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Among those people in New York who care about newspapers and who like to think of their content as something more than amusement, it has become increasingly difficult to find anybody still willing to say a good word about the New York Times. Nothing is left now but contests of invective, punctuations of gloomy humor, brave nostalgia. Even the gossip has lost its savor. There is a sense of resignation.

Over lunch in a West Side French restaurant, a Times reporter tells a story: the reporter accosted Arthur Sulzberger at a cocktail party, praised all the new sections of the daily paper, and suggested that one be added on Saturdays as well. “It could have stories about important events in the city, the nation, and the world, a lot of good quotes and facts,” the reporter said. “We could call it News.”

Another Times reporter speaks with the irony of disappointment about the sudden improvement of his situation at a newspaper known for the power of its editors: “You can get anything you write into the paper now, as long as the story contains a recipe.”

The curious aspect of this souring of the Times is that it has been greeted so emotionally. There are no long, analytical discussions like those inspired by the Pentagon Papers or the withholding of the news of preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion. People seem to have given up. Some surrendered their interest in the paper over a specific story, basing their disaffection on a last-straw theory; others are made unhappy by the blatant reduction of journalism to a business. Not that journalism hasn’t always been a matter of profit and loss, but the Times makes its concern so shabby and obvious.

Perhaps it is the hypocrisy of the editorial page that is most disturbing. In an attack on NBC’s decision not to broadcast all of President Carter’s news conferences, the Times concluded,

It is the explanation, the notion that routine news is expendable, that raises troublesome questions: What will NBC show the next time it is tempted to report on a fire in the Bronx or a flood in the Midwest?

While NBC may be tempted to report on a fire in the Bronx, the New York Times will suffer no conflict on that issue: the Times does not have a reporter in the Bronx.

To believe that the paper accurately reflects the world and then to go out into the streets of New York is to be struck by a sense of the absurd. Its pages glitter with celebrities. The problems of a woman alone in New York are exemplified by comments from an heiress. Food is described in column after column, from the most expensive meal a restaurant critic has ever eaten to tips on restaurants that serve $25 bargains. Is it true, as a Times columnist has written, that the tennis star Billie Jean King is the most influential woman in America? What do the incessantly reported earnings of authors mean about the quality of their books? Why were there four articles about the resignation of the president of Yale? Can the Times really be sane while under the rubric New & Useful it writes about gold-plated goblets and $90 brass candlesticks? Will the New York Times never stop eating?

The newspaper seems to be hiding its loss of contact with much of society under a blinding, artificial light of glamour. To Simone Weil, this behavior is indicative of the disease of the age: “The glossy surface of our civilization,” she wrote, “hides a real intellectual decadence.” One cannot respond merely with resignation. It is the responsibility of the press to observe the world, not to exemplify it.

From “Cutting Velvet at the New York Times,” which appeared in the October 1977 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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June 2007

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
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