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October 17, 2003

When the Learned Rant at the Times

The New York Times gets beaten up a lot by people who know a lot, but not a lot about the Times. A brief investigation. Plus: reactions to John Markoff.

Everybody has a complaint about the New York Times. It’s the most complained about newspaper in the world. This is especially so for the chattering classes, in which I am member. But then so are you, citizen of the world.

The weblog (which is not my subject here) threatens to make everyone part of the chattering classes. Which in turn makes everyone more aware of the New York Times— and yes, its power. So the Times gets hit with the most complaints, and some of the most bitter, angry, unjust, occasionally paranoid ones, too. Plus dumb complaints, enough to fill dumpsters.

Intellectuals are the worst. As a professor of journalism, I have learned to dread moments when a colleague from another discipline says: “You’re in journalism, I have a question about the New York Times.” Note this way of stating the question. It’s a statement. There follows 15 minutes of thick description of something that appeared one day in the newspaper, with the colleague becoming more and more, um… animated— that’s the word. Red in the face sometimes too.

Of course, it’s a rant about how unbelievably stupid the people at the New York Times are because on some blessed topic the professor by his own admission knows a great deal about, “they got it all wrong.” Which means not incorrect, but wrong-headed, misled, wholly ignorant— and often a lot worse. People who scoff at conspiracy thinking in their own area of knowledge will indulge with pleasure when it’s a peeve about the Times. Often, these are extremely intelligent people of sound character and high opinion.

I noticed after a few of these rants how the Times reporters were rarely accused of making sophisticated errors in print— a tip off, I felt. Always the most basic ones. It wasn’t that the paper didn’t know the latest thing, which wouldn’t be a crime. No, the Times, according to my learned informants, doesn’t know the first thing about … “And I think that is a crime!” our professor even might shout.

More than once over a glass of wine, a spouse of the esteemed academic has chimed in. Visualize that: the same rant in stereo. Which the two of them know by heart from ranting at each other out on the patio about the New York Times. The first time I saw it, the Husband and Wife Tag Team Elite Journalism Smackdown, I was startled. Then I found it a fascinating glimpse into a marriage by way of its common newspaper. Both spouses can be obsessed with that newspaper; and part of this obsession is their occasional claim to despise it. I’m their occasion: a lucky journalism professor. Fortunately this tends to happen at cocktail parties where there is stuff to drink.

Now, informed of all this by a monologue that started as a colleague-to-colleague question, (“You’re in journalism….”) I learned to smile and sip and soak in the social comedy of it. For the one thing I know as certain is that my red-faced colleague will not be interrupted during the venting ritual. Not even Ted Koppel could find a space between syllables that he could really do anything with.

Who knows? Maybe one or two times in ten, the good man, the gentle lady has a point; the reporter screwed up, got it wrong, should have known better. But for the other eight times, we need to go to other explanations. Why do learned people behave this way about the New York Times? One possible answer: they “hate” it for the same reason that they would die with pride if their book were reviewed well in the New York Times. Journalism professors have to query these things.

This is all by way of saying that I have learned to rein in the rant impulse when I react to something in the Newspaper of Record. In OJR recentlly, Adam Clayton Powell asked John Markoff, longtime technology reporter for the Times, about “people who suddenly start creating content who don’t have the same standards as, well, The New York Times.” Still an issue? Or done being an issue after ten years of: but who are the gatekeepers? Oh, I think there will always be a need for gatekeepers. Markoff’s answer was: Yes, still an issue. No, ten years not enough for one problem.

He then decided also to make fun of the trend in weblogs, about which there is some modest industry buzz, wondering aloud whether the whole thing wasn’t just an improved version of CB radio, asking if in ten years would-be writers would still be writing their little online diaries, which, he implied, gets tiresome after a while. (Good chance he had this study in mind.)

And, you know, give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it. It’s possible that in the end there may be some small subset of people who find a livelihood out of it and that the rest of the people will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time. When I tell that to people they get very angry with me. … I also like to tell them, when they (ask) when I’m going to start a blog, and then, “Oh, I already have a blog, it’s, don’t you read it?”

This was a clearly job for Jeff Jarvis and he did it: “the interview of the dinosaurs.” Scott Rosenberg of Salon took a more measured approach. Elizabeth Spiers sides with Jarvis. Perhaps the best reply is this Wired column from Larry Lessig (via Dave Weiner, whose summation of the interview is: “He’s not listening.”)

That leaves me free to say that I am a little puzzled by Markoff’s interview. (Although his point about institutions is a good one.) You would never know from listening to him that more people absorb the New York Times online edition than the on-paper version he seems to think he works for. (“I assume that there will still be a paper, that I’ll still be writing for paper and they’ll still be killing trees a decade from now.”) If the bulk of the reception is being done online, doesn’t that mean that we aren’t at all where we were ten years ago? Markoff, I am certain, knows this fact. I wonder what he makes of it.

On the question of where we are today, compare the depth of knowledge Markoff shows off in his OJR interview to this paragraph from Norbert Specker, a Swede who contributes to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits column:

The First 10 Years in a Paragraph

What where the milestones of the first 10 years of online news? So asked Mark Glaser in Online Journalism Review a while back. Off the cuff, I’d say the defining element was the perception of the newspaper industry vs. the perception of the pundits. 1994: Curiousness vs. it’ll change everything; 1995: Nervousness vs. you HAVE to do something; 1996: Dabble your feet vs. go full out or you’ll be dead; 1997: Where is the meat vs. it takes time, and build communities; 1998: Still where is the meat vs. go multiplatform publishing; 1999: How do you play the stock market vs. you are in the content business; 2000: Who can we buy, merge, or partner with vs. whoa, is this ever taking off; 2001: It is not panning out vs. look closely where it does, imagine 9-11 without; 2002: Cut the weight vs. don’t stop believing; 2003: Not where our problems really are vs. you’ll never solve them without understanding it.

I don’t want to rant at Markoff. I want Specker to do it. Cheers.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 17, 2003 9:02 AM