All the News that's Fit to Squint
Gay Talese wonít go online, bless his ornery old-fashioned soul. He answers his phone like people used to (heís listed in the phone book and itís a land line, remember those? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing! Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!) and says ďHello?Ē and if you have a request heíll ask you to please fax it to him, because, yes, Gay has progressed into the modern era far enough to own a fax machine, he doesnít mind that particular whirring contraption, probably because it involves paper and the ringing of a phoneÖitís like a Dixie cup and a string, only longer, looser, lighter than air, the connection invisible yet somehow tangible. He rises every morning and paws through the newspaper with the diligence of an obedient journalism student and checks his mailbox for letters with stamps on them (and there will be letters; people write to Gay Talese; I did when I was a young starry-eyed reporter; wouldnít you if you were?) and puts on an elegant Italian suit and, often, a wide-brimmed hat to match. He walks the streets of his Upper East Side neighborhood with the gait of a go-getting reporter, because he still is one, and he presses his opinions on people with the passion of a high-school debate team captain, only with more grace, more wit, more aplomb. Yes, the man has aplomb.
You wouldnít like being Gay Talese. Itís hard work and the rewards donít seem very obvious to someone with a website and a password and high-speed Internet access, the ultimate vrooooom vroooooom vroooooomÖ Remember vrooooom? No you donít, but thatís okay because Tom Wolfe isnít New Journalism anymore, his old hats are old hat. Gonzo is the way of the world. Everyone writes in lower case. The world has abandoned traditional words and grammar in favor of shit that fits on a phone screen. Will u b there 4 a few mins? Meet u at ur apt 4 dinner? No time for apostrophes, my friend. Canít be bothered with articles. Wonít.† Fuck that. No point. By the clicking of our thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Meanwhile, Gay sits in his home office and contemplates the future and fumes that the rest of us, the young people among us especially, wonít read the goddamned newspaper, that we wonít get off our asses and talk to people and discuss ideas and consider the world. And of course heís right, Gay is often exactly right about things, thatís the problem with him, heís right and we know it and we feel bad at 10:15 p.m. when we already know whatís going to be on the front page of tomorrowís newspaper from checking the website, so whatís the point of paying some guy named Oscar to drive in from Flushing to drop the printed version on our doormat? Is it just so we can hold in our hands the source of 63 percent of all our ink stains? The ink-to-news ratio in American journalism has dropped precipitously, and thatís not good news for those of us who donít always wear dark colors.
See, this is how it goes when youíre a person of the twentieth century, which, letís face it, you all are, but some more so than others. You like old buildings, you fancy old restaurants, you wear old shirts you canít bear to throw awayÖyou launder and plunder and plead and prod and poke and pilfer until youíve re-shaped the world around the way it was, the way we were, the way itís supposed to be. Everything is supposed to be something in the old world; nothing can just be. The new Richard Price novel is supposed to be goodÖwell, sure, isnít everything supposed to be good? Isnít that the point of everything? No one sets out with the purpose of making bad things. But Gay, God bless him, wants us to distinguish between good and bad, old and new, right and wrong. Heís a rabid subjectivist; every move he makes, every breath he takes reflects a conscious choice, a decision. He turns the page of a newspaper because he wants to, he believes in the power of his index finger and licks it with anticipation at the next page. Yum!
Phenomena donít just happen; theyíre named, like children, and often with about as much logical sense as parents use when they call their little boy Branwyn and consign him to years of ridicule on the playground of life.† But right now weíre in the middle of a phenomenon, and it needs a name, and Bill or Betsy wonít do. In the last, oh, six months or so, it has been stirring in the souls of men and women who consign themselves to cooking up theories; just look and youíll see them, long-winded essays about speed and money and sex and Obama and what it means to have no means. Itís The Recession, Stupid; Itís The War, Stupid; Itís The Headline, Stupid.
But we need headlines, donít we? If anything, there seem to be more of them these days, bombarding us with instantaneous conclusions and digestible facts in rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat doses, twenty-four tablets a day taken at the top of every hour and chewable, too. You can mix them with alcohol or drugs or coffee (especially coffee) and theyíre good for you; itís like taking your mind out for a little stretch to loosen it up, yoga for the noggin and itís free, absolutely free, no need for a trainer or a gym, just a laptop and access to the Internet fast lane, so you can pass those slow suckers out for an afternoon drive and rubbernecking at the porn. Why pay for news when itís everywhere, knocking down our door, begging to inform you of every development as it occurs? Gay knows whatís coming, and thatís why heís alternately annoyed and afraid; itís a world where no one pays and everyone plays, a universe of information and advertising coming at us through particles of air. Someday weíll take a deep breath and our lungs will fill with the New York Times, thatís how easy it will be to keep up. But even now the naysayers must acknowledge that itís happening, that this is the dawning of something; it is now readily apparent that no one with a shred of intelligence will soon fork over funds for a newspaper they can read at no charge.
Like most respectable phenomena, this one landed impertinently in our lives when we didnít see it coming, in the form of a national obsession over a few disputed votes in Florida that might, just might, have changed the face of the present, had some lame-brained Supremes not bent the Constitution to their will. Who has dispelled the feeling of those days in November 2000, when we collectively forgot to work for weeks and instead turned, for the first time, to our computers for constant updates? No one could wait for the morning paper to find out what kooky Katherine Harris had done to keep political justice at bay; she was the Western worldís most dastardly deed-doer since Snidely Whiplash. We began the aughts as we ought: in front of a screen awaiting news of our future, as reporters roamed in just the way Gay wanted, up and down, up and down, up and down. Did you vote for Bush? Did you vote for Gore? What did you do? What did Jew do? It was Florida and we just couldnít understand how a redneck Texan could kick Tennessee ass in a state of retired New Yorkers and angry alligators.
Less than a year later, jets rammed into skyscrapers in our home town and stopped the world dead in its tracks. And thatís when it really began, our insatiable curiosity for news every second, more news than we could ever afford to buy. A strange sound outside our windows and suddenly we wondered, what was it this time? What was thatóanother attack or a sonic boom or just another frigginí car alarm? The computer calmed us down as we scrolled through websites in search of something familiar. We went on Safari, and combed the brush for the path to the open road. It took years to find our way back home.
And thatís where this story begins: at home. Not Gayís unwired world, but our own homes, where we keep our laptops and our WiFi connections, girding for the recession and wondering how long we have left.††
Gay gets the New York Times at home, of course, dropped off by 6:30 a.m. and left on his stoop so that whenever he gets upóand which of us doesnít imagine that Gay gets up before we do?óitís there, waiting in a blue bag to protect it from the elements, and God knows thereís a lot of elements out there, a periodic table full of them and then some. One imagines that he does the unthinkable, flipping through the pages one at a time, taking in the pictures from Myanmar and the Ben Brantley reviews and the Bob Herbert columns and all those little gems, too. Thatís what you do, thatís what happens when you stir the Times into your coffee every morning.
But itís changing, damn it to hell; thatís what got Gay going recently when his buddy Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the Times, came to him with a plan to turn the paperís shifting fortunes into a documentary. ďItís about why the Times is having difficulty attracting readers when in my opinion itís still a very good paper, and about the difficulty of convincing young people to read it,Ē Gay dejectedly told a New York magazine reporter in announcing the project, and it sounded highly plausible. Only a week earlier, we learned that circulation of the New York Times on Sunday had dropped a ridiculous, absurd, unbelievable nine percent from a year ago, meaning more than one out of every ten bagel-munching, coffee-guzzling, Arts & Leisure-loving looneys had ceased their practice of starting off the weekend with the Sunday Times sprawled on the furniture in a messy heap of prose. Travel, Real Estate, and let us not forget the Automobiles section. New Yorkers yearn for new cars just like everyone else, maybe even a little bit more because we donít have a place to put one; we love the smell of Mazda in the morning.
Think about it. A nine percent drop in anything can make us ornery. Imagine a nine percent drop in muscle mass, or space on the subway, or caffeine consumption and youíll get the picture.†
But now imagine said nine percent of subscribers (a number close to 150,000) settling in on Sunday morning in front of their computers for the experience of reading the paper online, alternating the Week in Review with a Hulu video of last nightís SNL opening sketch, a game of Scrabulous on Facebook and an email or two or five. Starting to make sense? Of course it is; computers make sense. Itís no coincidence that we have one at home, one at the office and one in our front pocket. We need Fandango and HopStop and MapQuest. Krugman and Kristof can wait; they wonít tell us how to get to BAM from the Upper West Side, or the running time of Iron Man, or how the service delays on the IRT will impact our impending trip to Yankee Stadium. Everything is impending; no rest for the leery. No time. Weíre late.
But whatís the problem, whatís the point? Youíre getting bored. Restless. Articles in newspapers donít last this long anymore. Itís free, youíre thinking, Iíll toss it and move on, I can always pick up another one later, read it online, catch the snarky summary on Gawker. Theories need to be one sentence or less, preferably one word or less. When Tom Wolfe named the Me Decade in 1978, it took him a billion words and it still didnít make much sense except that it told us we only cared about ourselves, that was the takeaway. Everything needs a bite-sized chunk to carry around and share, a forkful of philosophy from a pu-pu platter of ideas on the lazy Susan of life.
So whatís changed between then and now? Whatís the word? Tell me tell me tell me, youíre saying. You donít want to wait for the movie.
The answer (and you wonít like it) is nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is no Me Decade, no Free Decade, no E! Decade. Newspapers arenít dying. Television didnít destroy the movie business, movies didnít destroy books, books didnít destroy cave paintings. The sky isnít falling and Gay Talese will get everything he needs via fax and the future isnít going to be so bad, really, because it turns out the future is now, and nothing has really changed. You still use keys to open doors.† Newspapers exist and will continue to exist, and reporters will continue to report, and articles will be read. Pay $1.25 and the New York Times can be yours, and itís still the best deal in town; emotions unavailable in the online edition will still pour forth from its pages, thanks to the wondrous confluence of words and photographs and headlines and ideas. Or pay nothing and it will still enthrall and engage and inform; the New York Times will entertain even those of us who now prefer to read the paper standing up on the subway on a Kindle.
Still, thank God for Gay Talese; heís the firm but benevolent father to us all, reminding us to turn off our computers and go outside and play, itís a beautiful day outside, the sun is shining and allís right with the world.
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