Someday I want to write a piece about the obsessive hold the New York Times has on people: how it’s loved and hated, worshipped and sneered at, fetishized and despised, dismissed as irrelevant and criticized as tyrannically influential, written off as a dinosaur while providing content for seemingly the entire Internet. How Left and Right define themselves in contrast with it, and new media and old define themselves in competition with it. How, as the journalistic entity most associated with the Establishment, it has reaped the fallout of the general decline in faith in establishment authority—bankers, WMD experts, what have you. How, especially now that it’s suffering the same money woes as the rest of its business, there’s an almost Oedipal relationship some people have with the paper—an urge to see it die and escape its oppressive paternal shadow, coupled with the faint dread of what life would be like without it.
Today is not going to be that day. Fortunately, however, The Daily Show sent Jason Jones last night to visit the financially struggling paper, for a piece that touched on a lot of those elements, but was much funnier than I’d have made it:
I had an e-mail back-and-forth earlier with a colleague who thought the segment was kicking the Times while it was down. I don’t think so. The kicker “balance sheet” joke was wicked, but even Bill Keller laughed, and it’s the kind of gallows humor you hear in newsrooms. The whole premise that the Times is about nothing but “aged” news on paper, however, may have killed with the Daily Show audience but pretty much ignored the Times’ whole, widely read-and-linked online operation. (Actually, it committed the fallacy people usually accuse newspaper journalists of doing: associating the “newspaper” with the paper product rather than the newsgathering operation.)
But I actually thought Jones’ piece showed some sympathy for the Times too. The bit with the landline phone—”I’m a reporter from the ’80s, makin’ sure everything’s factual; oh, you guys are like a walking Colonial Williamsburg”—seemed less a joke on the Times than on the mindset that facts and accuracy are boring and behind-the-times. And throwing a laptop is never not funny.