The “Times” They Are A-Strangin’

By Edmund Morganfield

The New York Times

is often considered to be the greatest news company in the world, and leftly so. Take a quick perusal through its cavernous website for proof, thick and rife with hyperlinks and pictures and ubiquitous articles about single mothers in the fashionable neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Near the bottom of the page, you will find a field of articles about all happenings in the world, divided into every category of interest, all denoted by mysterious headlines that reveal absolutely nothing about the topic except the odd noun or two that accidentally slips out. It feels more like a collection of riddles than any explanation about current events. Kind of the opposite of journalism, I guess, but let’s not be petty. Where else can you find out about the virtues of organic grapefruits growing from reclaimed dumpsters in wartorn Uruguay?

Their heart is in the right place, and their coverage truly is excellent, but they must adjust to the realities of the marketplace, the same as everyone else. Journalism is no longer region-centric, it is audience-centric, and the Times has found its place as the go-to source for hipster culture, liberal commentary and the anxieties of the American upper-crust. How else to explain its recurring coverage of non-events that are so self-explanatory they hardly count as news at all? Such as how hard it is to get into Ivy League colleges these days, how organic coffee farms are rebuilding a third world country, or elaborate explanations of the continuing decay of reading in American life. Hence why your kid isn’t going to Harvard, why you should feel good about yourself because you paid a dollar more when you can’t taste the difference, and why no wants to read your 19th century gothic romance novel set in an alternative universe if Emily Dickinson was the empress of a new Amazonian Army. They have found their niche, Secular-Humanist bless them, and they are going hog-wild.

My favorite part, though, has to be whenever their reporters venture outside the sanctity of the tri-state area, leaving behind their carefully-marked map of lower Manhattan with the espresso stands, vegan delis and oxygen bars that the liberal intelligentsia uses for sustenance, and goes in search of “real America.” It’s a self-conscious exercise to be sure, the very people who are accused of not understanding the country are the ones who now must reveal it in all its humble, undereducated, overfed, “I may be just a simple man in a complex world, but the way I figure it…” native eloquence. The Times is proving to us that, despite that they consider one city to be center of the universe, they have that mainline connection to the “average American,” and therefore are going to lecture us about what’s good for the “average American.”

These exercises are hysterical, precisely because they’re so predictable. There’s nothing better than dropping an anxious, highly-educated, Jewish intellectual (my favorite New York stereotype, for the record) into the middle of Halcomb, Kansas, and watching the result. Scroll through the videos and watch the befuddled, confused truck driver be suddenly asked what he thinks of the bank bailout or reforming social security. He takes a second to think about it, a little confused as to what the hell is going on, and then basically says it’s a load of crap and goes back to his ham and eggs. Bravo, New York Times, for finding this rare gem of folk wisdom buried beneath a mesh baseball cap and wiggling jowls. Truly what investigative journalism is supposed to be, a $3,000 roundtrip expense report well spent. And it all plays out to panoramic vistas of farmland and the poor excuse for finger-picking guitars that the Times got from an art-school dropout jamming away his trustfund in the subways.

The point isn’t that truck drivers and farmers and waitresses from Kansas don’t have opinions on these topics, or that these opinions aren’t valuable, or that they shouldn’t be seen in The New York Times. They do, they are, and they should. But it is conducted with such massive deference that the subjects are portrayed more as laboratory experiments in “engaged journalism” than informed citizens. You could have asked him something about his life, something recognizable to him, but you decided that a random stranger should be the definitive word for a hugely complex subject. After all, why interview these people in the first place? There is absolutely no reason to think that they have an insight into these events more than, say, cabbies, or postmodern novelists, or anyone you find stumbling around a Brooklyn laundromat at 2 a.m. (As someone who has been in a Brooklyn landromat at 2 a.m., I can tell you that you can find an incredible breadth of advice and commentary on a wide variety of subjects…none of which could ever be printed, under any circumstances, in any language).

They go there because they are not in search of a story, they are in search of validation. It always feels like the self-consciously intellectual Easterner must first appease the Heartlander, the individual that is supposed to be the beneficiary of his ideals and hard work, that they come in search of validation for themselves more than to find out what the guy actually thinks. The logic goes that if this guy says it’s true, it must really be true, because I’m smart and I think so, and he’s a person-of-action and he thinks so too! Everyone agrees! If they asked them what they really thought, that reporter might find out, 1) We don’t get The New York Times out here, 2) I’m glad we don’t get The New York Times out here, and 3) Exactly what in the hell are you doing out here, anyway? Their barely-disguised condescension would be enough to infuriate anyone, let alone someone who is destined to have his story squeezed between a new ergonomically designed breast pump for unusually sensitive nipples and whether albino theater students with a B+ average have been impacted by the recession.

This is an old practice of the Left, reaching back to the Labor Movement when city-slickers tried to organize unions on behalf of workers, many of whom were only interested in temporary labor and deeply distrustful of the advice they were getting. First you gain their trust, the idea went, to show we’re just like them, and we do that with a confused impersonation, as if we had been born with this ear of corn casually sticking out from behind our ear (that should be your first clue right there). Just recall how white people begin to act when a black person enters the group, all of them secretly craving his approval for street cred. Why yes, good sir, I do enjoy the musical works of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, why do you ask? I say, do you know where I can find a good soul food establishment here? These KFC franchises are simply subpar. And indisputably, that shit is indeed wack, sir. Yo indeed.

Their heart is in the right place, and it says something about a news company that recognizes the inherit arrogance of its city, and go out in search of a counter-effect. Many other news companies do far less, and reaching out to those we don’t always understand is a sign of their maturity and journalistic integrity. But it can be done better by talking to regional experts, maybe the associate professor in a community college or lawyer, rather than pandering to construction workers and big-rig roughnecks. Everyplace, even Nebraska or Oklahoma, has experts on hand for nearly any conceivable situation at the local level, and their perspective could be valuable input too. That’s the kind of diversity we need, from people who have dedicated their professional lives to these issues but do not share the same environment that gave shape to the opinionmakers in New York or Washington. A national journalist might be astounded at the kind of insights he can find. It’s that, or we go another round with Billy Ray, he’s charmed by your civility and interest in him, you get invited back to his farm…with his lonesome daughter waiting, and you got to high-tail it out of town before he fetches the shotgun a-hangin’ on the wall. Hey, it’s another stereotype-fantasy of Middle America, but at least this one doesn’t involve another confused discussion of Medicare annuities.

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