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Published on: March 26, 2007
Culture Prints

I‘ve been too busy lately to contribute to blog, or so I’ve told myself. I have still not gotten entirely used to moving from a quarterly to a bi-monthly schedule, and my limited management skills have been manifest in the process. “Too busy” may therefore really mean “not very well organized”, but whatever the reasons […]

I‘ve been too busy lately to contribute to blog, or so I’ve told myself. I have still not gotten entirely used to moving from a quarterly to a bi-monthly schedule, and my limited management skills have been manifest in the process. “Too busy” may therefore really mean “not very well organized”, but whatever the reasons for my absence, they’re gone for the time being. With the May-June issue is off to press (and it’s a terrific issue, just you wait and see), I have time for blogging something–two somethings, as it happens, about what might be called culture prints.

* * *

Nearly everyone who stills reads a daily newspaper likes to complain about it, and I’m no exception, as you’re about to learn. I have acquaintances, however, who spend a truly inordinate amount of time and energy raging over the latest sins of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and so on. I tell them to calm down: You can’t do much of anything about it; they will rarely if ever print your hopping mad letters to the editor, and they do not good anyway–so better to devote your time and emotional juices to something less futile.

That said, I couldn’t help but notice the divergence of coverage between the New York Times and the Washington Post on the March 17 antiwar rally near the Pentagon. The Times story ($$$), by David Kirkpatrick and Sarah Abruzzese, was suitably reportorial, providing the basic background one would expect of serious journalism. For example, it mentioned the sponsor and organizer of the rally: ANSWER. It mentioned Ramsey Clark, too, and gave some idea of ANSWER’s agenda (though it did not mention ANSWER’s previous enthusiasm for Slobo Milosevic or Saddam Hussein). As one quoted protester put the real purpose of the rally it just right, “We’re trying to radicalize people.”

The front page Washington Post article was longer, spilling over onto to page A12, and to its credit, the Post coverage gave space to March 17’s counter-protestors. But it said absolutely nothing about the protest’s sponsorship–not one word. It did, however, include several “pocket” human interest vignettes, including a finale with a hog farmer from Grinnell, Iowa. “`We just couldn’t take it anymore’, said Christine Gaunt, 50″ is how the Post put it. (Eat your heart out, Garrison Keillor.)

What’s the difference? Only that an honest but young reader would learn from the New York Times what was in fact going on, pretty much, while that same young reader could easily get the impression from the Post that the March 17 rally was a spontaneous outpouring of patriotic concern from a stunningly representative segment of the American population. Now, the Post did mention the sponsor of the rally in its March 18 Sunday paper–in the “Style” section. As veteran Washingtonians know, that’s where the real news often is to be found in the Post. David Montgomery’s nicely crafted piece spilled from p. D1 over to D4, where three iconic black-and-white photos from the 1967 March on the Pentagon–the famous one, from whence Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night–were laid out for all to see and, for some of us, to remember.

If you kept reading after Montgomery’s article ended, you encountered at the bottom of p. D4 a piece about Pete Seeger and siblings and offspring playing music at the Library of Congress. There was plenty about Pete, about the event, about Bruce Springstein’s recent discovery of American folk music and of his being a no-show at the Library to the disappointment of some. There was, too, a reference to the inevitability of Seeger saying something acerbic about the current Administration, and even a passing reference to Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign. But there was nothing, not a word, about the fact that Seeger remained–long after the veil fell from the Soviet Gulag–a banjo Bolshevik, an unreconstructed Marxist, or that, for all anyone knows, he still is. Seeger has been at this so long that not only does he still believe the left-wing mythology of the Spanish Civil War, he probably invented some of it himself. Not a word about any of this, but then again, it was only a music review.

Journalism of this sort puts a kink into the ambient angst about young people not reading the newspaper much these days. It’s for sure they don’t. You can look up all sorts of polls and see how daily newspaper readership declines steadily and more or less evenly by age cohort from oldest to youngest. It doesn’t mean that inquisitive young people don’t read; other data show that they do. But for news they often first read designer Internet sites and blogs, and there are two problems with this, as many have pointed out. First, the average length of the factual narrative provided is short, at least compared to what daily newspapers used to provide and many still do. Second, of course, material selected in such a way is prone to self-reinforcing ideological bias. This way of getting the news is not liable to engender much actual thinking about its content.

It may not follow necessarily that young people would be better off reading articles about antiwar rallies that don’t identify their sponsors than reading designer news sources whose main purpose is to advocate rather than inform. But it does follow all the same, because I don’t worry much about the younger set in this regard. If my own children are any indication, those born during the 1980s are mostly predisposed to be cynical. What I mean is that their general level of trust concerning anything that anyone located in a media or power vortex says to them is preemptorily zero. The more that suave and sophisticated advertisers and focus group nabobs have gotten in their perpetual effort to sell stuff no one genuinely needs, the more intelligent kids have learned to let it all just bounce right off their backsides. They should be reading the newspaper; they’re far more street savvy and better prepared to do battle with spin and spinners than I was when I was in my late teens or early twenties.

The consequence of this pre-fab cynicism transcends the future of the newspaper business, however. The longitudinal data we have on social trust in America shows that it’s declining (just like newspaper readership) in steady and more or less even intervals from oldest to youngest. Yes, it’s true that Americans, more than most, have historically been questioners of authority, loners, haters of tax collectors and so forth. But the decline in social trust we are witnessing in the United States is neither historically normal or in any way a good thing. We’re not talking here about people not trusting the government; we’re talking about people not trusting each other. As a social scientist (Francis Fukuyama, possibly) might point out, low levels of social trust carry pretty big transactional costs in the long run.

All of which is just a way of saying that I wish Edward R. Murrow and his like were still with us. Back then the Washington Post did not run unsourced book excerpts written by its own staffers on the front page as if they contained actual news. More people would read newspapers (and serious magazines, too) more regularly if print media did not give in to the cadences and styles of the electronic media. There is a market out there for high quality journalism, and print media editors are foolish to go running after their electronic counterparts, because they’ll never catch them. So fellow editors, this be our motto (imagine appropriate Randy Newman Field of Dreams theme music): If we write it right, they will come.

* * *

A few weeks ago the New York Times Book Review–February 11, p. 31 to be precise–splashed out in full color an analysis of the cover of Michael Crichton’s newest book, Next. The author, Field Maloney–a Runyonesque name if ever there was one–pointed out by means of annotating the various features how carefully and calculatedly the design of the cover had been conceived and executed.

This got my attention for two reasons. First, I’d just read the book a week or so before, and second, I was in the early stages of writing a book of my own–an extension of my essay, “The Madness of Jewcentricity”, from the November/December 2006 issue–which, of course, will also need a cover. I had recently had an experience with the New York commercial publishing industry to find a publisher for my book, and nothing about what the NYT Book Review said concerning Crichton’s cover surprised me. Neither did the interior decorating scheme of Crichton’s new novel.

Next has like 64 chapters, or some similar huge number–none longer than four or five pages. A series of subplots repeat almost like clockwork at intervals, so that subplot D takes place in chapters 6, 10, 14, 18, 22 and so on. If you’ve read the book already you know all this, and you see, too, that the distance between a Crichton novel and one by, say, Dave Barry, is rapidly diminishing. If you haven’t read it, you might be curious to know what difference this makes.

Well, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that if you look back to Crichton’s older books, Andromeda Strain for example, you will see that these were normal books, with normal numbers of chapters with normal numbers of pages. As time passes and you look through Crichton’s dozen or so books between Andromeda Strain and Next, you see a tendency toward more chapters of shorter length. (Chapter shrinkage seems to track close to the decline in newspaper readership, now that I think about it.)

Beyond the interior design of Next, it’s hard to see how things could get more extreme. More pages than chapters perhaps for Crichton’s forthcoming The Cyborbot Who Ate Mommy’s Brain? The point? Nearly everything coming from commercial publishers in New York is being ever more finely segmented as our attention spans get shorter and shorter. Pioneered by the greatest imbecility machine of all time, television, we now use technology to zoom from byte to byte to byte without ever taking time to really chew things over. (Even wonder why you work crazy hard and fast all day but never seem to get much done? Maybe that’s why: Your time is broken into increasingly useless ever smaller pieces as you are distracted by your e-mail basket, your cell phone, and all the rest of your gadgets.)

Crichton chapters work now for two-stop trips on the Metro, for short spits of time between whatever people are multitasking over, insofar as they can liberate themselves from their Blackberries. If, Heaven forbid, you should dare to sit to read in a comfortable chair with a nice pot of tea nearby, you’re done the damned thing before the tea gets cold. If patience and self-discipline are keys to developing good character (they are), we are in oh-so-much trouble, with or without decent newspapers and magazines. Just as print media should resist the urge to ape e-journalism, so such serious New York publishing house editors.

If you have read (and at all remember) “The Madness of Jewcentricity”, you can perhaps imagine how most New York commercial publishers conceived the idea of a book made from it. A few editors were keen to allow the book to be at least halfway serious, and that includes Adam Bellow at Doubleday and Will Murphy at Random House (bless them both). Alas, they couldn’t get their senior colleagues–“senior” in this case means not necessarily older; it means those with the money–to post bail to get the essay out of jail and into the broad expanses of a book. Martha Levin at the Free Press told me she doubted I could write down-market enough for their purposes. Me? Me never a full-time university employee, me of many score chatty op-eds, me of the occasional pseudonymic fiction piece, me even a practitioner of what Peggy Noonan calls the “dark arts” of speechwriting? “A little history in this book? Forget it, Adam”, she said: “You need to write about Mel Gibson to really sell this thing.”

Far be it from me to tell New York publishing houses how to make money. They clearly don’t need my help. But is their low assessment of the intelligence and tastes of the American public accurate, or is it a form of condescension that actually contributes to the phenomenon they think they understand? Maybe both? Probably both.

I think of certain unnamed editors, unfairly perhaps, as people who presume themselves to be very smart, working in nifty big buildings in Manhattan as they do, partly because their alpha-personality professional parents always told them how smart they were. And so for them to seem to themselves very smart, even if they aren’t, most other people by definition have to be not-so-smart. So these editors push nearly everything down-market to appeal to the hordes of the not-so-smart, and they get their focus groupies and marketing people to assure hyped up visibility in the big retail outlets (the same ones who carry The American Interest, so I’d prefer not to name them). Their accounts thereby make money, proving of course how smart they are, and how clever their determination to go ever farther down-market will prove to be. If these keeps up, one day our books will come with warnings on their wrappers, saying things like “Do not read this product while operating a jet ski”, because by then we will have all been reduced to quasi-literate morons.

But their accounts would make money no matter what the books say, because their marketing techniques are truly frightening in their nearly foolproof effectiveness. Looking at how the retail book trade in the United States works these days, I sometimes think the big houses could make money selling unedited sections of the 1979 St. Louis metropolitan area white pages–as long as they could think up a steamy title (The Cardinal Sinners, perhaps?), get great cover art, and, of course, divide the copy into lots and lots of short chapters. If the big houses, some of which also used to be great houses, would push their standards up rather than down, still using the same artful sales gimmicks they use so effectively, they’d probably sell even more books than they do. It stands to reason that most people, given the choice between good stuff and ephemeral trash, will in the main choose the former. Or am I just in too good a mood today?

We compromised, my editor and I, at John Wiley. I wanted to prove that oh-yes-I-can-too write down-market and make a lot of money. My editor said, in effect, “Wo’ hoss, let’s not get too carried away.” So instead of 40,000 words divided into 40 chapters, we’re doing 60,000 words divided into 20 chapters. (And yes I most certainly am going to write about Mel Gibson, all the same.) “You’ll like yourself better in the end”, he says. “True, but we won’t sell as many books”, I respond. “True….”, he replies, his voice trailing off, just as these ellipses are supposed to indicate. All of which proves (yet again) that it’s human nature to want to have things both ways, and it’s the rest of nature that makes it impossible.

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