Not too many years ago, The New York Times was so thoroughly high-minded in its approach to culture, so consumed with opera and museums and classical music, that it let critical trends in popular culture pass by unremarked. With the entertainment business expanding into a huge global combine reaching into every corner of the American psyche, however, the Times has recognized that, as a world-class newspaper—and one in need of younger readers—it must approach the subject with the same intensity and sense of purpose it brings to politics and economics, and for the last decade it has been moving in that direction. More recently, the paper has been reorganizing its coverage of culture—adding staff, mapping out new beats, and better coordinating coverage among the relevant sections, Arts & Leisure, The Arts, and Business Day. Now, with a culture staff of nearly one hundred reporters, critics, and editors, the Times can ferret out news about pop culture like few other publications.
Yet in boosting its coverage of this subject, the paper at times seems to have careened toward the opposite extreme, eagerly chronicling every up-and-down tick in the great fame-and-ambition sweepstakes. Its reports on TV, movies, pop music, video games, publishing, and advertising brim with news about boardroom struggles, mogul rivalries, high-stakes deal-making, ratings shares, marketing strategies, publicity blitzes, technological innovations, branding, and franchising. The paper is drawn to the hot and the hip, to glamour and buzz, to the Weinsteins and Eisners, the Spielbergs and Bronfmans. With its heavy reliance on sources inside the media business, the paper's coverage at times seems indistinguishable from that of Billboard, Variety, Advertising Age, and other publications aimed at industry insiders.
In the process, the Times has neglected a critical aspect of pop culture—its effects on society. With the entertainment world grown so pervasive, with its products so thoroughly infiltrating the nation's households, its influence on kids, families, and communities has intensified as well. Yet the Times, like most mainstream news media, pays all that only sporadic attention. When Janet Jackson exposes her nipple during a halftime show, or desperate housewife Nicollette Sheridan drops her towel during an NFL promo, the paper will jump on the story. When TV stations refuse to air Saving Private Ryan for fear of being sanctioned, or the secretary of education blasts PBS for distributing a show about an animated rabbit who visits a friend with lesbian parents, the Times is faithfully there.
The mere discussion of whether some forms of pop culture hurt society does not constitute censorship.
But public concerns about popular culture run much deeper than such incidents, and point to stories that are not being written. In a poll of 1,001 parents conducted last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 17 percent expressed high levels of concern about the Janet Jackson incident. But 63 percent said they were "very concerned" that children are being exposed to too much inappropriate content in entertainment media, and another 26 percent said they were "somewhat concerned." As these figures show, it's not just conservatives who feel this way. "The vast majority of parents," said the foundation, "believe that sexual and violent content on TV contributes to children's behavior."
As to what to do about it, Americans are much more conflicted. A survey of 1,505 adults conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 48 percent believe that government control of entertainment poses a greater danger than harmful programming, compared to 41 percent who felt the reverse. Yet when asked about specific control measures, they were far more supportive. For instance, 75 percent said they favored stricter enforcement of government rules about TV content when children are likely to be watching; 69 percent said they supported steeper fines for violations of indecency guidelines.
To some, all this might seem like yesterday's news. It has been nearly twenty years since Tipper Gore launched a campaign urging recording companies to place warning labels on records containing explicit language. And it has been six years since the shootings at Columbine generated a rash of articles on the effects of violent programming on kids. Yet far from ebbing, the issue has intensified as pop culture grows ever more invasive, polymorphous, and perverse. On an episode of Fox's short-lived Keen Eddie, three men trafficking in horse semen hire a prostitute to arouse their stud. In the plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, a character has sex with a life-sized doll of a porn star and has a threesome with a hooker and a guy named Christian. On MTV's I Want a Famous Face, young women undergo nose jobs, breast implants, and other forms of surgery to look like their favorite celebrities. On shows like Survivor and The Bachelor, lying, deceiving, and sheer meanness are not only tolerated but celebrated. (In the Pew study, 38 percent of those surveyed expressed serious concern over reality shows in which people "are made fun of or tricked.") On The Sopranos, one character beats his girlfriend (a stripper) to death and is later killed by Tony Soprano, who chops off his head and stuffs it in a bowling-ball bag. The Internet, meanwhile, gives youngsters access to all sorts of lewd and grotesque material at the stroke of a key.
The journalistic questions such fare provokes seem endless, and they extend far beyond the usual ones about sex and violence into the realms of sociology, politics, and religion. Consider, for instance, the surge of religious fervor across the country. Is it linked in any way to the growing reach, and grossness, of popular culture? To what extent does the spread of evangelical Christianity represent a reaction to the language on South Park and the lifestyles on Sex and the City? With so many TV shows built around the imperfections of women's bodies and the urgent need to correct them, what effect has this had on the health (both physical and psychological) of young women? Even more urgent are the questions raised by last November's postelection exit polls showing that "moral values" were a top concern for many voters. Many journalists automatically assumed that this finding referred to such traditional issues as abortion, gay rights, and school prayer, but might it not also have reflected mounting discomfort with ads showing preteens in low-rider jeans and kids miming the garb and gestures of gangsta rap? In March, Hillary Clinton, citing studies on the impact of violent images on children, denounced violent video games, including one that encourages players "to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them." How is such a stand likely to play with voters and with the entertainment executives who have traditionally backed her?
Answering these kinds of questions requires an approach no different from that involved in investigating other social issues like welfare reform and school vouchers—sending reporters into the field. It requires talking to parents and teachers, youth counselors and Little League coaches, young children and teenagers. It requires speaking with psychologists and sociologists and drawing on studies and statistics that can help provide context for the anecdotes gathered from the field. Finally, it requires fashioning all this into a lively and insightful report.
Is the surge of religious fervor across the country linked in any way to the growing reach, and grossness, of popular culture?
With such a large culture staff and newshole, the Times would seem in an ideal position to address the impact of pop culture. And over the years it has—in book reviews, op-eds, the magazine, and the style section, as well as in the culture pages. Yet actual reported pieces on the subject appear only rarely, making the paper's culture coverage seem strangely out of balance.
Now would seem a good time to address this imbalance, for the Times has just named a new culture editor, Sam Sifton. From 1990 to 1998, Sifton worked at New York Press, then left to become a founding editor of Talk magazine. Arriving at the Times in 2002, he became the deputy dining editor. The thirty-eight-year-old Sifton will oversee what executive editor Bill Keller recently called, in a memo, "quite simply the finest staff of culture journalists working anywhere, and working at the top of their game." Sifton is no doubt being pelted with ideas and suggestions, but, here, unsolicited, are some of my own.
May 23, was a typical day in the life of culture at the Times. This being a Monday, much of the day's media action was in Business Day. (For ten years now, the Monday business section has featured stories on the entertainment and media industries.) It was quite a yeasty mix for a single day, leavened with dashes of celebrity and gossip. The harvest on other days looks little different. Here's a brief sampler, culled from April and May:
• DVD producers "climbing up the Hollywood food chain"
• the revival of Radar as a magazine for the hip
• Hollywood's welcoming of a "new crop of moguls"
• paris inc., on Paris Hilton's burgeoning business empire
• Gawker, the "flagship chronicle of Manhattan's news and gossip" (offering blogs that are "sexy, irreverent, a tad elitist, and unabashedly coastal.")
• a deal by the founders of Miramax (i.e., the Weinsteins) to distribute video programs
• how ABC's schedule "emits that Housewives vibe"
• how Fox and UPN are aiming for young viewers, and how Fox, in its fall lineup, is sticking with the "tried and true" (no surprise, given that Fox finished the season "as the top-rated network among those aged 18 to 49, the category most desired by advertisers")
That last reference, to eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-old viewers, is a fixture of TV stories in the Times. According to a Nexis search, the phrase appeared more than 200 times in the two-year period ending in April 2005. A variant, "18 to 34," appeared more than a hundred times, often accompanied by the words "most desirable," "coveted," and "sought after" by advertisers. Back in October 2002, the Times Magazine ran an article, headlined the myth of '18 to 34,' by Jonathan Dee, that disputed the idea that this age group is of special value to advertisers; members of the aging baby-boom generation, he argued, have much more disposable income and so make up a more lucrative market. It remains true that many advertisers continue to pay a premium for younger viewers. But the frequency with which the Times mentions this demographic, and the reflexive, almost unthinking way it's cited, captures the extent to which the paper's culture coverage has been penetrated by the jargon and thinking of Madison Avenue and Hollywood.
In that same April-May period, meanwhile, I found little reporting on the social or political effects of culture. The closest entry seemed a March 30 article by Julie Salamon (has big bird sold out?) on a new deal to distribute PBS children's shows on a 24-hour commercial cable network, and the debate over whether or not that was good for children. Amid the outpouring of reports on ratings sweeps and marketing campaigns, though, this piece was easy to overlook.
"It’s attitudinal. Twelve-year-olds who watch TV begin talking like thirty-year-olds to their parents. You can see it immediately.”
How might pop culture be covered differently? One place to begin looking for an answer is Orlando, Florida, which is in the heart of the Bible Belt and has a burgeoning population of evangelical Christians. Mark I. Pinsky has covered religion for the Orlando Sentinel for ten years, and he says he has been struck by how many evangelicals "feel besieged by a toxic popular culture. It's public enemy number one. They see it as hypersexual and ultraviolent, and out of their control. These people are stuck in middle-class or lower-middle-class tract houses, and they can't get away from it."
Interestingly, Pinsky, the author of a forthcoming first-person book titled A Jew Among the Evangelicals, says he often finds himself in agreement with the evangelical critique of pop culture. He has a seventeen-year-old son and a fourteen-year-old daughter, and they are not allowed to watch TV on school nights. "I don't believe kids hear or see something and then go out and do it," he observes. "I don't think that if they see a murder on TV, they're going to go out and kill somebody." But the literature "does suggest a desensitizing and normalizing of behavior that takes place," he says, adding, "A friend gave me a DVD of Deadwood. I have no problem with my son watching that. But I won't let him watch a dumb-ass sitcom. We're not prudish people at all, but I won't let the stupidity on such shows seep into their minds. It's attitudinal. Twelve-year-olds who watch TV begin talking like thirty-year-olds to their parents. You can see it immediately."
Pinsky referred me to a recent article by a fellow Sentinel reporter, Linda Shrieves, about "sitcom kids"—children who mimic the behavior they see on TV. "Though most TV watchdog groups fret about violence and sex on television," Shrieves wrote, "some parents say they're increasingly concerned about TV's attitude problem. From cartoons to sitcoms, the stars are now sassy children who deliver flip one-liners, put down authority figures and revel in a laugh track. And their attitudes are contagious. Formerly polite kids are smart-aleck, eye-rolling and harrumphing, just like the kids on television." Douglas Gentile of the National Institute on Media and the Family was quoted as saying that "psychologists love to slice it up many different ways, but it boils down to this: Kids copy what they see on TV."
Gentile's institute, based in Minneapolis, is one of several nonpartisan groups in the United States that seek to guide parents on pop culture. The groups are far less political than, say, the Parents Television Council, which is headed by the right-wing activist L. Brent Bozell and which generates many of the indecency complaints that flood the FCC. On its Web site, the National Institute on Media posts reviews of movies and video games, assessing their suitability for kids. Some are truly eye-opening. Of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it writes, "Raunchy, violent and portraying just about every deviant act that a criminal could think of in full, living 3D graphics . . . . There are no redeeming qualities in this game for children. From glorifying drive-by-shootings to delivering prostitutes to their johns, this game teaches just about everything you wouldn't even want your kids to see." In the game, players are rewarded for stealing guns and squad cars from police officers and brutally murdering them. On the Web site, readers are urged to sign a petition to tell the makers of Grand Theft Auto, Take Two Interactive Software, to "do the only decent thing: publicly apologize and STOP KILLING COPS AS ENTERTAINMENT!"
Last year, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the top-selling video game in the United States, with 5.1 million units sold. Its popularity and violence raise obvious questions about its possible effects on kids. On the occasions when the Times runs articles about such questions, it's usually in its specialized Circuits section (recently reduced to a weekly page), which guarantees that many Times readers will not read them. In The Washington Post, by contrast, the subject has twice this year made page one. In March, for instance, the Post ran a front-page article about the popular game Postal (named after shootings by postal workers). While violence has always been vital to the game's success, Ariana Eunjung Cha wrote, things have reached the point where even the game's creative team worries about excessive gore. Steve Wik, the team's creative director, is quoted as saying that "too many games have become dependent on violence for violence's sake, and that has made violence boring." A colleague feels that "some games are too dark for even his taste." The article goes on to note that the surging popularity of video games has "prompted a backlash," with a number of states introducing bills to ban the sale of violent games to minors.
The Post piece suggests another approach to writing about pop culture—probing the attitudes of entertainment executives about the products they create. A pioneer of the genre is Ken Auletta's What Won't They Do? Published in The New Yorker back in 1993, it recounts his exchanges with various Hollywood figures about movies and TV shows that push the edge on violence and sex. His subjects range from Oliver Stone, who suggests that some criticism of violent programming "borders on censorship," to Debra Winger, who, as the mother of a young boy, lashes out at movies with gratuitous violence and kinky sex and who won't even let her son see Home Alone because the parents "are idiots" and because the son, played by Macaulay Culkin, takes too much joy in committing acts of violence.
Much of the junk conservatives condemn is served up by corporations seeking to maximize their profits...
Most revealing is Auletta's conversation with Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of 20th Century Fox. Murdoch tells Auletta of his contempt for the liberal group-think of Hollywood and its reflexive suspicion of ideas like "family values." Auletta then asks him whether A Current Affair, a nightly stew of sex, scandal, and rumor produced by Murdoch's Fox network, has had a coarsening effect on American life. "Coarsening?" Murdoch says, seemingly caught off-guard. "I don't know. If you were to say there had been occasions when A Current Affair has treated some subjects sleazily in the past, I'd have to say yes." He adds, "If you want me to get up and defend every film, every program, I don't do it."
Since then, of course, Murdoch has started up the Fox News Channel. There, hosts like Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson inveigh against "Hollywood" and the "liberal media elite" for inflicting lurid movies and vulgar sitcoms on the upstanding folks of middle America. Needless to say, they almost never mention the part that Murdoch's own companies play in this. Nor do they acknowledge that much of the proliferating junk they so strenuously condemn is served up by entertainment corporations seeking to maximize their profits according to the principles of the unfettered market—the same market that these conservatives so noisily champion. This contradiction within conservatism is rarely examined by the Times or other newspapers.
One writer who has probed this issue is Thomas Frank. In his book, What's the Matter with Kansas?, he writes, "The truth is that the culture that surrounds us—and that persistently triggers new explosions of backlash outrage—is largely the product of business rationality."
It is made by writers and actors, who answer to editors and directors and producers, who answer to senior vice presidents and chief executive officers, who answer to Wall Street bankers, who demand profits above all else. From the megamergers of the media giants to the commercial time-outs during the football game to the plots of the Hollywood movies and to the cyberfantasies of Wired and Fast Company and Fortune, we live in a free-market world . . . . It is because of the market that our TV is such a sharp-tongued insulter of "family values" and such a zealous promoter of every species of social deviance.
Frank does not dwell much on who makes up that market. It no doubt includes many of the same people who express backlash outrage. This contradiction, too, would seem worth exploring. Those who produce toxic products often argue that they're simply giving the market what it wants. Even if one accepts that defense, it's still possible that such fare could have undesirable effects or feed a sense of insecurity and dismay. Last November, the Times ran a lively and informative piece on how the ratings of shows like Desperate Housewives are as high in conservative red states as in liberal blue ones. The piece quoted experts noting that those who most strenuously denounce salacious programs on TV are often those most drawn to them. Unfortunately, the article did not quote any viewers, nor did it seek to go inside any real communities to see what ordinary Americans might have to say about these shows. (By the way, Desperate Housewives was the eleventh-most-watched show among two-to-eleven-year-olds last year.)
Despite that oversight, Frank's account is refreshing, because, unlike many journalists, he takes seriously the anger and frustration that many ordinary Americans feel about the culture around them. His central thesis is that corporate elites have effectively taken the backlash outrage of ordinary people and directed it at liberals, thus helping those elites win electoral office, which they then use to adopt economic policies that further enrich corporations at the expense of these same ordinary people. Whether or not one agrees with this analysis, Frank convincingly shows that it's impossible to grasp the current political dynamic in America without understanding pop culture and how ordinary Americans view it.
The same is true for the rest of the world. American movies, TV shows, and pop music have conquered foreign lands with far more ease than have American armies. (In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman describes how two journalists traveling by taxicab in Beirut were stopped by a bunch of fierce-looking militiamen. When the militiamen learned that one of the journalists was from the Dallas Times Herald, they pointed their guns at him as if to shoot, then demanded to know, "Who shot j.r.?" Breaking into howls of laughter, they let the car pass.) But all those satellite dishes pulling down the signals of Howard Stern and The Real World have no doubt generated much reaction and animosity. And what about all those sadistic action pics churned out by Hollywood and avidly marketed abroad? To what degree have they fed the bloodlust of jihadis and suicide bombers? You rarely read about this in our top papers.
Isn’t it time the Times gave its New York readers more of a taste of what’s going on in the rest of the country?
In early June, as I was completing this article, the Times finally ran a piece that took a serious look at the issue of culture and its impact. Written by Bruce Weber, it described a bitter dispute at a high school in the town of Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania, over The Buffalo Tree, a novel set in a juvenile detention center that includes a scene in a communal shower in which an adolescent boy becomes sexually aroused. After a sixteen-year-old student complained at a school board meeting about having to read this, the board voted to ban the book, and by the next morning all classroom copies had been collected and stored in a vault in the principal's office. As Weber noted, Muhlenberg, while conservative politically and with a growing evangelical population, "is not militantly right wing," and "even the more vociferous opponents of the book did not insist it come off the school library shelves." The school board's vote set off a period of "unusual activism," with students circulating petitions, teachers preparing defenses of the book, and letters on both sides appearing in the local paper. The schools' superintendent tried to broker a compromise, but as one teacher observed, "The Buffalo Tree isn't coming back anytime soon." Overall, the piece provided a sensitive and insightful look at a knotty cultural issue.
No doubt a thorough search of Times coverage in recent years would turn up other stories like this. But they remain rare. Now that the paper has a new culture editor, might we see more of them? Sam Sifton declined to be interviewed for this article, but I did speak with the man who, by all accounts, remains the real power in culture at the Times: Frank Rich. Like his mentor Arthur Gelb, who for decades dictated the paper's tastes in the arts, Rich is the Times's culture czar, though he exercises his power with far more discretion. In Rich's weekly columns, he routs the indecency police, roasts right-wing politicians, and flays religious hypocrites, creating the ideological climate in which the culture staff operates. After more than two years on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section, his column in April returned to the op-ed page. Rich himself was assigned a new office on the tenth floor of the Times, where the opinion pages are housed, but he will also retain his old office on the fourth floor, where culture roosts, and from which he has played an instrumental part in the remaking of the culture department.
That process began under Howell Raines. On becoming executive editor of the Times, Raines had ambitious plans for building its circulation. The goal was to corral more readers, and two of the largest potential pools were affluent readers nationwide and the young. The key to getting both, Raines believed, was improving the Times's "back of the book" sections. In his long, self-aggrandizing retrospective in the Atlantic in May 2004, Raines wrote that to get readers between the ages of twenty and forty, "you have to penetrate the worlds of style and popular culture." For national readers, he mentioned those same two subjects plus entertainment and travel as critical. Improving the coverage of these areas, he wrote, would help "to lure national readers who wanted to use the Times to experience the New York-ness of New York—which is to say a point of view that could not be found in their local papers."
Among the decisions Raines faced after taking over the paper was naming a new editor for Arts & Leisure. For suggestions, he turned to Frank Rich. Rich, in turn, mentioned Jodi Kantor as someone to watch for the department. The New York editor of Slate, Kantor was only twenty-seven, but she had the hip, edgy sensibility that was seen as the route to young readers, and she was hired in March 2003. Before Raines could proceed, Jayson Blair intervened, but Bill Keller, his successor, decided to pursue the process. To prepare a culture plan, Keller appointed a committee that included Rich, Kantor, Adam Moss, Steve Erlanger, and Michael Kimmelman, among others. The blueprint they produced called for restructuring beats, improving coordination between the various sections responsible for culture, and increasing the emphasis on reporting.
"We wanted to beef up our reporting of culture, especially at a time when culture coverage is in decline almost everywhere in journalism," Rich told me. "We've had a huge expansion in our coverage." As the reporting on culture has been strengthened, so has the reporting on its business side. As Rich noted, it's become hard to "separate the coverage of show business from the coverage of the show. There's been a complete changeover in every cultural field. When I began as a theater critic, Broadway shows were produced by rich people like David Merrick and Alexander Cohen. Now Broadway is dominated by Clear Channel and Disney. Look at independent movies—today they're produced by companies like New Line, which is owned by Time Warner, the biggest media company in the world. As big money and large corporations take over the business, that becomes part of the story."
I asked Rich about the idea of doing more reporting from the field about the social impact of culture. He sounded dubious. Such reporting, he said, "has to be done very carefully." He cited the Columbine shootings and the initial reports that the perpetrators were influenced by The Matrix. "That turned out not to be true." He went on: "I'm skeptical of determinist correspondences. Michael Medved, the conservative critic, has observed that the generation raised on Father Knows Best produced the sixties." Rich cited the case of his own two sons: "All they did in high school was listen to hip hop and watch video games. They saw Quentin Tarantino at a young age. I rarely censored what they did. Now one at the age of twenty-five has just had a book published by a division of The New York Review of Books. Another is studying fiction at Harvard and wants to be a novelist." I did not have the presence of mind to suggest that the kids of a renowned cultural critic like Rich might have one or two more cultural advantages over most kids in the country.
But pursuing the point, I asked, "Wouldn't the Times's coverage benefit from sending reporters into local communities to talk with parents, teachers, and counselors?" "It's all anecdotal," Rich said. "No one seems able to agree on what it all means."
I wondered, though, if reporting on culture and its effects would be any more anecdotal than, say, reporting on class in America, a subject on which the Times just published a very extended series, most of it consisting of anecdotes about individuals, backed up by occasional citations from studies and experts. Given those nearly one hundred people on the Times culture staff, would it hurt to spare one or two to visit Florida or Kansas or Colorado and report back on the debates over pop culture taking place there? Is it really necessary to run all those stories about the new fall TV lineups? Do most Times readers really need to know which network wins the ratings war or delivers the most eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-olds to advertisers? Do they really need to be apprised of the every move of Paris Hilton and Harvey Weinstein? The Times does a good job of giving its readers around the country a taste of New York. Isn't it time it gave its New York readers more of a taste of what's going on in the rest of the country?
If it did, the Times could help spark a debate about pop culture and its consequences. And that in itself would be healthy. Looming over every discussion of this subject is the threat of censorship. That threat is serious. But contrary to Oliver Stone's fear, the mere discussion of whether some forms of pop culture hurt society does not constitute censorship. Given its vast influence, the Times, by covering pop culture more fully, could help get a national discussion going. That, in turn, might give entertainment executives new incentives—apart from FCC fines or congressional intervention—to consider the social effects of what they produce.