In the latest issue of the magazine, we make the case that the press's current death spiral will damage our democracy in ways both profound and lasting. So it would be in terrible form to call for certain operations to go under or to suggest that even one of our journalistic colleagues should lose his job. But. There are some truly bogus outfits scattered across the media landscape--so offensive or charmless or vapid that they hurt the head. In the spirit of fixing it before it's all too late, we've asked several people to pick the true culprits, and we'll be rolling out their selections over the next couple weeks.
I'll admit to a complicated relationship with The New York Times' Sunday Styles section. I'm an avid, if occasionally repulsed reader of the wedding page and a religious follower of Modern Love, which I find frequently horrible and occasionally lovely. Nonetheless, I have to say, if the luxury advertisers who keep the Times alive--but, lamprey-like, are gradually sucking out its very soul--withdraw, forcing at least a re-conception of Sunday Styles, my tears would be few.
When Michelle wrote her brilliant take-down of Thursday Styles a couple of years ago, she made a faint-praise defense of Sunday Styles as being "fundamentally about people, not products, and its primary mission is anthropological. ... The focus today remains on the culture of the wealthy rather than just their stuff." But the anthropological method has never looked shabbier. That Styles mainstay, the dubious trend piece (people quote Bush malapropisms for comic effect! Librarians ... not just dorks!), has been debunked so often it's more of a punch-line than a genre. The section is larded with service articles extolling the virtues of $1,200 blanket-coats and $550 surrealist necklaces. And lately, the recession has thrown into relief the uncomfortable socioeconomic closeness between reporters and their sources.
The problem is not in writing about rich people; it's in writing about rich people if you're not a status-obsessed, 22-year-old Vassar grad living in a hovel in Astoria, or someone like Tom Wolfe in his prime or even the writers of "Gossip Girl," who've clearly managed to keep that inner 22-year-old artificially alive. What made Spy, and occasionally Gawker, so great is that it was aspirational journalism written by passionate, professional aspirers, as if Julien Sorel had been given a laptop and encouraged to trail the urban haute bourgeoisie from night club to cupcake bakery. What good wealth-culture reporting requires is that sting of envious disgust that characterizes the way most normal people relate to the very very rich. Sunday Styles, unfortunately, has found disgust to be off-putting to its audience and advertisers. It tweaks enough to remain credible (as in a recent Philip Galanes Social Q's column advising a woman not to force her personal assistant to get a manicure), but never enough to alienate.
This had its place--until the recession hit. Now Sunday Styles finds itself in the same awkward position as New York magazine and all the women's magazines: writing about consumption without seeming out of touch. So far, as with those other publications, it's been an exercise in straining. Witness last week's piece, "You Try to Live on 500K in This Town," exploring the straits of finance execs forced by bailout restrictions to make do with half a mil per year. This is clearly meant to be a saucy, conventional-wisdom bucker, and the author works to show how self-aware he is: "Few are playing sad cellos over the fate of such folk, especially since the collapse of the institutions they run has yielded untold financial pain." But, as the multitude of ignominies pile up (ah, formal gowns are so expensive! Chauffeurs are such a drain on the budget!), the irony drains from the piece, and it turns polemical. The author's final summation (before the requisite Candace Bushnell quote) suggests that even the little people might have something invested in keeping execs flush with skiing vacations and personal trainers: "Does this money buy a chief executive stockholders might prize, a well-to-do man with a certain sureness of stride, something that might be lost if the executive were crowding onto the PATH train every morning at Journal Square, his newspaper splayed against the back of a stranger's head?"
This stockholder, at least, might prize keeping her own job a little bit more. And this piece shows Sunday Styles losing its reason--and its anthropological detachment--entirely.