February 2 was a day of harmonic convergence on the media beat. It might have been cosmic (02-02-00 is a near palindrome) or just a coincidence. But anyone who was watching will never forget it.
On the bright side, it was the day after the Poynter Institute took over MediaGossip.com, giving the popular site new legitimacy and bringing out a fine mix of media writers, including sycophants, parodists, and pseudonymous assassins. But it was also the day Steve Brill announced that his e-commerce site had partnered with CBS, NBC, and so on. The next day, he appointed David Kuhn as editor in chief of Brill’s Content (BC) and the e-commerce site. This came as a shock: Few expected Brill to get in the tank with CBS and NBC, let alone to place Kuhn, an untested EIC, at the helm of both business and editorial. But Brill seemed deaf to complaints about conflict of interest, leaving Kuhn to dismiss them as “ridiculous.”
Since it launched in 1998, BC has been touted as a watchdog that would restore integrity to journalism—a noble, if unattainable, goal. The “What We Stand For” manifesto, printed in every issue, contains four tenets: Accuracy, Labeling and Sourcing, Conflicts of Interest, and Accountability. But as part of the magazine’s ongoing facelift, I propose a new set of tenets: Subjectivity, Suppression, Synergy, and Secrecy.
Subjectivity, because most journalism is arbitrary, a reflection of the individuals who choose the subject, invent the concept, and select details to support the concept. Suppression, because most journalists’ instinct is to minimize the credit we give when passing off others’ ideas as our own. Synergy, because smart publishers always try to advance the agendas of advertisers and business partners. And Secrecy, because we prefer to disclose next to nothing about how we got here and how we get the job done.
At least, that would approximate the truth about for-profit journalism. But in its bid for commercial appeal, the magazine that strove to be honest now seems to be trading credibility for hypocrisy. Not that BC isn’t making progress: The new issue looks great and has some ambitious and solid stories in it. But the book is still thin, with only 29 full-page ads. Several ads were taken out by e-commerce partners (CBS, Primedia, and TheStreet.com), and business partners feature prominently in the editorial.
For example, the cover story promotes The West Wing, a sitcom produced by e-commerce partner NBC. Brill does an unskeptical Q&A with Bob Pittman of AOL Time Warner, a company in which Brill owns valuable stock. And two critiques focus on shows produced by nonpartner ABC.
The West Wing piece is a profile of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who is said to have created a show that’s superior to political journalism in its educational value. (Sorkin rejects this thesis.) Another claim: He succeeds because he is not cynical. Would that the same could be said for the editors. They put West Wing star Martin Sheen on the cover—although Sheen barely appears in the piece. And the cover photo has been altered to include a presidential seal.
Perhaps BC sees this kind of thing (as a recent issue put it) as “synergy working well and harmlessly; a good time was had by all.” But the mag has to get sharper and more self-conscious than that if it wants to tell the truth about this industry. Otherwise, it risks becoming just another bunch of agenda-serving, beautifully produced lies.
Censorship at The New York Times? That’s what some readers thought on January 30, when the Times Magazine ran a piece about the “bad girls,” four New York artists who use sexual imagery in their work. The text, by art critic Deborah Solomon, was accompanied by four photos of artwork that contained images of either breasts or penises. But in apparent haste, the Times slapped big black bars across the offending parts, as if to say, This work is so naughty that even we can’t publish it!
The bars raised questions: Why’d they do it? Did the artists know in advance? So I called the galleries that had supplied the photos in order to promote shows by Cecily Brown, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sue Williams, and Lisa Yuskavage. No one would talk, except to say the artists were all surprised by the Times’s decision to censor their work. But at least one artist felt she’d been misled, and one artist’s rep felt the piece was “demeaning” toward women. Another artist’s rep had learned there is no recourse when a mass-market publication reproduces artwork in an altered form.
These days, it’s an unspoken rule that you have to get publicity to sell art, and Cecily Brown seems to get it. On February 1, Brown talked to Artnet.com about the painting the Times chose, which depicts a guy jerking off. “It’s a shame that something so beautiful and natural should be covered up in The New York Times,” she said, obviously tongue-in-cheek. (This is the same woman who vamped on her studio floor for the February issue of Vanity Fair.)
Deborah Solomon seems to get it, too. On September 26, just as the Brooklyn Museum unveiled its “Sensation” exhibit, she published a flattering profile of Sensation backer Charles Saatchi in the Magazine. (Saatchi has bought or shown work by most of the “bad girls.”) Dismissing charges that Saatchi is a poseur and profiteer, Solomon wrote that “we can no longer pretend that art and advertising inhabit firmly divided spheres.” She didn’t foresee any problem for the Brooklyn Museum, which the Times later blasted for allowing Saatchi to engineer a show in a way that must have increased the value of his collection.
But that was the news department, and “the Times, is not the monolith people think it is,” explains Katherine Bouton, deputy editor of the Magazine. Bouton says the “bad girls” piece was intended “to show our readers something that’s happening in the art world.” But the editors couldn’t run the full pictures, they thought, because of a century-old Times policy against frontal nudity. So they settled on the black bars, an approach they deemed both “fair” (think of expletives deleted from a quote) and “lighthearted.”
Thus, what started as an artistic showcase became an exercise in editorial theory. “Those bands. . . became an element in the design that made a point about . . . what can be shown and what can’t,” says Bouton. In other words, if the “bad girls” thought the joke was on them, they got it wrong. The joke’s on us, insists Janet Froelich, art director for the Magazine. “We were mocking ourselves [by] making the bars larger than they had to be.”
Solomon says the piece was intended to be “supportive” of four artists who “deserve serious consideration.” She denies that it was any more sensational than the work itself (“We’re just mirroring what’s out there”). And she hopes no one was offended by the “bad girl” label, which has “been floating around for some time.” Besides which, it was meant to be “ironic.”
Apparently, the Times’s nudity policy is also ironic. When the Voice called to confirm it, we found out it doesn’t exist.