Critique as Practice

I admit that since author (and 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer) Teju Cole took a self-described “Twitter break” back in July I’ve been eager to note and collect his creative output wherever else it appears—Facebook, Swiss magazines, et al. I quite like the material and content of what Cole writes, photographs, etc—but perhaps more than that I’m intrigued by his shape-shifting, his ways of playing with and emphasizing form—and the person behind the form—itself. Lately he’s taken to his official [author’s] Facebook page to post updates with a personal inflection: a book recommendation, an image from recent protests in New York City, an article he published.

Last week, Cole posted an interview he’d done with The New York Times, part of “Reading the Times With,” a recurring series. “When I agreed a while back to participate in the New York Times’ feature ‘Reading the Times With,'” Cole writes, “I had no way of knowing that the date we’d selected, Dec 10, would prove to be such a heavy news day.” Indeed, posted last Thursday, this article coincided with the release of the Senate report detailing the C.I.A. and its torture program.

In the piece, Cole’s interviewer, Susan Lehman, proceeds to ask what he thinks about the Times’s coverage of the report that day. And Cole proceeds to dissect it. He gives the headline a “B+,” for his perception of its mild language and avoidance of the word “torture.” He then evaluates the paper’s coverage of events in Nigeria. He advocates for replacements for [most of] the current Times’ op-ed writers. He likes, and consistently reads, the Arts section. He discloses that he’d really like to write for satiric news site The Onion.

The fact that I’m surprised by this interview, and by the existence of this Times feature, is perhaps a reflection of my recent distancing from the Times. When my family began receiving it several years ago, the paper—especially the Sunday paper—functioned as a world-opening for me, in the same way watching Italian existentialist films for the first time during a high-school summer program did. I was starting to develop a vocabulary for the things I was curious about as a young adult, and for that reason it felt important for me to chomp down articles on films (some Italian and existentialist) that would hit North Carolina theaters approximately three months after they did New York. (Then and now, I still read the Arts section much more frequently and deeply than I do others).

But now—and I think discovering the Twitter parody account “The Times is On It” resonated with me—I feel differently. I cringe when the Times’s travel reporters pounce on Durham’s “DIY District”; I grow suspicious of the paper’s complicity in developing “Brooklyn-esque” as international currency and category. I ogle at minimalist design and travelwear in T Magazine but feel as though I’m living in another world, from which such pricey minimalist world is unattainable. I guess that’s the point; but should a major national newspaper read like an escapist venture?

In Cole’s interview he mentions Margaret Sullivan’s “Public Editor” column, which I enjoy for similar reasons that I enjoy Cole’s interview: it represents critique as practice. In her column, Sullivan writes things like “How to Survive a Journalistic Disaster 101” (about the Rolling Stone/UVA sexual assault reportage fiasco, which I wrote about briefly last week) and “Pricey Doughnuts, Pricier Homes, Priced-Out Readers.” In the latter she addresses a common criticism from Times readers “who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.” (She goes on to say that fewer than one percent of front-page news articles deal with poverty). Her conclusion? The Times’s “lofty” coverage helps keep its traditional audiences intact while paving the way for the hard-hitting, perspective-broadening journalism on which the paper prides itself.

She and Cole (and I) would probably agree that there’s more road to be paved, and be paved conscientiously. But it’s columns like hers and interviews like Cole’s that keep me reading and writing about the news, which to me means thinking about the “news”—and particularly large mainstream news sources—as occupying a particularly odd place between institutions and individual people. This seems an apt reminder right now, when journalistic ethics feel particularly tenuous, and off-the-page human action is loud and unapologetically present. How to reconcile these spheres? I’d say part of it is bending the words of mainstream media to match the nuance of lived experience. It’s a tall order, but I’ll happily share the words of those who are trying.