The New York Times “Thursday Styles” section today published its list of the 75 things that New Yorkers talked about in 2011, one of the silliest and yet most ideologically tinged of the seemingly infinitude of annual lists published in the news media the last two weeks of the year.
Let’s start with the premise of the article: 75 things New Yorkers talked about. Two questions immediately arise: 1) Which New Yorkers? and 2) How do we know these are the things they talked about? Neither question is adequately answered in the paragraphs leading to the list. The writer, Stuart Emmrich, no doubt expressing the consensus of the Style page staff, makes the assumption that we know who he means and that, of course, what else would they be talking about? It’s the typical attempt by the news media, and especially style, society, celebrity and new product writers, to assume a consensus that really expresses what the writer thinks are the views of a cultural elite, e.g., A-listers, people who hang out at certain bars and restaurants or executives frequenting charity balls and cocktail parties.
The article really lists what the Times Style section wants its readers to talk about—or remember—from the past year.
I broke the list down by topic. The results offer further proof that the Times is neither the intellectual beacon its friends believe it to be, nor the liberal propaganda machine that its foes accuse it of being.
Times 75 Things New Yorkers Talked About in 2011
The list looks more like the front page of Yahoo! or the contents of the New York Daily News without the crime stories. The list starts to make sense if we forget that the article is supposed to be about what New Yorkers discussed over the past year and instead focus on the fact that it’s a fashion page article (“style” is a modern, more-encompassing term for “fashion.”) While there are only 5 fashion stories, fashion news often focuses on what celebrities and mass entertainment figures are wearing and doing. These topics (except for when it involves fashion) account for 57% of all topics on the list. But still, the celebrity and mass entertainment topics are not about what TV, movie and pop music entertainers and celebrities are wearing (I filed those topics under fashion), but about other aspects of celebrity. Unlike the myth of the New York Times as serious and high-minded, the actual publication often carries stories about celebrity culture and trivial nonsense stories such as this list.
The topics include the usual suspects: Kate Middleton, Lady Gaga, Chaz Bono, Alexander McQueen, Tim Tebow and Ryan Gosling as featured celebs; the Republican debates, Steve Job’s death and the deaths of Bin laden and Qadaffi as news. But beneath the superficiality, the article quietly advocates a right-leaning politics. Here are some cleverly presented right-wing messages in the details:
- Subtle denigration of known progressive newscaster Keith Olbermann, saying that once he left MSNBC he was “never heard of again.”
- Trivialization of the Occupy Wall Street movement by stating that all it ever did was make famous a phrase, “the other 99%,” and an obscure park.
- Of the five stories on politics, four have to do with the race for the Republican nomination for president; the only Democratic topic about which New Yorkers evidently spoke during the year was the booing of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden by NASCAR fans.
Now for perhaps the most appalling omission on the list: the Japanese tsunami and the resulting serious leak of radiation at the Fukushima nuclear electrical-generating facility. Does anyone really think that the Fukushima nuke-out, which dominated the news for weeks, was so little talked about that it could not crack a list of 75 subjects?
What could be the ideological imperative behind deciding not to include Fukushima on this list, which purportedly reports what New Yorkers discussed, not what fashion and entertainment topics they discussed? Some thoughts, and in giving them, I am not asserting that the writer and editor consciously worked these ideas out, but rather that these ideas are embedded into their thought processes as unquestioned premises.
The style section is really about buying products and services that express the style of the buyers, their social class and their aspirations/fears. Only the most addicted shopaholic would feel like buying anything after talking about the silent poison of radiation. The best thing for a style section article to do, always, is to keep it light and ironic.
The death of Steve Jobs was also tragic, but at least Steve stands for technological consumerism. Technology consumerism was also the topic of the one technology story I found: the two-day wait for a new iPad 2. Perhaps I could have just as easily listed that story under cultural issues, but wherever it goes, it made the list and Fukushima did not. In what alternative universe did news-savvy New Yorkers talk more about a new smart phone than about a major nuclear disaster caused by yet another extreme weather disaster? Only in a universe in which technology always provides us with great new products to buy.
So with “keep it happy” and “technology is always great” screens before their eyes, the Times Style section staff might have never even thought of Fukushima when brainstorming about the chatter at restaurant tables and cocktail parties over the past year. And if they did think of it, I imagine someone quickly squelched the suggestion as not “bright” enough.
Of course, if the Times really wanted to keep it real, the following topics would have topped the list of what New Yorkers discussed over the past 12 months:
- Their children
- Personal finance issues
- Their jobs, careers and co-workers
- Other family members
- Local weather
- Extreme weather around the world
- Local crime news
- The long jobless recession, which many will recognize under its more familiar name, “the jobless recovery.”
Unless we did a survey, there’s no telling who’s list is closer to reality: mine or The Times.