Sunday, September 25, 2005

All the Elitism Fit to Print

The New York Times is famous for being an elitist newspaper, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the back sections (although I'm sure it can be and has been inferred from the news sections as well).

It's one thing for the Arts & Lifestyles section to tend toward the high-falutin'—that's what it's there for. Where else are you supposed to read about the latest scandals in the opera world and "artists" who make collages out of crap they find in the trash? The most obnoxious and unwelcome elitism in the Times can be found in other sections that could appeal to more common (and attainable) tastes, if only that's what the Times wanted.

The Gray Lady is amongst the most advertiser-friendly newspapers in America. Its underlying mission is to promote the very lifestyle that corporations are trying to sell in the margins and on the glitzy full-page spreads that pepper the non-news sections. As such, the back pages of the newspaper do little more than celebrate acquisitiveness and foster the notion that materialism (no, not the Marxist kind) is the new, hip intellectualism.

In the SundayStyles section, we can read about the fashionable Manhattan dermatologist to the stars who sports $1,200 boots and matching $3,600 armbands. It's also where readers can catch up on the Greenwich and New Canaan wedding circuit and learn, for example, about the marriage of Ethel Walker Smith Bush, known as "Diddle" (that's Diddle Bush for those of you keeping score) to Malcolm Percy McAllister of Greenwich, Conn. If I had a dollar for every girl named Diddle that I knew when I was growing up, well, I'd be flat broke, and that's just not an economic state the New York Times seems to understand.

SundayStyles is also where you can read the "Modern Love" column, which reinforces the fact that normal people are boring prudes, and you can run across little gems like this (registration required, suckas!), from today's "The Age of Dissonance" column:
"The first thing I learned as an entertainment lawyer," said Ben Feldman, who is also a playwright, "is don't criticize people's work, even when they ask for it. If you aren't optimistic, it's like telling them they're child is too dumb to get into Brown."
I'm sure we can all relate.

Ok, maybe SundayStyles is just a modern-day Social Register. But the elitism of the Times permeates even sections where, by all rights, it shouldn't be. The Travel section is a perfect example. This Sunday's cover story is about Istanbul, a city where I lived for the better part of a year. Istanbul is one of the most affordable big cities in the world, but you'd never know it from reading the New York Times.

Rick Lyman, a shallow Times reporter who used to helm the paper's Hollywood bureau, takes us on a tour of Istanbul that screams out, "Hey, you can travel around the world and feel like you never left Manhattan!" The only worthwhile person Lyman talks to is novelist Orhan Pamuk, and even then he gives about equal time to the delicious bonito that the world-famous novelist is eating. Otherwise, Lyman interviews a famous socialite and a business tycoon—that in a huge, cosmopolitan city known for its rich diversity and striking juxtapositions of rich and poor.

Lyman eschews the city's many normal hotels in favor of the brand-new Four Seasons (rooms start at only $340!). A much better bet for an intellectually curious traveler willing to drop over $100 per night on a room would be the Pera Palas Hotel, famed way-station for European travelers on the Orient Express. This beautiful monument to European Turkey has been visited by Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway and a rich assortment of dignitaries (each room bears a plaque noting its most famous guest). Nary a mention of this treasure from our tour guide.

Lyman seems most transfixed by the new 360 club which sounds indistinguishable from any ritzy night spot anywhere else in the world, which, unfortunately, is the point. The club is also his top pick for Istanbul restaurants, which is fine because it features such classics of Turkish cuisine as Vietnamese beef tartar and Cajun veal.

Lyman's grasp of Istanbul's spirit is something short of solid. He steers the "savvy" traveler to the most expensive Turkish baths in the city rather than to the gorgeous (but more "common") baths built by famed Ottoman architect Sinan in the 16th Century. He extols the virtues of a restaurant (which is actually good) called Yesil Ev which we are told is "known as the Green House." I'm going out on a limb here, but that could be because "Yesil" is Turkish for "green" and "ev" means "house." Not exactly a sign that we're getting expert advice.

The problem is that for the Times, it doesn't matter. There not interested in the intellectually curious traveler (or shopper, for that matter). The Travel section is nothing more than a Styles section with a more exotic backdrop—it promotes a world where clubbing and cavorting is more important than learning about and experiencing other cultures.

This causal elitism is quickly becoming the defining feature of the Times. The paper has just inaugurated their new TimesSelect service that will make parts of the paper, including their stable of highly-influential op-ed columnists, available only to paid subscribers. Sure, it means that these writers will lose a lot of influence in the blogosphere and elsewhere, but that's not what matters to the New York Times. After all, they're the ones so aggressively pushing a "you gotta pay to play" attitude, so this is merely putting their editorial stance into practice.
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