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Joel Whitney: New York Times as Quixote

June 11, 2009

Obviously, the _New York Times_ serves a crucial purpose, providing reporting you can’t get from blogs, TV news, or satire-news. We wouldn’t know nearly as much without them. But on Tuesday they offered themselves up for yet another purpose: buffoon.

Jason Jones, of The Daily Show, visited the _Times_’ New York offices, and met with Executive Editor Bill Keller, whom he asked about his “love for this creaky old rag.” “We’re a little bit like the last ship afloat,” Keller tells him. “But you’re made of paper,” quips Jones. Keller stutters.

Jones then sets up his exchange with Communications Coordinator Kristin Mason, by beating up the _Times_ for faulty Iraq war coverage, and the Jayson Blair scandal. “The _Times_ prides itself on making sure the information [we print] is factual,” Mason begins. Looking around the offices, Jones says he can imagine Woodward and Bernstein chewing the fat over a bear claw. Mason says humorlessly, “That’s an interesting idea…” then reprimands a flailing Jones, “That was the _Washington Post._”

The funniest part is when Jones asks Assistant Managing Editor Rick Berke, “Why is aged news better than real news?” Berke does a double take, but finally says, “I’ve never heard the term ‘aged news’.” “Well, the newspaper is … yesterday’s news,” says Jones. Berke: “Not necessarily.” “Name one thing in there that happened today,” says Jones. Berke puts his hand to his mouth, raises his finger, and (like Keller) stutters.

In the final segment, Keller defends the _Times_. His points are inarguable. But sad. And the format is set up for him merely to set up jokes for Jones. It hurts to watch. TV is already a reductive reality constantly interrupted by advertising, and cues to the audience to laugh. And the _Times_ participates in the reduction, when the editors meet satire with a disdain that has already tacitly bought into the rules of the Siege of Newspapers. It’s comedy, but also tragedy. Clearly, the expectation of huge profits is at odds with the public service provided by the newspaper. I don’t think that is the newspapers’ “fault.” But the segment makes it look like it is, like these editors are as backwards as politicians on the take. It was like they were completely unaware of the context in which the interview was taking place, and totally unprepared.

I don’t wish the _Times_ pretended the crisis wasn’t real, or made more light of it; I wish their response to the presumptions being tossed at them, as during the Iraq war buildup, weren’t so limited, predictable and reactionary—so reflexive. I also wish their public “faces,” as it were, could show a little more wit and spontaneity. Jeesh. It was like they were already _dead_. I felt I was watching the dying buck in the “story”:http://www.peninsula.wednet.edu/classroom/robisonp/Sunrise%20on%20the%20Veld.htm “Sunrise on the Veld” or Quixote doing battle with windmills.

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End Times
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