Thursday, April 3, 2008

Goodbye to All That?

It has been a while since I have had anything good to say about Vanity Fair. I was much more positive back in November of 2006 when they published David Margolick's report on Ismail Hanyieh, prepared on the caliber of what I used to expect from New Yorker profiles; and I was a real cheerleader when David Rose used their Web site to release the initial material for an article about the neoconservatives not only backing away from the Bush administration but also blaming Bush for making a mess of things. I was similarly enthusiastic last year when they ran "advance excerpts" of Robert Dallek's book, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. Nevertheless, the magazine has been too uneven for me to give it the attention that I still retain preciously for The New York Review; so instead I rely on other sources to point me to something they have published that might deserve attention.

Today's pointer came from Truthdig; and the "target" was Michael Wolff's extended analysis of the current (troubled) state of affairs at The New York Times and the likely futures that might ensue. I am less interested in summarizing and evaluating Wolff's arguments, however, than I am in addressing the premise that serves as the motive for his undertaking the analysis in the first place:

This view of the Times’s invulnerability, on the part of not just the journalistic establishment but the Wall Street establishment too, comes partly, perhaps, because the alternative, life without the Times, is just too much to contemplate—after all, the Times has been, for so long, the Establishment. Also, if you can’t believe in the Sulzbergers, who have never once in their long history given any indication that they have an iota of ambivalence about their role as the protector of the Times, then what can you believe in? And because the consensus itself supports the assumption: if the Establishment believes in the unassailable strength of the Times, then who is left to credibly take it on?

I realized that this paragraph reflects the "old school" thinking of those who still believe in the institution of journalism as it flourished in the twentieth century, as if the strength of that belief would justify ignoring the extent to which twenty-first century capitalism, reinforced by the world the Internet has made, has pretty much reduced that institution a shadow of its former self, if not a pile of rubble. Nevertheless, that same Mr. Dooley, whom I have quoted as saying, "Th newspaper does ivrything f'r us," was also famous for saying "Trust everybody, but cut the cards." Even at the turn of the century, he knew better than to put his trust in a single newspaper (but then he also had no trouble finding a second newspaper with a different point of view).

My point is that, while the Internet may have made the world over which Wolff is now wringing his hands regarding the fate of the Times, it also made the world in which it is easier for us to "cut the cards" in Dooley-speak. Not only can I contemplate "life without the Times;" I have lived that way for several years. As I have previously declared, the only RSS feed from the Times that I maintain is for the "Arts" reporting; and I keep that to check in on new Metropolitan Opera productions and little else. Any other Times content I read comes to me through a hyperlink, generally from either Truthdig or The Huffington Post. Instead, I use RSS to pull together diverse accounts from sources I can expect to have differing points of view, drawing primarily on the What I Read list that I maintain on this blog site. This strikes me as the only way in which any of us can survive as informed citizens.

Even though I may not sympathize with Wolff's motive, I still appreciate his analysis. Many of us have become intense armchair philosophers over the deterioration of news-medium-as-public-trust into news-medium-as-business; but we are better at examining what has been done, rather than how it was done. Wolff offers us an excellent guided tour of that world in which shareholders (specifically, shareholders with the power of controlling interests) overrule the interests of both workers and customers. Thus, his article may be less valuable for the way in which he is using The New York Times as a "focal case study" than as a significant object lesson in the workings of that "new economy" that has more to do with the exercise of power than with the provision of goods and services. In the War Against the Poor, we need to remember that forewarned is forearmed. For all we can read about the "generals" waging that war, Wolff may be the first to provide an important service to those of us "foot soldiers" on "the other side."

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