The Sunday New York Times: All the News That's Fit to Please

The Sunday New York Times has long been a staple of many American households -- especially in the New York area. In the old days, of course, it was the tangible printed copy that was the centerpiece of a hallowed weekend ritual. It started with the walk around the corner to the news stand where stacks of the paper were piled in unconscious emulation of Mississippi levees. Carrying home the four pound mother of all Sunday editions provided a primitive sort of strength training for the frail children assigned a duty which for many was a secular counterpart to serving as altar boy.

Next came the act of distribution -- who in the family got which section. That was a revealing rite that reflected status hierarchy, diversity of interest and avocation, as well as how compelling the headline stories were any given week. Over the course of the day, elaborate circulation patterns traced configurations similar to the celestial orbits drawn by die-hard defenders of Ptolemaic astronomy -- a few of whom are re-emerging from the shadows to advise Tea Party politicians vying for the Republican presidential nomination. All of this could have been rich material for an anthropologist to mine had the funding bodies accorded the topic a value equal to the coming-of-age rituals of South Sea islanders.

Both the changes and the continuity in the Sunday NYT's place in the American culture of a bygone era, and of today, suggest how misplaced that priority on the exotic was and is. Before, it was integral to the domestic stability and predictable behavior that marked the post-war era. Everything was concentrated on the home -- even engagement with the world of Washington and those far-flung parts of the globe where the United States suddenly found itself involved. In more civic minded households, reading the Sunday NYT was a matter of duty -- duty to keep oneself informed, duty to be a responsible citizen. The two went together insofar as belief in the virtue of knowing what you were talking about was a quaint feature of the era.

Nowadays, the paper still thrives -- having taken on a more national personality and role. Some, albeit in declining numbers, continue to see it as an instrument of edification. However, its status has gradually been adjusted to the more self-centered and aspirational realities of contemporary America. The emphasis is on providing readers with an assist in the relentless quest for advancement, for the novel, for the more gratifying, for the self-confirming. In a society where it is all about Me, a news medium dedicated to illuminating Them is in peril. Somehow, looking at Them must serve the paramount need to promote the Me. The Sunday NYT has ingeniously found clever ways of doing this. Accomplishing that end while delivering hard news is no easy job. There is just so much framing one can do to personalize the Iranian nuclear issue, or the intricacies of rigged financial markets. The NYT editors nonetheless have managed to explore the outer reaches of what is possible. Their technics are impressive in nature and variety.

At a basic level, they make promiscuous use of the journalistic device of beginning each article with a personal anecdote. That is intended to grab the reader's attention by casting whatever follows in human interest terms. Hence, a story on any Middle East trouble spot immediately puts the focus on persons caught up in the turmoil, with something like: 'Khalid and Hayat had just returned to their home in war torn Ramadi (Aleppo, Sa'ana, Tripoli) with their two young sons, Hamid and Murad, in the hope of picking up the threads of their shattered lives, when the renewed campaign of violence unleashed by ... The family's stucco and brick house was built by Khalid's great-grandfather, Mahmoud, who had been a school superintendent under the Ottoman government. His faded sepia photograph still hangs...' Often, you have to follow the story to the inside pages just to learn who is doing what to whom. And that is the point of cultivating interest in reading about goings-on "there." The often troubling news of the world is recast as a "reality" show -- mock seriousness that maintains a complacent perspective on what is going on.

Then there is the device of interspersing news accounts with long stories of a more overtly human interest kind. From a scanning of the main section, we can find ourselves immersed in compelling narratives about body-building in a re-opened Baghdad gym, or a young female artist's 10 x 10 studio in Gaza, or the muscle men from a traditional Punjabi village who have been recruited as bouncers to keep order in trendy New Delhi discos, or what it means to miss a mortgage payment on your $10 million house in Silicon Valley because the juvenile video game that made you rich has been superseded by another, more kaleidoscopic game. Just to make sure that narcissistic readers don't suffer an anxiety attack from several consecutive minutes of immersion in actual news, the NYT editors plant reassuring front page stories such as "Apps Go Beyond Selfies, With Live TV Broadcasts Starring You."

A similar philosophy lies behind the political coverage that treats elections and other serious encounters as sporting matches. Issues, ideologies, and track records are reduced to filler -- or as props to probe deeper into personalities, life histories, feuds among advisers, gamesmanship and campaign strategies. Stories of this nature about 2016 already are on the front page ("For 2016 Run, Scott Walker Washes 'Wiscahnsin' Out of His Mouth"). Here we are only one year and eight months before election day, and The Times tries to titillate us with several thousand words on Jeb Bush's conversion to Catholicism twenty odd years ago to please his wife -- accompanied by blown-up photos on a scale not seen since the Marines raised the Stars-and-Stripes on Iwo Jima. Evidently, JFK is too far in the past to make the story's theme passe for today's trendy but history challenged readers. The dry stuff about crises domestic and foreign -- and what might be done about them -- makes only cameo appearances.

The overall media strategy is syncopation. That means an arrangement of news and commentary that provides regular opportunities for the grey cells to rest and recuperate from the exertion of concentrating on straight news by the serving of lighter fare -- like sherbet to cleanse the pallet between courses. This principle holds for the main news section, for the editorial/opinion pages and -- in the Sunday edition -- the aggregation of sections. Even the Sports section is not immune as anyone who has faced two full pages devoted to the development program for cricket in Afghanistan can attest. We sports loving Rangers or Knicks fans take seriously the human tragedy and indomitable spirit of Afghans whom we strive to uplift -- between periods and at half-time. Or, these 6,000 word excursions into trivia may serve a quite different purpose: to provide the paper's single readers with sure-fire lines to "break the ice." For example: "that's a lovely blouse you're wearing -- amazing color. It reminds me of the striking uniforms worn by the Afghan national cricket team. It's a variation of what my friends in Kabul call burqa blue -- a sort of lapis lazuli." "How fascinating! Tell me more") Who knows -- maybe the guy spares himself the sticky wicket of a Personal in the New York Review of Books.

Where this philosophy reaches full flower is in the paper's ancillary sections. Arts & Leisure is mostly pop culture -- fixed at the pivot point of most readers' cultural interest. Fine differentiation among loud rock bands gets the lion's share of the coverage. Why not? The young university grads on the way up, the more-or-less young and the would-be young lap it up. This is a country where presidents and their families no longer even pretend an interest in the fine arts. The last five in particular seemingly don't know the Kennedy Center from that airport in NYC. Travel feeds the appetite of nouveau cosmopolitan readers on the hunt for the chic and vaguely exotic. They miss the awkward truth that in following the trails mapped out by the NYT, they risk spending their exotic holiday cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors from the West Village and Park Slope (or even Queen's Boulevard -- God forbid!). Maybe that's the reason why the NYT gives so much space to their "36 Hours In..." series. It's easier to put up with unwelcome companions when it's only a day and a half before you head to the next adventure spot. There is, of course, another explanation of this feature: 36 hours is the half-life of a dose of Cialis. Not to be left out, the Style section a couple of weeks back grabbed readers with a penetrating investigative report titled "Oh, for a Roll in the Cab," replete with three column photo (PG). Subject? How the Uber taxi revolution is inhibiting back seat sex (True). Seems that the headline is a play on "Oh, for a Roll in the Organic Arugula" -- "Your Uber or mine?" Cheaper than 36 hours in the Seychelles, anyway.

This 'give 'em what they want' approach reaches its apex in the Magazine Section. There, we can read "How To Cook a Ghanaian Spinach Stew In The Bronx." This bow to the hip readers who have been driven to the outer boroughs by inflated apartment rents is the Magazine section's counterpart to the news section's big story on "Tupperware's Renaissance in Indonesia." The Magazine sells sophistication without demanding very much from the reader to prove it.

One form of sophistication is to demonstrate acceptance of radical and risque turns in American culture. The ultimate sophistication supposedly is to demonstrate "unshockability." That is illustrated by stories like the one they ran on how fresh plot lines are giving a new impetus to Hollywood porn (True). That story was a nice match to an earlier one on how the financial crisis was putting the squeeze on profit margins in the porn industry. Then there is the frisson of excitement generated by illicit accounts of fringe characters: Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Anthony Weiner -- all of whom received cover story treatment. They complement similar indulgences of cult personalities in the entertainment universe. Celebrating celebrity -- the more notorious or infamous the better -- has become a mark of the NYT, albeit not as all-consuming or gross as that of People or the Enquirer. Financial scoundrels and high tech pirates are particular favorites deserving of sympathetic, in-your-face portraits. The combo puts you on the cover of the special issue inaugurating the much heralded, redesigned new NYT Magazine -- as happened a few weeks ago.

Over the decades and through the generations, the phenomenon that is the Sunday New York Times has been an integral part of America's cultural scene as well as its news scene. The rooted domesticity of the 1950s may be long gone. In these febrile times, we are more indulgent of our impulsive strivings and our neuroses. But the Times is still our companion.