Reviewing the Review: April 25 2010

It’s not widely known, but Bill Keller’s name means a lot to New York Times watchers like me. He’s the paper’s Executive Editor, an abstract title that might or might not carry power but in this particular case carries a lot. He appears to be the newspaper’s top hands-on manager, its chief day-to-day decider, and he’s also Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’s boss.

I recall Keller’s byline showing up exactly once before in the New York Times Book Review, on a minor sports piece too diffuse to allow readers to form any real opinion of him at all. He makes a much more pronounced appearance in today’s Book Review with a signature piece on Alan Brinkley’s biography of Henry Luce, the dynamic founder of the Time magazine empire, an influential publisher until his death in 1967.

When a powerful figure in journalism reviews a book about a powerful figure in the history of journalism, it’s clear that some kind of self-defining statement is being made. This is Bill Keller’s big chance to speak to his readers directly, to let us know what he stands for and what he thinks we need to know about the state of journalism today. Here’s how the article begins:

Of all the arguments under way these days at the noisy crossroads of the news business, none is quite so basic as the debate over journalistic authority — who has it, and what it is worth.

On one side, to oversimplify just a little, is a view that the democratizing power of the Internet has rendered traditional forms and values of journalism obsolete, and with them, not incidentally, the idea that people should pay for news. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian of London, observed recently that the old world in which journalists were trusted to filter and prioritize the news is now in tension with “a world in which many (but not all) readers want to have the ability to make their own judgments; express their own priorities; create their own content; articulate their own views; learn from peers as much as from traditional sources of authority.” Among the more utopian partisans of this wisdom-of-the-crowd view, the reliance on professional journalists is seen as elitist and stifling.

On the other side is a conviction that a significant population of serious people feel the need for someone with training, experience and standards — reporters and editors — to help them dig up and sort through the news, identify what’s important and make sense of it. That in no way precludes enlisting the audience as commentators, as contributors and as collaborators. (Witness the splendid hybrid of professional and amateur journalism that has kept alive the stream of news from Iran.) But in this view — which I share — the authority of professional journalists is both a valuable convenience for readers without the time or inclination to manage a tsunami of information on their own, and a civic good, in that a democracy needs a shared base of trustworthy information upon which to make its judgments.

Henry R. Luce can be considered a founding father of the authority school — for better and for worse.

This … again? Bill Keller finally makes an appearance in his own newspaper, only to deliver a summary of the same sound bite — the changing role of professional journalism in the age of blogs — that everybody else has been discussing to death since 2006? Can Keller possibly not know how tired these observations are? Is there anybody reading the New York Times who hasn’t encountered these paragraphs before?

And, does any of this really have anything to do with Henry Luce?

We all know that the New York Times is grappling with the rise of Internet journalism, but there are also other things in the world to write about, and Bill Keller would have served his readers better if he had paid closer attention to the real subject of his piece. I happen to be fascinated by Henry Luce myself, and once read and relished every page of his first major biography, W. A. Swanberg’s Luce and His Empire, while working for the company Luce built in the late 1990s. I wrote a bit about Luce’s complex legacy towards the end of this long piece last year (interestingly, I chose the same illustration of Henry Luce that is on the Book Review’s cover today).

Luce’s story is an absolutely riveting and relevant one, and a reasonable survey of his exciting life would include much material about economics and capitalism (Fortune, the second magazine Luce created, was his personal favorite), about Chaing Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong (Luce’s greatest political mission was to oppose Mao and support Western-style democracy in China) and about the charming pecularities of the early 20th Century’s media/publishing social set (Luce’s wife, the celebrated author Clare Boothe Luce, was one of his greatest assets here).

Bill Keller’s disappointing article shows a strange lack of interest in these topics. Instead, he appears to be as obsessed with battling Twitter and amateur blogging journalists as Luce was obsessed with battling Red China. He returns to the topic of Internet journalism repeatedly, and even blathers about this in the “Up Front” profile accompanying the piece, after he is asked about “the current media landscape”:

I think the younger Luce would have recognized and relished the feisty start-ups, the high-speed aggregation, the connectedness, the gorgeous visuals. Probably the older Luce would have lamented the degree of shallowness, juvenility and cynicism.

I see no evidence of this in my own study of Luce’s life. The idea that Luce was “a founding father of the authority school” is gratuitous. As Keller notes, the earliest version of Time magazine included no original reporting at all, instead capsulizing other sources in brief snarky roundups. His magazines were valued more for their freshness than for their authority. It’s possible that the older Luce would have lamented today’s professional journalism for shallowness, juvenility and cynicism, as Keller says. But it’s just as likely that he would have lamented the insularity and smug self-satisfaction of its current executive set.

Terrible cover piece aside, there are a few good articles in today’s New York Times Book Review. Ronald Steel grabs my interest with his joint coverage of two books about the Spanish-American War era, The War Lovers by Evan Thomas and The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley. Charles McGrath is very good on Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark, and Jacob Silverman’s warm review will probably attract many readers to Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, a book of stories by Brad Watson.

Back on the negative side, Mark Halperin is hardly the toughest critic available to take on Karl Rove’s Courage and Consequence and Mitt Romney’s No Apology (something tells me Mitt Romney is popular among the New York Times’s conservative wing, though at least his book’s straining prose attracts some well-deserved mockery).

Finally, I’m not buying Karl Kirchwey’s equation, in a review of Derek Walcott’s poetry volume White Egrets, that Derek Walcott is the new T. S. Eliot. Okay, as Kirchwey spells out, they have a few characteristics in common, and it’s probably a comparison Walcott doesn’t mind. But here’s one gigantic difference: T. S. Eliot wrote poems that people (other than poetry critics) actually read and cared about.

3 Responses

  1. Don’t worry, Levi. No
    Don’t worry, Levi. No Litkicker would be so crass as to crack wise about the blind leading the blind. That being said, you wouldn’t know who Keller’s boss is, would you? If he (I’m assuming he) lines both Keller and Tanenhaus up just so, he could probably knock them both out with the same blunt recycled arrow to the enlarged forehead(s).

  2. Re Eliot vs. Walcott:
    Re Eliot vs. Walcott: exactly. I remember excitedly buying my first paperback of Walcott’s poetry, thinking I was going to read some great shit. I recall nothing about the poems except that they touched nothing in me, in any way, to any degree. If you could have sold your rejects on Amazon at the time, I would’ve done so.

  3. You know my fondness for not
    You know my fondness for not only identifying the problem but offering a solution or a pathway to the solution. Indulge me, please, once again. What if instead of Herr Tanenhaus and Rottenfuhrer Keller guiding the literary/political agenda of the paper of record, we had climate changers like Jeremy Scahill supervised by Naomi Klein (I’m thinking real investigative journalists who have both written society-changing books themselves)? Say an Ohhhm and meditate on that one, even for one minute. Doesn’t the air feel fresher already?

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