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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Just last night, like a bolt from the blue, I realized why much of the NYT's (pop) cultural coverage, while good, is also hilarious. It's not really the cluelessness of it--I grew up reading an indescribably clueless local newspaper, to say nothing of Newsweek, who once claimed Nine Inch Nails was a rap group, and trust me, the Times is a lot more on the ball than the vast majority of their competitors.

No, it's hilarious because every article falls into one of two categories:

1) Look at this thing we found! Let us introduce you to it!


2) Look at this thing people are doing without us introducing you to it first! Why would they do something like that?

#1 is inherent both in the house style (formal, just a wee bit didactic) and their audience, which is big enough for a certain segment to be so aware of the subject for any article about it to seem obvious, another segment to be vaguely familiar with the subject and grateful for the article, and another segment so totally outside any field of reference that would include the subject that they pretty much need to be educated about it from the ground up. And this goes both ways--just as I would assume a society lady on the UES falls into the latter category when it comes to, say, Art Brut (the band, not the movement), so would I need a ground-up education when it comes to anything involving Staten Island. It's a little charming, a little insulting, and mildly hilarious.

When it starts to get really funny, though, is when those assumptions spill over into #2 and they start condemning things (formally, didactically). Because it's a different kind of condemnation than you'd get from, say, the Post. It's not self-righteous outrage, it's an almost parental sense of disappointment, the impression that you've strayed somehow, and that they're not going to make it a big deal or anything, but you've clearly taken the wrong path, since, after all, it is not a path the Times has chosen for you. And when I say "the Times," I do mean the institution, as I don't think it's necessarily individual writers' fault. Because the house style encourages restraint, propriety, and distance, you end up with an almost passive-aggressive criticism. Of course, this makes the whole thing even funnier since it seems like the Times often criticizes violations of precisely those norms--things that do not show restraint, propriety, and distance. Things, in other words, lacking good taste. Quel drole, no?