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Adios, Gray Lady

Joseph Epstein cancels his 'New York Times' subscription.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The New York Times used to be called the Gray Lady of American newspapers. The sobriquet implied a certain stateliness, a sense of responsibility, the possession of high virtue. But the Gray Lady is far from the grande dame she once was. For years now she has been going heavy on the rouge, lipstick, and eyeliner, using a push-up bra, and gadding about in stiletto heels. She’s become a bit—perhaps more than a bit—of a slut, whoring after youth through pretending to be with-it. I’ve had it with the old broad; after nearly 50 years together, I’ve determined to cut her loose. 

I have decided, that is, to cancel my subscription to the New York Times. For so many decades the paper has been part of my morning mental hygiene. Yet in recent years I’ve been reading less and less of each day’s paper. Most days now I do no more than scan the headlines on the front page, check the sports pages for the pitchers in that day’s White Sox and Cubs games, then flip over to the Irish sports pages, as the obits have been called, to see if anyone I know has pegged out. 

History may not repeat itself, but the news does, relentlessly. Since the New York Times began to run more and more feature stories, often on its front page, lots of what appears in its pages hasn’t been news, not even close. “Chief Justice Warren Sees No Trend in Burger Court,” with its stunning irrelevance, is an old Times headline atop the kind of story I have in mind and see more and more of. 

I long ago ceased reading the newspaper’s letters section in the hope of finding a man or woman after my own heart. With the exception of David Brooks, who allows that his general position is slightly to the right of center but who is not otherwise locked into a Pavlovian political response, I find no need to read any of the Times’s regular columnists. Every so often I check to remind myself that Maureen Dowd isn’t amusing, though she is an improvement, I suppose, over the termagantial Anna Quindlen, whom I used to read with the trepidation of a drunken husband mounting the stairs knowing his wife awaits with a rolling pin. I’d sooner read the fine print in my insurance policies than the paper’s perfectly predictable editorials. Laughter, an elegant phrase, a surprising sentiment—the New York Times op-ed and editorial pages are the last place to look for any of these things. 

I sometimes glimpse the Arts section to see which wrong people are being praised or have been awarded large cash prizes or recognized for years of mediocre achievement by election to the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Arts, of course, are no longer quite The Arts, at least in the New York Times, which features hard rock and rap music and video games and graphic novels under the rubric The Arts. Only the photographs of dancers lend an aesthetic dimension to the shabby section. 

I lift the Sunday New York Times from the hallway outside our apartment with a heart twice the weight of the hefty paper itself. From it I extract the Book Review, the magazine, “Sunday Styles,” the “Week in Review.” For decades now the New York Times Book Review has been devoted to reinforcing received (and mostly wrong) literary opinions and doing so in impressively undistinguished prose. The New York Times Magazine has always been dull, but earlier it erred on the side of seriousness. Now it is dull on the side of ersatz hipness. The other Sunday I put myself through a long article on the dangers of leaving a record of one’s minor misdeeds on the Internet. The article’s last sentence instructed that “we need to learn new forms of empathy, new ways of defining ourselves without reference to what others say about us and new ways of forgiving one another for the digital trails that will follow us forever.” Yes, I thought, and wet birds never fly at night. 

I could go on about the artificial rage of Frank Rich—the liberals’ Glenn Beck—or the forced gaiety of “Sunday Styles,” but the main feeling I have as I rise from having wasted an hour or so with the Sunday New York Times is of what wretched shape the country is in if it is engaged in such boringly trivial pursuits, elevating to eminence such dim cultural and political figures, writing so muddledly about ostensibly significant subjects. 

Perhaps one picks up all newspapers in anticipation and puts them down in disappointment. But the New York Times, at no extra charge, also leaves one feeling one lives in immitigably dreary times, and it does so daily. I don’t need it.

Cancel my subscription, please. 

Joseph Epstein

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