Frank Bruni’s accession to the position of New York Times editorialist was announced in May by Andrew Rosenthal (no relation to former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal) (just kidding, he’s his son). The op-ed page editor suggested that Bruni was qualified by virtue of his ability to provide a “sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different,” presumably involving a medium-sized event. Further lending gravitas is that fact that the former restaurant critic’s NYT career has “spanned…part of a papacy.” (This is true of many events, but it does sound impressive: “We’ve been sitting here for part of a papacy, waiting for our appetizers! This service is atrocious!”)
But I believe he does. Oh, he knows it all too well. Whatever his faults of relevance or coherence, Bruni’s work is distinguished for its firm grasp of the New York Times house style — that mélange of dad-joke whimsy, inspiring truisms, fake sociology, celebrity snark, magnificent scorn for the lowbrow, and horse-race election reporting, all united by a pervading tone of NPR blandness and upper-middle-class obliviousness. Frank Bruni’s writing could appear scrawled on a bathroom wall, or crumpled in a bottle that washed up on the beach, or blazoned in the sky in letters of fire, and you’d still be like “is that from the New York Times?” (Although you might mistake it for Gentzlinger.)
So by understanding Bruni’s literary techniques, we’ll understand the essence of the Times editorial page. In no particular order, here they are.
Jersey Shore had been coming up a lot in my posts lately. But it’s not just because I’m so interested in the subject (although it is fascinating!). And it’s certainly not because I went looking for Jersey Shore references in the New York Times. I don’t have to — I read the paper, and they just come up. Constantly. We’re told that it is the worst show on TV, that it resembles “the most unrepentant, obviously guilty serial killer or multimillion-dollar defrauder,” is the “most appalling show of 2009,” and features “eight young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishment,” who are “insufferable” and might not really even be Italian. We’re informed — repeatedly — that a new SAT question might force unwilling youths to pen essays on The Situation’s abs. The show is compared unflatteringly to a musical someone saw at the Algonquin Hotel, and inexplicably to Beavis and Butthead. When Mike comes out with his own vodka brand, we even hear about that. We’re told in hushed and reverent tones about people who don’t know who Snooki is, but no such fate awaits the regular Times reader, who receives constant updates about their plans, their ratings, their brawls and benders and hookups.
But why? It’s clearly not because the writers like the show (or at least they’re not admitting it). One might argue that it’s just because the Shore is popular, and that is doubtless an element of the obsession. NYT writers love to make guesses about which things imaginary trendy young people care about, then lard their copy with references to those things in hopes that such readers are actually reading it. Philip Galanes is the master of this tactic. But the show’s popularity is not enough to explain the references. Many things are popular — from Larry the Cable Guy to Oprah, from Ugg boots to the Olive Garden, from Shrek to Glenn Beck. Horrible though these individuals and institutions may be, the outrage directed that them is far surpassed by the vitriol reserved for the antics of the tawny-skinned octet.
Rational explanations have failed. Is there a way to make sense of this bizarre fixation that’s less rational, and more psychological? Does the solution lie in the dark corners of the journalistic psyche? Could it be that the writers are projecting their anxieties about intellectual inadequacy and cultural irrelevance onto the characters, deriding them as foolish and contemptible in order to bolster their own fragile self-image? Yes. I’m no Freudian, but this problem calls for one of his theories if anything ever did. And Freud’s concept “narcissism of small difference” fits the situation state of affairs perfectly.
Narcissism of small differences is all about erecting psychic defenses against people you perceive as threateningly similar to you. It’s defined by “sensitiveness to… these details of differentiation” that separate groups. As this book explains, “We compare ourselves carefully with those who are like us–yet in some way different. According to Freud, small differences are an implied or potential criticism of ourselves. Therefore we note carefully what the difference is… and evaluate the situation, usually in such a way that it comes out in our favor.”
How does one make a comparison “in such a way that it comes out in [one’s] favor”? It looks like this: I drink artisanally infused vodka, you drink Ron-Ron juice. I go to lounges, you go to clubs. I buy my clothes at Ann Taylor, you buy your clothes at the Hustler store. I do pilates, you lift weights at the gym. I cook free-range turkey meatballs; you cook chicken parm. I wear self-tanner and bronzer, you wear too much self-tanner and bronzer. I enjoy looking my best and appreciating the finer things in life, you’re a narcissistic hedonist.
And so it goes. What makes it worse is, look who we’re talking about. Lifestyle journalists. People who write thousand-word essays about “vooks,” do their research on Wikipedia, and don’t know what a “percent” is. Their own grasp on highbrow intellectualism is tenuous at best. No wonder their assumed contempt for the Shore gang’s flimsy intellect can seem a little overheated. No wonder they’re “sensitive,” in Freud’s words, to “details of differentiation.”
Time for some examples. New York Times Jersey Shore paranoia began after the show’s very first episodes. In “The Jersey Shore Handbook,” Joshua David Stein shows us that even though he’s writing about reality TV, he’s not an airhead like people who watch reality TV. Why, just listen to the words and concepts he knows! He calls MTV “the music-cum-social-anthropology network.” The what? I knew Skins was raunchy, but I didn’t think things had gone that far. I thought I was the only cum-social anthropologist around here. Just kidding! Seriously, though, I hate when people use “cum” to mean “with.” It’s like in old novels, when the writer uses “ejaculated” to mean “exclaimed.” “Great scott!’, he ejaculated.” Latin fanciers, it’s time to let “cum” go its own way.
He continues, “‘Jersey Shore’ resembles nothing more than American Kabuki theater, a refreshingly solipsistic aesthetic world, a temporary coastal community that’s a bulwark against normative American youth style.” Why does being non-normative make it like Kabuki theater? No time for that now! An intellectual reference has just been made! If you’ve heard of Kabuki, then congratulations: YOU GOT THE REFERENCE. You are now part of a rarefied intellectual community. Those dum-dums on the TV probably think “Kabuki” is a brand of motorcycle.
To construct his piece, Stein uses a popular comedy humor format that you’ve grown to love from old Dave Barry columns, Playboy Magazine‘s “unabashed dictionary,” and your college’s short-lived “satire” publication: Funny definitions. A list of wacky fake dictionary entries could absolutely never, ever become tiresome, especially not when Stein is hilariously telling us what “Jacuzzi” and “Guido” mean. For example, in defining “nickname,” he wittily points out that many of the characters on the show have nicknames. He illustrates this principle with a quote from Mike: “‘The Situation’ is indescribable. You can’t describe ‘The Situation.’ — Michael, ‘The Situation,’ describing the situation, Episode 1.”
Okay, that was funny… because the character said something funny, and Stein quoted it. What else has he got?
He shows himself a true social anthropologist (no “cum” necessary) with his observations about the characters. “During the day, [women’s] hair is usually worn long and straightened, often dyed black or highlighted.” Imagine! long straight hair with highlights! Highlights! This world of Jersey Shore is like stepping through the looking glass into a nightmarish dystopian bizarro world… with flat irons!
It is further revealed that the cast members are tan, sometimes go shirtless, enjoy hooking up, and are known to become inebriated by consuming Ron-Ron juice. The male characters use “lip balm and lip gloss.” All of this is sure to horrify New York Times readers, who have never removed their shirts, engaged in casual sex or consumed alcohol, and take pride in enduring cracked, dry lips with the stoicism of true American patriots. But Stein’s most relevant commentary is reserved for the then-raging controversy over the word “Guido.” “The term has been reappropriated, Judith Butler-style… and now refers to a complex of aesthetic and moral choices made by young Italian-Americans.” Hey, I know who Judith Butler is! But you may wonder: Do any of his readers get the reference? Well, wonder no more. You need only read the comments to find out how many of Stein’s readers know who Judith Butler is. It starts right at comment #4, where reader Emery observes: “Nice Judith Butler reference.” After reading that sentence, how can you continue to doubt Emery’s awareness of Judith Butler? The man knows who Judith Butler is!
In “Surf and Turmoil,” Neil Gantzlinger also has a tried-and-true comedy joke format in which to corral his loathing of the fact that “young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishments” are enjoying a “hormonally charged, alcohol-fueled summer.” Despite the failure of their accomplishments to impress him,* he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with his “five reasons to love the show.”
*I’m going to assume he didn’t know at the time that Snooki once delivered a freakin’ calf from a cow. I find this pretty impressive, too.
Actually, the reasons are kind of confusing. He says that the show is making the actual Jersey Shore interesting again, or something (???), and that because its characters are “brash” and “bawdy,” its popularity might cause the Kardashians’ show to be cancelled (????). Then he starts saying how it will provide a good cautionary example for today’s sheltered young people. “They have no idea how much ignorance, narcissism, predatory sexism and hair-gel abuse lurk out there in the real world.” Neil Gantzlinger is really impressing me with his moral gravitas here… he just equated sexism, a millennia-old form of bigotry that has caused incalculable human misery, with bad grammar and a predilection for going to the gym. And he slipped in a Randy Cohen-esque joke about hair gel. Bravo!
Because the characters are so bad, he goes on, people will be moved to take decisive action against whoever’s to blame. “The schools, if any, where they were educated can now be located and shut down…. The gyms and style salons that seduced them with the lie that physical appearance is more important than personality can be picketed and boycotted.” “Style salons”? I’m guessing the person who wrote this sentence has been telling himself that personality is way, way, way more important than physical appearance for a very long time.
His final reason is:
“5. UM, LET’S SEE, THERE’S,
well … All right, so maybe ‘five reasons to like “Jersey Shore”‘ was setting the bar too high. In truth it was hard enough coming up with four.”
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. If you’re going to use a hacky, obvious “concept” for your piece, you can at least be an energetic hack and commit to the concept. Come up with five reasons to like the show, and make the fifth one the funniest one. “LOL I couldn’t think of any more examples… because I hate the show so much!” doesn’t actually qualify as a joke. It’s lazy. That’s like if instead of beating up a beat, you sort of pawed at it gently from a supine position. Like if instead of going to the gym and doing laundry, you just put on a pair of Shape-Up shoes and sprayed yourself with Febreze. Like if you pranked somebody by putting, like, one piece of cheese in their bed. In other words, you’re not entertaining. You’re the grenade grundle choad of humorous prose. There’s a reason why you’re not a reality star, Neil Gantzlinger, and it’s not just because your abs look like the underside of a Jacuzzi coated in mozzarella. YOU SUCK.
The show has even prompted Ross Douthat to dip his a tiny, wizened toe into the hot tub of topical humor. “Advertising tonight’s address, the White House opted for ‘the situation in Libya,’ which sounds less like a military intervention than a spin-off vehicle for the famous musclehead from MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore.'” It is funny… because the character calls himself “The Situation.” These people have nicknames. Nicknames!
In an article from July of last year, Cathy Horyn starts with a bang. She begins, “Flake, cow, loser, slut, idiot, airhead, trash, penguin, creep, moron, midget, freak, Oompa-Loompa, nobody.” This sounds like some sort of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, or the opening of Sapphire’s latest novel, but it’s actually list of epithets that have been applied to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the profile’s subject. I applaud this writerly decision; debates about a woman’s attractiveness, height, and sexual history are the very lifeblood of intellectual discourse. But after acknowledging the valuable contributions of internet commenters who think Snooki is an ugly slut, Horyn is frustratingly vague about her own philosophical position on these issues. It’s almost as if she wanted to remain above the fray, critiquing Snooki’s body, intellect and choices while masking her contempt in a register of highbrow detachment that would set her apart from the vulgar muck of bloggers and Youtube trolls. See if you agree!
First, an interview with her dad, Andy Polizzi. (I don’t know why Horyn talked to Snooki’s father before Snooki herself… maybe she thinks it’s more polite? Is she trying to emulate a nineteenth gentleman caller about to propose marriage?). Mr. Polizzi ascribes his daughter’s fame to the fact that she’s a “likeable person,” an opinion that Horyn characterizes as a “worn rut of relatedness and just-folks-like-us celebrity bunkum.” This is why I have nightmares that someday the Times will send a reporter down to Tennessee to interview me. I might make some offhand remark about how people like ice cream because it tastes good, and be described for all posterity as a “bumpkin cornpone hick with gingham Spanx, a raccoon for a pet, and a car that runs on moonshine.”
Anyway, now that we’ve dismissed the “people like her because she’s likeable” hypothesis as a foolish dream of childlike naivete and prelapsarian optimism, it’s time to discuss the show. Apparently some people find it uncultured. “”The adventures of the most irrelevant people on earth,’ as someone wrote recently on a gossip blog. And even viewers who claim to love ‘Jersey Shore’ usually find it hard to say why.” I can only assume this absolutely does not mean Horyn asked a bunch of people why they watch that horrible show, they gave her perfectly lucid answers, and she tossed the answers down the ol’ memory hole right away because they didn’t sound smart enough. Cathryn Horyn would never do that. She seems… humble.
“Everything about this show is super-sized — from the over-the-top hair to the over-the-top nature of the comments,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. If you can’t tell, he’s an avid fan. ‘”Jersey Shore” is brilliantly cast and, of course, Snooki is the star,’ he said.” This person sounds perfectly capable of explaining why he likes the show. But he’s a professor, so that’s why. Don’t try this at home!
For her part, Horyn isn’t burdened by the crippling inarticulateness that afflicts the MTV-addled American masses. She has many strong opinions — on Snooki’s looks. “She’s short, drawing our attention like a berserk windup toy.” “That Snooki is not conventionally attractive — ‘A spray-painted Chihuahua,’ Mike (The Situation) said when he first saw her — has a lot to do with why she is the breakout member of the cast. She is busty and short-waisted with small legs; sort of like a turnip turned on its tip.” Now, that is high-class journalism. I wish more people would follow Horyn’s example. Paul Krugman hardly ever uses his column to poke fun at how funny-looking short people are, and he’s only won one Nobel Prize. Coincidence?
Next, the discussion turns to styling choices. “‘With a blank look, [Snooki] shrugged. ‘Me, I like the pouf. I’m still going to rock it.'” To be fair, she was probably looking “blank” because a someone with a Master’s Degree in journalism just asked her a probing question about a hairstyle. I don’t know if this “blank look” problem is a common occurrence in Horyn’s life, but here’s a good rule of thumb: If people respond to your questions by staring at you in horrified incomprehension more often than, say, once a week, it’s not because they’re all really dumb.
“Snooki has a way of putting herself together that while in some ways is atrocious, is completely identifiable to her and consistent with her attention-seeking personality.” That sentence “while in some ways is atrocious,” too. Here’s another rule of thumb: If you’re going to critique someone for being attention-seeking, only do it in a publication with a circulation of less than 30 million. It’s less ironic that way.
“She wears short, clingy dresses in a pattern or with some metallic trim, huge enameled or bejeweled hoop earrings and glittery high heels.” The hoop earrings would be bad enough, but a pattern? Of all forms of trim, metallic trim is known to be the most slatternly, and rightly so. Who would seek to inflame the vile lusts of man with such gaudy attire? Don’t women veil themselves in modesty and shamefacedness anymore? Say, what kind of Quaker meeting house is this?
“Lots of 22-year-old women wear revealing clothes, but they may not have her body shape, and it’s a safe bet they’re not rocking a pouf.” I’m confused. Do you mean “may not” as in, it’s theoretically possible to have a different body shape than Snooki, while also wearing clothes? Or “may not” as in, it’s not permissible for someone so fat to wear those clothes? This article is like a Perez Hilton blog post written in code. Whatever the high-class version is of drawing a penis on someone’s face in MS Paint, I fully expect to see it next.
“Trying to hold a conversation with Snooki is a little like getting down on your hands and knees with a child. You have to come down to her level, and sometimes you almost think you need to bribe her with a piece of candy to coax her to be more responsive.” This is like the “blank look” dilemma, part II. I can’t imagine why Snookki didn’t want to get into an intense philosophical discussion with you, after the insightful ideas you’ve been sharing with her. It reminds me of a famous quotation by Samuel Johnson. “Last week, I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much she was shaped like a turnip turned upside down, except with tiny little legs.” Isn’t there a part in Kant’s Metaphysical Principles of Virtue where he talks about the proper types of attire for apple-, pear,- and turnip-shaped body types? Or am I thinking of Schopenhauer?
Anyway, Snooki is taken to task for having poor self-control and (again!) wanting attention. “Not surprisingly, Snooki is an only child, adopted when 6 months old.” These are some astute psychology diagnoses! If I do a phone interview with you, will you guess my zodiac sign? How about Tarot readings?
Then, shocking journalism scoop: Snooki is spoiled. “Her parents do everything for her — her laundry, her cooking.” The show’s producer is saying it’s normal for Italian-Americans to rely on their parents. “Talking to Ms. Salsano, who is from Farmingdale, on Long Island, made me more sympathetic about the cast.” Well, I can see how you’d have been unsympathetic at first. It’s easy to be resentful of all Snooki’s privileges when, like Horyn, you’ve spent years ekeing out a hardscrabble existence as a Barnard college undergrad, Vanity Fair editor, and NY Times fashion reporter. Hey wait a minute, don’t you like, get into Marc Jacobs shows for free? And get invites to Diane von Furstenburg’s exclusive parties? And you’re bitching about someone else getting a free load of laundry? These critiques are getting weirder and weirder… is this some sort of gonzo journalism?
Another source of complaint is Horyn’s continuing befuddlement about “Snooki’s strange appeal.” “Part of the problem is that she can’t explain it herself. She simply isn’t capable of serious introspection.” She’s supposed to explain why other people like watching her on TV? I don’t think you know what “introspection” means.
“She told me she has read only two books in her life, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Dear John.'” Well, that’s damning. Part of being a sophisticated intellectual is that you only can like other sophisticated intellectuals who have lots of degrees and read a lot of books. I know that from reading George Eliot. In one of her finest essays, she observes: “A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and less obtrusive for her knowledge…. She does not make it a pedestal from which she flatters herself that she commands a complete view of men and things, but makes it a point of observation from which to form a right estimate of herself…. She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture — she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence. Just kidding, sympathy is for fatties!”
Meanwhile, Horyn has gotten her token Jersey Shore fan, the professor, to waspishly state that “I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with [Snooki].” “‘We don’t even know how to define what Snooki is so good at,’ he said.” These people sure do love to be mystified! Nicole Polizzi defines definition… I GUESS WE’LL JUST NEVER KNOW why the originator of quotes like “I think I broke my vagina bone,” “I hate the ocean, it’s all whale sperm,” and “I look like a hot drunk baseball player, and I’m loving it!” is considered likeable in the public eye. In the spirit of the Times, I’ll conclude by saying: I don’t even know how to define what is so bad about this article. And I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with Cathryn Horyn.
Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!
Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse. The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy. They write about rich people too much. They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff. Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly. It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is. Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong. That is what we’ll be looking at today. How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?