The Playgoer: Ask the Arts Editor II

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Ask the Arts Editor II

Some more excellent questions for the Times's Culture Editor, Sam Sifton. I don't feel bad not including his answers here since you can click here to read them yourself!

Q. I feel like the Arts section is very unsurprising in its coverage. (Article on latest hot novelist? Check. Article on latest hot actor? Check. Et cetera.) What percent of your coverage is made from reporters getting ideas from publicity reps and press releases versus ideas that the Arts section or individual reporters come up with? How often do you encourage a reporter to go after an obscure item that might be representative of a larger, interesting phenomenon?
Sifton happily points the questioner to something Times ombudsman Byron Calame did last month on the subject of where story ideas are coming from. The piece basically exonerates the paper from charges of collusion, but even Sifton has to admit that the "role publicists play in the lives of journalists... [is] like flies on elephants, something like that." I remain suspicious and share the questioner's perception.

My favorite question remains (as cited here before) the one about why so much Brangelina & co. in the "Arts" pages. Sifton's response--basically, that Jennifer Aniston is not such a bad actress--still astounds me. Would he argue Paris Hilton is "kind of a good"....anything? Yet there she is semi-weekly, it seems, in Arts Briefly. Pete Doherty may be musically noteworthy if you like The Libertines, but do his courtroom shenanigans also merit so much ink? Why do I suppose that has more to do with being Kate Moss's boyfriend? Oh I know why: because that's always mentioned in the second sentence. Don't believe me? Well let's look up today's Arts Briefly... Lo and behold! Next, enter "Doherty + Moss + court" in the search function and you'll see what I mean.

Okay, in fairness, here's Sifton's full defense:
This is a slippery slope, of course. But it's still fun to ski. Which is another way of answering your question. Celebrity walks hand in hand with artistic success and has since before the Medicis made art stars rich. We try to balance that fact against our interest in the art itself. And, having done that, we try to balance the art itself against other arts. We place pop culture against high. High culture against the middlebrow. Low culture against them all.
If the Times wants to imply it is the "court paper" to the modern Medicis, they can be my guest. But then please don't call yourself a serious Arts section. I wish Sifton would just admit the economic imperatives here and stop dressing it up as some kind of egalitarian editorial policy. We all know the truth is the Times now sees itself in competition not with The New Yorker and ArtNews magazine... but with USA Today and People magazine. Obviously there have been editorial decisions in the last few years (perhaps above Sifton's head) to engage tabloid journalism on its own level, not rise above it. Just too much marketing $ is at stake.

Plus, the Times more than ever seeks to be a "national" media outlet--i.e. not just for snotty New Yorkers anymore. So while Sifton can plead irony as an acceptable reason to chuckle at celebrity silliness, the coverage clearly must satisfy more earnest celebrity gazing readers as well. (Case in point: Alessandra Stanley's weird above-it-all take on Anderson Cooper's selling out to a one-on-one with Angelina Jolie. Um, who's doing the selling out here? She covers it like she has to--but they don't have to, do they?)

Another Sifton answer reveals the disappearing line between Arts coverage and gossip in quite bold terms. Bold indeed, since he was asked about why the Times discontinued its more honest attempt at a trashy gossip column, "Boldface Names" (which ran not in Arts, but in the Metro section). Denying any connection between Boldface's demise and the scandal over at the Post's "Page Six" Sifton cites an internal memo from head honcho editor Bill Keller:

[Keller] continued his memo, "conspiracy theorists will undoubtedly connect this with the bonfire at Page Six. For the record, Joe Sexton suggested, and we agreed, that Boldface had run its course several weeks ago, when the current author of the column, Campbell Robertson, began a romance with the Culture Department."

And you know what? Campbell Robertson married the culture department soon after. He is now our theater beat reporter. All of which is to say, I don't think you'll see gossip in our pages any time soon. Celebrities, though, are a different matter. We've talked about Brangelina in this space already. The brilliant Alessandra Stanley watched Angelina Jolie on Anderson Cooper's show last night. You can read about that online now. But for some of my colleagues here, this is the guy who gets the most buzz of all.

Notice how Sifton needs to puff up the Times's commitment to gossip in the Arts since the questioner was bemoaning the loss of "Boldface Names." So the answer is to "marry" arts and gossip, see?... As for Campbell Robertson, I can't fault his reporting so far, but does Sifton think he's reassuring arts lovers by encouraging this "romance"?

Look: I understand if the Times wants to be all "Arts for the people" or whatever they want to call it. They're a business not a service, and if this is what the company has to do to compete in a frighteningly shifting media universe, who am I to scold them for doing so. But I can call it for what it is and what it isn't. It is not a serious arts section anymore. And those of us who want serious arts coverage have known for a while now we have to look elsewhere. And I don't even get the feeling they're sorry to see us go.

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