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December 30, 2012 9:11 AM The New York Times’ “The Lives They Lived”

By Kathleen Geier

Like many of its readers, and particularly many of its liberal readers, I have a love/hate relationship with the The New York Times. On the one hand, the paper is of course indispensable, and it is hands-down superior to its main competitor, The Washington Post. You can read great, essential reporting in the Times every single day. I’m a particular fan of their investigative series, of which United States of Subsidies, about the enormous tax breaks state and local governments give to corporations, which rarely produce the jobs and financial benefits the firms promise, was a recent stellar example. We also have the Times to thank for giving us Paul Krugman, who may be the greatest political columnist this country has ever produced. I would certainly argue that he is at the very least the greatest newspaper political columnist of our time.

On the other hand, the Times has much to be embarrassed about. It is guilty of plenty of lazy political reporting that reinforces center-right ideas and narratives. Its coverage of some areas of the world, like Latin America, is terrible. Its cultural critics tend to be exceedingly mediocre—the Sunday Book Review, in particular, has gotten much less intelligent and much more boring since Sam Tanenhaus became editor. And there is no punishment harsh enough, in this world or the next, for foisting Ross Douthat upon a blameless public.

One thing the Times often does well, though, are obituaries. On occasion their obits disappoint; for example, their recent obituary of the great economist Albert Hirschman was, in addition to mysteriously being two weeks late, highly inadequate as a treatment as the man’s work and contributions to the field. But their obituaries can also be improbably fascinating. For example, this recent obituary of the actor Charles Durning, who survived childhood trauma, poverty, harrowing experiences in combat during World War II, and decades of failure and obscurity before becoming one of the most successful character actors in the business, is a stunning America saga.

The Times also usually does a good job with its year-end “The Lives They Lived” edition of the Sunday Magazine. This year seems to me to be more of a mixed bag than usual, but there is some gold amongst the dross. On the down side, I didn’t, for example, care for the pieces on Newtown or Don Cornelius. The Newtown piece isn’t about Newtown at all; it’s about a tragic accident at a school that occurred 75 years ago. Particularly since memories of Newtown are so fresh, it hardly seems respectful to the victims for the author to use that tragedy as an excuse to write about another subject entirely (which she happens to be writing a book about). The Don Cornelius essay has a related problem — it’s a personal essay that is only peripherally about Don Cornelius (or, to be more exact, the writer’s memories of Soul Train). Essays like this can work, but only if they’re very good. This one isn’t. Don Cornelius was a far more interesting person than the writer seems to be, and the essay does not say anything smart or interesting or new about the Soul Train phenomenon.

But there are some very good pieces in the mix. As always, some of the best pieces are about people you never heard of, or barely heard of. There is, for example, this essay about Ethel Person, a psychiatrist who did pioneering work studying transgender people, treating them with far more sympathy and humanity than previous researchers. There’s also a wonderful piece about South African wildlife conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who “saved countless animals during his lifetime.” The oral history about Sylvia Woods, owner of the famed Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s, is also excellent. And who knew that Brooke Shields’ mom could be the subject of such a compelling profile?

Also highly recommended: the piece on Paradise Park, a New Jersey trailer park destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and the one on The Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. I also got a kick out of this excerpt of a Phyllis Diller comedy routine, but then again, I’m a fan of that kind of over-the-top old school comedy. Clearly, YMMV.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Snarky McSnarksnark on December 30, 2012 11:23 AM:

    I don't understand the cheap shot at Ross Douthat. I agree with almost nothing that he advocates, but he is thoughtful, civil, and non-dogmatic.

    Does Ms. Geier think that The New York Times should feature only liberal voices?

  • c u n d gulag on December 30, 2012 11:46 AM:

    Snarky,
    IMHO - Douthat is pedantic, insipid, and a holier-than-thou moralizer who appears to have some real sexual hang-ups - and not necessarily in that order.
    A column from Pope Ross makes, makes even the worst one by David Brooks, seem thoughtful, informative, insightful, and envigorating.

    My Pop brought one home every day, when I was a kid.
    And then, I bought the NY Times, pretty much every day, my whole adult life.

    Then, after the run-up to the Iraq war, and Friedman's constant and endless series of, "Well, let's give this some more time - we should know more in another 6 months..." columns, I only bought it on Sunday.

    And I watched in horror, as one of the best book review sections in the world, went downhill faster than than an extreme skier.

    After Frank Rich left, I kept buying the Sunday Times - though mostly for my father.
    And since he passed away earlier this year, I stopped buying it.
    And sadly, I hate to say it, but I really don't miss it.
    Sure, I miss the reporting, but I don't miss the Op-ed columns.
    Since Rich left, that section, with the exceptions of Krugman - Gail Collins, more often than not; and Joe Norera, sometimes; and Frank Bruni, rarely - has also really gone downhill.
    Let MoDo pay for some Psychiatrist to listen to her issues - I'm done with reading about them. Politic's as gossip-rag, is not my cup of tea.

    Oh, for the NY Times of my youth, from the 60's to mid-80's!
    Now, THERE was a Liberal paper for the Conservatives to hate!!!

  • Ron Byers on December 30, 2012 12:07 PM:

    I don't know Snarky, I have never read a Ross Douthat column with which I could either agree or take exception. I think "irrelevant" is the term I would associate with Douthat.

    All newspapers have been in decline since the 1960s. That is because newspapers have lost their economic base. Sadly opinion centers in the new media, like Washington Monthly's Politicial Animal, have yet to find a way to make themselves economically viable. Maybe they won't but something in the new media will emerge to replace the old New York Times and America's other great papers as they fade away.

  • Lee Gibson on December 30, 2012 12:22 PM:

    I'm glad to see someone remark on the decline of the Book Review under Tanenhaus. That's a subject that's too little noticed.

  • c u n d gulag on December 30, 2012 12:33 PM:

    OY!
    Not "envigorating" - 'invigorating!'

    Ron,
    Another problem, and maybe the main one, is that in the last 40+ years, fewer and fewer newspapers are independently owned.

    They are now mostly owned by some corporate entity - and so, the writing and editorializing in a lot of the newspapers has tilted further and further to the right, reflecting the interests of corporations and their rich executives and investors, and not Joe and Jane Sixpack and their kids living on Main Street.

  • R on December 30, 2012 12:49 PM:

    I second Lee Gibson's sentiment. The Book Review is less and less about books and more about people. I don't need a profile of a reviewer or a synopsis of what that reviewer writes elsewhere in the same issue. The interviews with people about their favorite books are nice, but not at the expense of actual book reviews. I'd also love to know how reviewers are assigned to books; they often seem to be either members of the authors' fan clubs or on their enemies lists, as opposed to knowledgeable but disinterested readers.

    And sorry, Snarky -- if Douthat is actually thinking hard, he hides it well. Did you miss the column in which he laments the fall in U.S. birth rates? Downright loopy.

  • c u n d gulag on December 30, 2012 1:00 PM:

    R,
    Yeah, Sam Tanenhous has Tina Brown'd the NY Times Book Review.

  • Zorro on December 30, 2012 1:16 PM:

    re: Ross Douhat- I prefer to call him Ross Asshat. Seems a better fit.

    -Z

  • Crissa on December 30, 2012 1:44 PM:

    I recently read a great article about the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek; www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/

    Now, it's not really a puff piece at the same time it's mostly a narrative, and it's not a particularly important avalanche, but it was written very well. And the web production of it was flawless; it didn't even kick in the fans on my laptop.

  • Crissa on December 30, 2012 2:22 PM:

    I have one rule for Ross Douthat - if he says something is fact, Doubt That it is true. He's often wrong, even when he quotes actual figures - let alone his conclusions.

    Sure, he can write about them well, but grammar doesn't make something more or less true in a simple Google search.

  • BrookLyn1825 on December 31, 2012 3:15 AM:

    The NYTimes article you linked to and recommended goes indepth on GM and the assertion they've received lots of taxpayer incentives in addition to TARP. However nowhere in the article does it mention sports teams or the company nearest to me personally Google. What sort of tax incentives did the people of Mountain View, CA have to give to secure jobs in Silicon Valley?

    The NYTimes like Meet the Press is well passed its prime. The clear indication of their being passed their prime is my cursory reading revealing bias in their United States of Subsidy article. I can only await the Economics majors review of said article. I don't want balance but truth in my news.

  • John Litweiler on December 31, 2012 12:05 PM:

    Ross Douthat is small stuff. By contrast, the elitist, anti-humane David Brooks is one of the most thoroughly dishonest hacks of our era. Brooks's distortion of moderate and liberal values, his surreptitious name-calling - you have to look out for it - his way of cheapening every subject he writes about is a reminder of his history with the National Review. That's where Wm. Buckley, the champion of pseudo-intellectual evasion, was Brooks's model.