Jewish World Review Dec. 10 2004/ 27 Kislev 5765


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Wanted: New York Times Readers … Sixth-Graders Need Not Apply | More than a generation ago, while growing up on Long Island, I spent a lot of time at the Strawberry Lane home of my friend Bobby Ringler, whose father was one of Huntington's most respected doctors. This was in the 1960s, a period of intense political disagreement, but there was none of this blue state-red state jazz, and neighbors were still friendly no matter whom they voted for. My parents, for example, were Goldwater Republicans, while the Ringlers were New Deal Democrats, but that didn't keep Mom and Gloria Ringler from yakking up a storm on the trunk line, coordinating PTA meetings and voicing opinions on current events with nary a harsh word.

Bobby, as a young adolescent, had a quirk: He wouldn't go outside on a summer day until finding four typographical errors in that morning's New York Times. Usually, a cursory reading of the sports section would complete his task, but on occasion he'd have to forage through the news and editorials, not an entirely unwholesome expenditure of time, as anachronistic as it may seem to today's kids.

It was said back then that The New York Times was written so that anyone with a sixth-grade education would be able to comprehend the contents of any given story. I guess that was a dig at the Daily News — which at that time was considered the property of the moving-lips proletariat, since this was the pre-Murdoch era at the Post — but in any case it seemed fairly true. As my father often said at breakfast, "Just read the first and last paragraphs of [James] Reston and you've got the whole column."

Today, the Sulzberger Jr.-led Times, determined after President Bush's reelection to elevate its already stratospheric self-regard, is probably not within the grasp of sixth-graders, or, for that matter, much of its readership. A Nov. 18 editorial, for example, was headlined "Lame Duck Confit," perhaps a reflection of what the writer had for dinner the previous night at a Manhattan restaurant frequented mostly by those in the top-income bracket, but a little weird considering the paper's absurd stance as defender of, as the editorial says, "the people's business", or "ordinary folks" in Washington.

The editorial was, on the surface, a justified complaint about wanton spending in Congress, a record that Bush, yet to veto a single bill, has nothing to be proud about. Of course, the Times' point was not that the politically-motivated Medicare boondoggle that Bush endorsed was profligate, but rather, for the 117th time in this calendar year, that "The real culprits in creating the deficit are the costs of the war and homeland security, and, in particular, the cost of the unnecessary tax cut legislation passed during the Bush presidency." It's beyond even my active imagination to predict what the paper will pass down in opinion to "the people" if Bush actually gets aggressive and lobbies for a flat tax bill.

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A few weeks later, on Dec. 2, the Times again cribbed from its restaurant reviews to headline an editorial grenade aimed at Denny Hastert, "The Speaker Who Would be Maitre D'." Certainly a sixth-grader here and there can spell maitre d', and maybe even sommelier, but what he or she might find more difficult to comprehend is the actual content of the bitter edit. The paper's whine, now that Republicans have expanded their majority in the House, is that Speaker Hastert isn't breaking his neck to accommodate the minority party. "He has little use for the bipartisan majorities idealized in civics classes and once seen even in the House," sums up this snit, which is not so roughly translated as a complaint that Hastert isn't conforming to the Times' warped view of the country and world.

Tough toenails, I'd say, since both Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are experienced politicians who have an agenda other than the Times' and presumably know the risks of alienating voters. If not, Democrats will eventually take over and an equally partisan newspaper, say The Washington Times, will echo Sulzberger's sore loser "civics classes" reminders.

Anecdotal evidence of the Times' condescension to a sizable percentage of its subscribers is scattered throughout the paper every single day of the year. I'm especially fond of Tracie Rozhon's Nov. 27 business article the day after "Black Friday" — incidentally, I understand the meaning of the phrase, but it sounds like a plague rather than an indication of the bottom line going from red to black — a tawdry description of Americans, probably under-represented at the Times, who shop the day after Thanksgiving.

She writes: "Across the country yesterday, millions of Americans — most of them taking the entire day off from work — rushed into suburban malls, filled downtown shopping streets and department stores and mobbed discount stores everywhere. Often, they were waving colorful circulars and shopping lists, hungry for the hundreds of bargains promised to those who got there first. Merchants, eager to lure crowds wielding credit cards, opened even earlier than last year — in some places well before dawn."

I don't like shopping in general, and crowded stores in particular, but as it happened, my sons and I waded into the rush of "Black Friday," and didn't find the scene at all like the one Rozhon described. Clerks were harried, customers impatient at long lines, but it wasn't particularly dramatic. There were no proprietors dressed like Captain Hook, trying to get their claws on the credit cards I was "wielding."

Frank Rich, the Times' onetime theater critic who lives in the bubble of entertainment, is distressed about the current state of television news. His Dec. 5 column begins: "If Democrats want to run around like fools trying to persuade voters in red America that they are kissing cousins to Billy Graham, Minnie Pearl and Li'l Abner, that's their problem. Pandering, after all, is what politicians do, especially politicians as desperate as the Democrats. But when TV news organizations start repositioning themselves to pander to Nascar dads and 'moral values' voters, it's a problem for everyone."

Not if you skip the CBS/NBC/ABC nightly broadcasts, but why quibble when Rich, who's never been shy about promoting his own "moral values," is on a roll. After all, one can be thankful that the columnist didn't once mention Walter Cronkite, who, as he edges closer to eternity, is regularly lionized as the greatest broadcast journalist of the 20th century by writers putting the first touches on "The Most Trusted Man in America"'s obituary. Rich also resists the urge to once again smear Matt Drudge as an inconsequential "cybergossip," which demonstrates either extraordinary restraint or an unacknowledged, and surely grudging, nod to Drudge as a media pioneer.

Here's where Frank goes off track: "[N]etwork news still counts. The idea, largely but not exclusively fomented by the right, that TV news might somehow soon be supplanted by blogging as a mass medium may remain a populist fantasy until Americans are able to receive blogs by iPod… The dense text in the best blogs [he doesn't mention any] often requires as much of a reader's time and concentration as high-end print journalism, itself facing declining circulation."

It goes without saying that the "high-end" newspapers Rich has in mind are his own, Le Monde and maybe the Los Angeles Times; and obviously network news, which is still enormously more profitable, and watched, than cable competitors, "still counts." But who, exactly, on the "right," has suggested that blogs will replace tv news? Rich doesn't say. It seems to me that it's the liberals squawking about the state of television these days, protesting so loudly about Fox News that you'd think Rupert Murdoch's station attracted a ratings share greater than the combined numbers of the Big Three.

Now, to be fair, Rich's colleague Thomas Friedman is doing his part to dumb down the paper. His very silly Dec. 2 column began with the rumors that Treasury Secretary John Snow will soon be relieved of his duties in Bush's cabinet (replaced, I hope, by Phil Gramm). Administration officials — p.r. is not Bush's long suit — haven't been exactly zip-lipped about Snow's imminent departure, so Friedman is off to the (not NASCAR) races. He writes, "Yo, Mr. Secretary, I'd say someone in the White House wants you gone! If I were you, I wouldn't renew any leases for more than a month at a time — or buy any really green bananas for the office. And those books you checked out of the Treasury library? Could you, like, maybe return them in the next few days? You know, just in case. I mean, it all depends on what the meaning of 'long' is."

This sort of fourth-grade wit is not good for the Times' reputation, as the paper strives to offer writing that's every bit as convoluted as that of Lewis Lapham. Yo, Mr. Friedman, ask for a helping of duck confit, like, right now!

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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