Sunday, August 03, 2008

realizing the NYT isn't that great is like finding out Santa Claus isn't real

Most of you readers know that my childhood was not very fancy, and that my family worked a second job night shift at the LA Times. Well, I suppose my dad and brother had the actual positions, and we all just helped out to make it faster, in the process violating so many labor laws and child labor laws. Ah, good times.

Anyway, a conversation over a picnic yesterday made me realize why I feel so sad when I have to critique the NYT. When I was little, newspapers were my primary source of education about current events and adult subjects (by "adult," I mean things like war, the economy, law, crime, politics...). I don't know when I realized that the NYT, WaPo, LAT, and, well, every newspaper in America were not only imperfect, but occasionally really, really bad. I just know that it was fairly recent, and probably as late as 2006. I think I remember reading Sarah Vowell's "Partly Cloudy Patriot " in 2005 and remarking, with wonder, at her assertion, on p. 83, that "scoffing at the NewYork Times's mistakes is a morning ritual, like oatmeal."

I told my picnic partner yesterday that realizing that there is a name and description to your problem is half of the recovery process--or at least, the beginning of awareness and acceptance. You know how sick people want a diagnosis, so that they at least can get a handle on their problem and a prognosis? This is true of many things in life. We want things to have a name, to know that there is, if not a reason, then a formal state of recognition and that this is not all crazy talk that we think that there is some problem. And that, my friends, is why one of my secret nerd hobbies is reading press criticism. There must be a reason why so many people think that my former educators suck. There must be a reason why bloggers appear to be a credible assault on "MSM." Such it is with press criticism. For a while there, I thought it was just my need to build up expertise in a certain area. Learning more about statistics makes me hate, hate, the way the NYT uses "many" or "most" to make specious claims about national trends (e.g., the "Opt-Out Revolution"), and going to law school has made me seriously question newspaper coverage of important cases (and hate the lack of coverage of important cases). Reading Jay Rosen (PressThink) and the sometimes hateful Jack Shafer (Slate) made me realize that these problems aren't new, and that criticism is necessary to ensure an accountable, accurate press.

But it all makes me kind of sad. Realizing so late that newspapers aren't a reliable source of education makes me doubt all of the stuff I learned as a kid--it was the only way I could lift myself up from poverty and ignorance. Of course, the many years of education and many many degrees has done something to help with that too, and I may in fact be over-educated. But it's sad, nonetheless, to read, doggedly, resignedly, and yet still hopefully my fallen idols of journalism and realize that they're not that great, and maybe they never were. Maybe I was just ignorant and naive, all those years, and couldn't perceive the level of suckage. My friends, it is not unlike realizing, at the age of 25, that Santa Clause doesn't actually exist. And then to still be talking about this "discovery" at the age of 27, and to rapidly approach 28 with a "no really--can you believe it?! Santa Clause isn't real!" But unlike Santa Clause, you can't really ignore the NYT. Well, I suppose you can't ignore it, because it actually exists. But by that I mean, I may criticize the NYT, but I still read it, with optimism and residual belief. Most of my comments these days are "man, this paper has gone downhill," but that means I thought it was good, and I can't really talk to anyone about it, because apparently people have been saying that it sucks for years. And yet this is only a recent revelation of mine, and it is hard to communicate what newspapers meant to me to these snarky, jaded hipsters who seemed to have the pulse of the cognoscenti when I was still figuring out whether overalls were a good look on me. And they're my age!

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