Media Hides

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The New York Times, on Jan. 26, printed a scathing editorial about then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, wishing that Democrats would wage a vicious filibuster against him in the U.S. Senate—not the last-minute token rally that the hapless John Kerry phoned in from Davos. The headline of the editorial was “Senators in Need of a Spine.” The paper’s anti-Alito campaign, which included mocking his wife, was another indication that Gail Collins and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are tacking far to the left in a last-ditch attempt to avoid becoming sacrificial lambs within the company.

Who knows, maybe the Times’ increasingly acidic verbal blitz against George Bush will ultimately bear fruit; in any case, it’s the paper’s decision to make.

But speaking of “spines,” or lack thereof, why hasn’t the Times—or Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Chicago Tribune—reprinted one or two of the Danish cartoons lampooning Mohammed, if not only to illustrate the purpose of a free press but also explain to readers why radical Muslims are torching embassies and issuing death threats to “infidels” in Europe?

It’s not often that that this country’s largest and most influential newspapers purposely band together on a single issue, but surely the effect would be profound, and bracing, if representative editors all agreed to print one of the cartoons on the same day. So far, just The Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Sun have done right by their subscribers. The Boston Globe was notably wimpy in a disquieting editorial (Feb. 4) that explained why it wouldn’t reproduce any of the cartoons. From a spineless writer: “Depicting Mohammed wearing a turban in the form of a bomb with a sputtering fuse is no less hurtful to most Muslims than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance.”

Never mind that in the Arab press Jews are regularly depicted as blood-sucking, hook-nosed, children-murdering, money-grubbing characters that even exploitative provocateurs like Michael Moore and George Clooney might find too much to stomach.

Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, the paper’s affirmative-action conservative voice, differed with his colleagues on the editorial page in a forceful piece just two days later. He had the grace—or, in this charged political climate, nod to self-preservation—not to directly reference the Globe’s Chicken Little stance on the issue, but his words were brutally honest. “Make no mistake,” he said, “This story is not going away and neither is the Islamofascist threat. Today the censors may be coming for some unfunny Mohammed cartoons, but tomorrow it is your words and ideas they will silence.”

The Inquirer’s editor Amanda Bennett was even more succinct, telling the Associated Press: “This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do.”


Sprouting a Gray Hair

Dash it all, I can’t stand it when a Hall of Fame journalist demonstrates that his fastball has lost some of its zing. In an otherwise sensible column for the Feb. 6 New York, Kurt Andersen became the 118th  writer to evoke the name “Jack Bauer” when describing the Bush administration’s NSA electronic surveillance. I’m betting Andersen wishes he could reclaim that sentence, or that his editors (presumably working into the wee hours for that issue’s cover story on Stuyvesant High School students doing, well, what high school students do) would’ve deleted the Bauer reference.

It’s fine when a hack like Sarah Vowell writes in The New York Times (Feb. 5) about her own fascination, and devotion to Jack Bauer and 24; the fluttering daily is almost always losing its way in its chase for what Andersen at one time regularly called the cultural “zeitgeist.”

Perhaps Andersen was distracted when composing that particular “Imperial City” column. In tip-top form, he’d probably have eschewed the lazy Bauer reference and substituted it with the stalwarts of Britain’s excellent MI-5, notably Bauer-like spooks Adam Carter and Harry Pearce.

How Many Times Can You Grow Up?

Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and, mercifully, the mass media was otherwise preoccupied, for better or worse (mostly the latter) to conduct a national day of mourning. I did read one elegy, however, a piece by San Francisco writer Kevin Smokler that ran in the Feb. 3 Baltimore Sun, which tinkered with a few brain waves in my head.

Headlined, “The day that Gen X grew up,” Smokler’s first sentence alone is a doozy: “It was 20 years ago this week that my generation, the Xers of slacking, hip-hop and dot-com foolery, stopped being children.” Mind you, young Kevin learned of Christa McAuliffe’s death—and her six colleagues—during seventh-grade Spanish class, so it would be a stretch to say that at that instant he’d become “grown up.” I don’t mean to minimize the Challenger fiasco—and certainly not the grief it caused the victims’ families—but for Smokler to claim that an entire generation came of age on that day is simply absurd.

I don’t doubt that he remembers exactly where he was, just as people of earlier and later eras can pinpoint their location upon learning of Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King and most recently the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But just as lachrymose journalists claimed they’d never be “young” or “laugh” again after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, surely Smokler overstates the case. 

I have a vague recollection of where I was on that day in 1986: finishing a business meeting at City Paper, the newspaper I edited at the time, and wondering if the younger staff members would be as upset as the breaking news reports on the tube imagined. There wasn’t a mournful work stoppage, but rather a somber taking in of a national tragedy, a little more chatter than usual, and then at six p.m. most of the “kids” (I was 30 at the time) went off to the local happy hour joint.

Actually, I’d bet that the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain had a lot more impact on Generation X than the Challenger’s loss.

Kids, much less a generation, don’t “grow up” because of an external news event or tragedy that doesn’t directly concern them. The obvious exception in the past century is the attack on Pearl Harbor, which had an immediate effect on almost every citizen of the United States. People lose their innocence in personal ways: the death of a parent, sibling or close friend; divorce; horrible car crashes; family bankruptcy, muggings; or the cruel onset of a life-threatening disease at age 15.

It’s safe to say that a week after the Challenger victims were buried, days after the Columbine shootings, most impressionable adolescents were back to playing sports, flirting, studying, shooting up, shopping for an all-black outfit or punching a time clock at a part-time job.

—February 6  

An Archive Surprise

On the Times’ web homepage recently there’s been an in-house advertisement for TimesSelect, hawking the archives of op-ed columnists, a greatest hits package to lure non-subscribers to fork over $49.45 for the privilege of reading Paul Krugman and his modern-day Merry Pranksters.

I am a home subscriber, so taking the bait, took the opportunity for a little time travel and was astonished to find a Frank Rich column that was both sensible and even a little bit funny. This was surprising, since I despised Rich’s mid-90s op-eds; but perhaps it’s indicative of how bitter and humorless men and women of his political persuasion have become since the 2000 presidential election.

On May 13, 1998, Rich’s topic was the final episode of Seinfeld, a sitcom about which he was indifferent and I detested, and those kooky fellas in the “media circus” who’d milked all it could from the death of Lady Di and O.J. Simpson’s outrageous acquittal.

He writes: “[T]he ‘Seinfeld’ frenzy has taken on a life of its own… Awards should be given to the few magazines that have not done a ‘Seinfeld’ cover (Popular Mechanics? Foreign Affairs?)—and to those whose cover stories make the least use of the words ‘ironic,’ ‘master of my domain’ and ‘reinvented.’… Particularly irritating was Newsweek, the media outlet suffering most from Monica withdrawal. It likened the ‘top-secret’ taping of the series’ final episode to the Manhattan Project and ordered its readers to watch the show ‘or risk humiliation at the water cooler Friday morning.’”

I must confess the relatively “good old days” at the Times weren’t so long ago, at least when considering what a gruesome tool of the extreme left wing Rich has become. Wouldn’t it be grand, just smashing, if today the Upper West Side’s must-read columnist mixed in, say, a comparison of the lives that Teddy Kennedy and Samuel Alito have conducted along with his various conspiracy theories, out-of-the-blue attacks on Rupert Murdoch and first chapters—“sketches in sand”—of the coming American apocalypse?