As a New Year's resolution this year, I decided to devote all of 2002 to a comprehensive study of the New York Times.
I'd planned to explain in this space why I'm doing this, but every attempt I've made so far to write this introduction has made no sense whatsoever. Maybe it actually doesn't make sense. But is clearly too late to wonder about that now.
The project, which has occupied most of my free time (outside of NFL broadcasts) in the last month, involves reading the entire Times and taking a long look at at least one Times article every single day. The idea is to take enough pieces from enough different locations in the nether regions of the paper that by the end of the year, I'll have a detailed portrait of the whole horrifying machine.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier -- without the "d."
The Times is an extremely interesting thing to try to figure out, and it would take a massive undertaking to describe it satisfactorily. It's a colossally demented vision of reality, constantly serviced and maintained by an army of superficially sane and educated people. How they all come together to produce what they do, as consistently as they do, seems to me to be as good a place as any to start, if one is interested in pursuing serious questions about man's twisted nature.
To this end I've been keeping a diary about the paper all year. The Times is so big that it is impossible for any one person to cover as a whole on a daily basis (and this is one of its strengths, of course), but I figured that by taking selected biopsies every day, I might eventually get a line on the whole organism. I am on pace to write over a million words on the subject by January of next year, which shows you how much of a life I have. What follows are excerpts from my entries in the last few weeks:
TUESDAY, JANUARY 1, 2002
I expected the Times' first issue of the New Year to be more aggressive in a "State of Our Challenged Nation" sort of way, but it was actually oddly subdued. The Times is not at its best or most confident when covering things like holidays, sports, sex, or music. The paper as an institution lacks the instinct for fun necessary for this kind of work. It's always too busy being a standard-setter to enjoy itself.
I remember once getting on an elevator in New York and realizing that the man standing behind me was the actor Lloyd Bridges. I got on on the 20th floor; we had a long ride down to the street. I looked over my shoulder once to make sure it was him, and then, not wanting to hassle a helpless celebrity, turned back around and stared squarely at the elevator doors.
But on the way down, the elevator kept stopping, and people kept piling in. With each new person I had to take a step backward. By the time we got to the sixth or seventh floor, I could hear his breathing behind me. Then the elevator stopped one more time, and I had to back up again. This time I accidentally stepped on the actor's toe. I swung around to apologize.
"I'm sorry," I said.
The Times compared George Bush to Frodo Baggins
"I'm Lloyd Bridges!" he shouted -- apropos of nothing.
His eyes looked full of fear as he said it. I think everyone in the elevator felt sorry for him.
The Times is the same way. On some days you can pick up the paper and almost hear it shouting, apropos of nothing, "The New York Times was also enjoying itself at yesterday's World Series baseball game!" Or: "This is the thoughtful, appropriate manner in which the New York Times has decided to cover the O.J. Simpson trial!" Like a nerd at the school dance, it never knows how to behave when other people are enjoying themselves.
It's much better when something terrible happens... a U.S. military plane crashes in China, a factory blows up in Bhopal, a nigger war in Africa spills out of control. Then it knows exactly what to do: big banner heads three lines deep plastered across the right three columns, all caps, photo; news story on the right, analysis in the center, quirky unrelated feature underneath.