Is The Gray Lady Slipping?


By Edwin Diamond

Villard x 437pp x $24

Is Arthur Sulzberger Jr. ruining The New York Times? That is the central question posed by Behind the Times, Edwin Diamond's gossipy, informative, tabloid-paced account of the world's most influential newspaper. His answer, for the most part, is yes.

As Diamond, media critic for New York Magazine, sees it, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the 42-year-old son of New York Times Co. Chief Executive Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger and the Times's publisher since 1992, is engineering a far-reaching editorial revolution that is dangerously undermining everything that made the "Gray Lady of 43rd Street" great. The Times, says Dia-mond, is abdicating its historical "grand mission" as the "newspaper of record," replete with exhaustive, hard-edged accounts of news developments throughout the world. "The record is boring for most people," he quotes Assistant Managing Editor Warren Hoge as saying. "We don't record the news, we find the news."

The news the Times is finding these days, Diamond notes, is softer, lighter, brighter, and friendlier. Just before he was named publisher, Arthur Jr. said people should read the Times "not only because it is the best newspaper in the world but also for the fun of it." The result, says Diamond, is a paper that is less substantial and more parochial, subjective rather than objective, a depleted vestige of its former self.

Behind the Times ranges far beyond Arthur Jr.'s alleged depredations. Diamond, who spent five years reporting the book, offers revealing portraits of such figures as former Executive Editor A.M. "Abe" Rosenthal and current Executive Editor Max Frankel. Drawing on access to internal memos and private correspondence in the Times's archives, Diamond provides fresh detail about such episodes as the Byzantine race to succeed Rosenthal.

But the heart of the book is the editorial revolution, which was launched in the 1970s by Punch and Abe with new weekday sections: Sports, Science Times, Living, Home, and Weekend. It accelerated in the late 1980s as Arthur Jr. acquired more influence. Hard news gave way to lifestyle features, pieces on social trends, and a proliferation of opinion columns.

Propelling these moves has been the slow but inexorable decline of newspaper readership nationwide. Arthur Jr. and other Times executives believe they must court a new generation of what they term "aliterates"--people who know how to read, but don't do it much.

That means making the paper much more reader-friendly. While Times editors once published only what they felt readers needed to know, they now also conduct surveys to determine and then deliver what readers want. Aliterate readers, for instance, like first-person commentaries and advice columns. In short, says the author with clear contempt, the New York Times has become "market-driven rather than news-driven."

Diamond, though, fails to come to grips with the implications of his lament. The fact is that the news business has changed radically since the days of "Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite" that the author yearns for. In this era of Cable News Network and instant electronic news retrieval, a newspaper that focuses on hard news is an anachronism in danger of losing its audience--and its advertisers. As newspaper editors search for a raison d' tre beyond hard news, it's naive to argue that they shouldn't, like other executives, try to make their product more appealing to customers. How else does Diamond expect the Times to maintain its vast network of overseas bureaus, its numerous arts critics, and all the myriad other resources that make the Times the Times?

So far, the new Times is quite successful financially despite a depressed advertising market, and circulation is at an all-time high. Yet the issue remains: Is the paper going too far, pandering to readers instead of just attracting them? On occasion, Diamond accurately notes, the Times has been "willing to get down and scratch for the kind of dirt that, in the past, it left to the city's rude tabloids." The best example is its lurid portrayal of William Kennedy Smith's alleged rape victim in 1991.

And often, the Times gets too reader-friendly. A case in point: its new Sunday Styles section, a frivolous muddle of society items, cutesy trend nuggets, and miscellaneous ephemera. Recently, a lead story consisted of responses from people who were asked what single word best defined them. The Styles section tries desperately to be liked, but with an attitude that has been careening from the Upper East Side haut monde to Downtown trendoids, it can't seem to figure out by whom.

Still, to this reader, Arthur Jr. and his editors seem, by and large, to have struck a reasonable compromise between the imperatives of commerce and a commitment to high-quality journalism. The Times's coverage of domestic and international events and trends remains unmatched and relatively undiluted, despite the author's claims to the contrary. Even so, Diamond and the legions of other Times critics serve a useful function in making sure that the Times

doesn't lose sight of its grand mission.

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