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Press Review January 24, 2002
 
In Da Times
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
Page 2 of 15
 
Today's issue, on the other hand, was more in the Times-as-wallflower tradition. While the tabloids ran massive covers on the "raucous" Times Square celebrations, the Times gave the party just two columns and, contrasting directly with the other papers, called the celebrations "subdued." After that it ran a "lighthearted" feature about the transfer of mayor power from Rudy Giuliani to Michael Bloomberg (the heavier analyses doubtless coming tomorrow, after the formal swearing-in ceremony).

The Times version of "celebrating" is to clear the decks of alarmist news on the front and focus on its version of "fun" reporting, which mainly means lots of esoteric factoids sandwiched around colorful anecdotes and profiles of "interesting" people. And that's what it looks like it did in today's issue.

Nothing distinguishes the New York Times as much as the factoid. While you may not find in-depth investigative reporting in every issue, you can certainly count on finding a wealth of eccentric details that have been packed into the same news articles competing papers write at two-thirds of the length.

Trivia is the hallmark of the Times reporting method. Every issue of the Times is bound to be absolutely packed to the brim with sentences like the following, taken from the right-column lead from today's front page piece about Bloomberg, "Baton Is Passing To The New Mayor At A Trying Time":

"The transition began yesterday when Mr. Bloomberg paid his 15 cents in pennies, a registration fee required under law, at the city clerk's office and took his oath to faithfully discharge the duties of the office of mayor."

The Times reader experiences something very much like a small sexual discharge (Times readers not often having large sexual discharges) upon encountering a detail like this bit about Bloomberg and his 15 cents. It is a little leaf to press between the pages of his day.

Again, this is what the Times is all about: acquiring facts rather than cutting through them, providing readers with little mental souvenirs. The paper's entire approach is retentive: any psychologist would know at once to classify the paper's famously small type, meticulous cramming of information, and elaborate system of sections and subsections as classic anal-compulsive behavior.

In the case of the Bloomberg story, while the monstrous fact of a media oligarch and political amateur buying his way into office will always be treated with reserve and academic distance in the paper, the factoids will be piled on with passion. This particular article even goes so far as to note that Bloomberg's Boston accent "results in the odd attachment of the letter 's' at the end of words where it does not belong" and that the new mayor, astonishingly, "does not even pretend to drop his loyalty to the Red Sox."

Similarly, while a story about the West Bank crisis ("Arafat's Face Still Looms Over Conflict in Mideast", p. A9) will not tell us much more about the substance of the story than USA Today might, it will tell us more about what the story's key figures wear:

"With dozens of guards forging a corridor and aides guiding his steps, Mr. Arafat mounted the platform, adjusted his checkered kaffiyeh, and stepped forward to light the torch to mark the revolution he started 37 years ago by planting a bomb near a water pipeline in Israel."

It's hard to imagine any other newspaper in America assuming the word "kaffiyeh" to be in its readers' active vocabulary. It's likewise difficult to imagine any other major American newspaper describing a shift in city government as "seismic" (p.A1), or calling maneuvers by Indian and Pakistani border guards a "pantomime of aggression" that today has "piquancy" (p. A10). Your average USA Today reporter would probably be beaten with bamboo poles by his editors for even trying to file a piece with the word "piquancy" in it. But the Times reporter is encouraged to stick as many piquancies and kaffiyehs and 15-cent registration fees as he can manage -- that he can "fit to print." With so much space to fill, and the heavier issues off-limits, you might as well get some mileage out of those SAT words. Particularly on a holiday.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 3


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