NYT Obits Staff: Asleep at the Wheel?

If Sam Tanenhaus’s inflated self-importance weren’t ridiculous enough, consider how ineffectual the Gray Lady has been these days at noting the passing of vital literary authors. For a newspaper that has a stockpile of prewritten obits outnumbering the Associated Press and that apparently has the resources to videotape seminal geezers just before they kick the bucket, one wonders how much work is actually going on at Times headquarters. Is the obit staff malingering, perhaps passing the hours playing Minesweeper? Or is there so much fact-checking of fact-checking of fact-checking going on that the NYT obit staffers are precluded from performing their jobs?

As readers here may recall, the New York Times took a week and a half to note Octavia Butler’s passing, weighing in four days after all of the other media outlets had filed their articles. And, as pointed out by Dan Green, nearly one week after Sorrentino’s death, they have completely failed to note it, save through an inconsequential blurb. In fact, the Los Angeles Times, which has perhaps half the resources and twice the uncertanity that the Gray Lady does, has done a far more promising job, obtaining quotes from Don DeLillo and Christopher Sorrentino and giving its readers a very thorough overview of who Sorrentino was, even for those unfamiliar with his work.

But the New York Times, which Tanenhaus recently declared at BookExpo the nation’s best newspaper for literary coverage, can’t even be bothered to register more than a peep for a man considered by many academics and literary enthusiasts as one of the greatest experimental novelists of the twentieth century. (Ironically, Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew was named by the Times as one of the best books of 1979. While this was mentioned in the Gray Lady blurb, one would think such past accolades would justify substantial coverage.) As such, how can any serious intellectual or cultural enthusiast take the Times seriously as a arbiter or a gatekeeper, much less a newspaper capable of delivering current news to the public in a timely fashion?

Perhaps the answer might reside within John C. Ball and Jill Jonnes’ book Fame at Last, which took apart 10,000 obituaries published by the Gray Lady and found, much like Tanenhaus’s stag party approach to assigning reviewers, that the majority of the obits were (guess what!) allocated to men — specifically, Caucasian men of affluence.

One might argue with the exclusion and/or deferral of Butler and Sorrentino that this elitism carries over to writers. If you have darker skin, if you don’t write male menopause novels, and if you dare to try something groundbreaking, then your chances of being recognized are slim to none.

So let’s assume that the Times gets its act together and starts taking the time to fact-check and recognize cultural luminaries outside of its rigid boundaries of Important Figures. Can a newspaper which reports news long after every other outlet remain a viable newspaper in an era with nearly unlimited conduits for immediate reporting? That might have worked before the Internet, but last I heard, it was the 21st century and the people wanted their news online. Which presumably insinuates a certain immediacy.

Perhaps Chris Anderson’s suggestion that the era of the blockbuster is over applies to the Times‘ failed timeliness. The Times would rather waste its column inches on silly infograph-laden articles about people working out at the gym (do such articles really attract newspaper readers?) rather than report “the news that’s fit to print.” I’ll play the devil’s advocate and suggest that perhaps it was the “fit” portion of that slogan that the Style editor had in mind when he assigned Guy Trebay that article. Even so, a newspaper that has its staffers publicly declaring it today’s cultural apotheosis should have internal coordination between sections (here, Books and Obits), regularly demonstrate a variegated sweep of what’s happening in the cultural world and maintain an internal organization structure which ensures the timely turnout of news. Anything less is a corpulent corpse ready to collapse under the weight of its own bier.

One Comment

  1. Indeed. And for further proof of the NYT’s relevance, in literary as well as overall journalistic terms, please note its breathless cover story on Bill and Hillary’s marital relations from earlier this week.

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