s less my intent here to point a damning finger at the Times than it is to hold a magnifying glass to it, to see what America’s newspaper of record inadvertently reveals about its values, and our own.
The everyday categories of the New York Times are standard fare: Front Page, National, International, Business, Sports, Arts, Metro in the local versions, and the opinion pages. It is noteworthy that “business,” “sports,” and “arts” are the only specific subjects deemed worthy of regular standalone treatment, but because that’s so commonplace it’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the special sections, the ones that appear weekly or monthly or occasionally, because that’s where things really get interesting.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Notice a pattern here? With the exception of “science” and “education,” they’re all concerned with personal satisfaction and consumption—and, more specifically, with the satisfaction and consumption of the privileged classes.[/gn_pullquote]
Here are the other subjects that deserve itemized attention, according to the New York Times: Science, Styles, Home, Food, Travel, Education, Real Estate, Mutual Funds, and Wealth. Notice a pattern here? With the exception of “science” and “education,” they’re all concerned with personal satisfaction and consumption—and, more specifically, with the satisfaction and consumption of the privileged classes (much of the education coverage serves that purpose, too, but that’s for another day). Granted, that’s partially a function of advertising, and the way that advertisers drive specialized content, but it’s instructive that America’s newspaper of record finds these subjects worthy of special treatment, and other subjects not. What about an “Ideas” section, or a “Meaning” section, or a “Service” section, or a section on “Innovation” (and by that I mean not just technological innovation, but social and cultural innovation)? Why aren’t those things worth special treatment?
I can immediately anticipate a strong reaction to my criticism: the newspaper is full of stories about “service” and “innovation” and, if you count the Sunday magazine and Book Review, “ideas.” I don’t dispute that. My point is that the relative value of these things is inherently minimized by the way the Times categorizes and emphasizes its material, in the same way that the relative value of an Uzbek is minimized by a xenophobe lumping him in a broad and shallow (but technically accurate) category of “foreigner.” If the Times had an “Ideas” or “Meaning” section, that would create a whole new rubric, and the editors of that section would seek stories that somehow plumbed the deeper questions that we have as human beings. It would create whole new beats, and send reporters after a set of sources and stories that are now thoroughly neglected. There is no lack of news of people who are trying to further our understanding of the human predicament, or improve our ability to manage it; there’s just a paucity of reporting of that news. I think, for example, of the national movement to teach children the art of philosophical thinking, or the University of Chicago’s “Wisdom Research” project, both of which you have probably heard nothing about. Meanwhile, we get fresh reports on the latest new trends in fashion and fine dining in the Times every week.
Consider the front page story in the Times’ “Wealth” section on February 12, 2013, on connoisseurship. Here is part of the wind-up: “Driven by a relentless quest for ‘the best,’ we increasingly see every item we place in our grocery basket or Internet shopping cart as a reflection of our discrimination and taste. We are not consumers. We have a higher calling. We are connoisseurs.” It goes on to describe the rising popularity of connoisseurship, and the spreading ubiquity of tastemaking. “Leading publications, including The New York Times, routinely discuss the connoisseurship of coffee, cupcakes and craft beers; of cars, watches, fountain pens, lunchboxes, stereo systems and computers; of tacos, pizza, pickles, chocolate, mayonnaise, cutlery and light.”[gn_pullquote align=”right”]This is the choice we face: We become fastidious about things that do not really matter, or we turn our attention to things that do.[/gn_pullquote]
Need I say more? This is the choice we face: We become fastidious about things that do not really matter, or we turn our attention to things that do. True, the fact that we want to be connoisseurs of coffee and cutlery does not mean that we cannot also follow what’s happening in the Middle East, or consider the philosophical dimensions of a policy debate. But the Times has a place to turn to look for news from the Middle East. It has no section dedicated to the philosophical dimensions of our collective life. Essentially, it has decided that the fetishes of connoisseurship deserve the space more. (What’s ironic about this particular article is that it’s actually a reasonably interesting piece on the phenomenon of connoisseurship, why it exists, and whether it can truly be democratized. In other words, it might easily fit in an “Ideas” section. But if it were in such a section, I suspect it would probe the uncomfortable dimensions of the subject more deeply than it has for the “Wealth” section, because it would begin with an entirely different agenda.)
Am I being idealistic? Perhaps. But when I look at the categories that the Times embraces, I don’t think the problem is my idealism. I think the problem is this very narrow set of blinkers that keeps the consumption machine comfortable, at the expense of much more important things. That’s not just the Times’ problem; it’s ours too. But if we don’t name it where it’s clearly visible, we’ll never see it in all the places where it’s hidden.
University of Chicago’s Wisdom Research project: http://wisdomresearch.org/
Philosophy for Children: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_for_Children
NYT article on connoisseurship: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/business/connoisseurship-expands-beyond-high-art-and-classical-music.html?pagewanted=all