Timesday: Old times there are now forgotten!


Trend story/Times-in-the-South: The New York Times has long been mocked for its inane, unfounded “trend stories.” Jack Shafer did a million such pieces in his time at Slate.

This morning, the famous paper may have presented the most absurd such effort in its storied history.

“Southern Charm Is Alive, but Ailing.” So Times readers are told today, in a tease beneath a photo out on the paper’s front page.

The photo shows several couples dancing. Everyone seems to be twelve years old. The girls are all wearing white gloves.

The potential for dumbness is apparent in the front-page photograph’s caption: “Students in Augusta, Ga., learn ballroom dancing, but others lament lapses in civility.”

Eagerly, we turned to page A16, just as the caption directed.

Is this the dumbest “trend story” the Times has ever produced? “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline,” the on-line headline says.

Manners are slipping in this whole region? We were eager to see how the Times was able to document this latest trend! Of course, since the Times was talking about “those people”—those people, the ones who live in “that region”—the rules of the game were clear. Kim Severson’s analysis of the region’s manners had to start with an odd racial hook:
SEVERSON (11/2/11): One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them.

A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.

Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.

The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.

After a week’s worth of testimony in September, a jury decided in favor of the bar.

Certainly, the owners conceded, filling the bar with women offers an economic advantage because it attracts more men. But in the South, they said, giving up a seat to a lady is also part of a culture of civility.
Did the men sue the bar for the three million bucks? Or did the bar sure the men? Whatever! In fairness, this opening hook was a bit odd for the Times-in-the-South, since it wasn’t abundantly clear that “those people” were committing an outrage against the presumptive good people.

Severson had found a slightly odd way to begin her tale of a region’s decline. But as she continued, she let Times readers know that hers was a scholarly effort:
SEVERSON (continuing directly): At least, it used to be. The Tavern at Phipps case, and a growing portfolio of examples of personal and political behavior that belies a traditional code of gentility, have scholars of Southern culture and Southerners themselves wondering if civility in the South is dead, or at least wounded.

“Manners are one of many things that are central to a Southerner’s identity, but they are not primary anymore. Things have eroded,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, a professor of history and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi.
"Things have eroded!" And you knew it just had to be true. You see, a professor of history and Southern culture was telling us this tale!

Times readers must always be told that what they are reading is highly intelligent—a bit of a cut above. In this case, Times readers were told that they would be reading about the musings of “scholars.” But who could possibly believe the claim which made for Severson’s hook? Does the Tavern at Phipps case really have scholars of Southern culture wondering if civility in the South is dead?

Even professors can’t be that witless! Just a guess: If you can believe the improbable claim around which Severson builds her story, the New York Times has a twelve-week subscription it’s willing to sell at half price!

Manners in the South are eroding! As she pretends to document this claim, Severson treats New York Times readers to some of the silliest work ever seen in this silliest newspaper. Before long, she's leaning on the greatest crutch known to the writer of trend stories. Severson is letting us know what “some say” about this vast trend:
SEVERSON: Some say the South’s great cities seem to be losing civility faster than country communities, where stopping to ask for directions can still end in an invitation to supper.

Too many outsiders trying to escape the pressures of life in bigger cities have migrated to Atlanta and Birmingham, said Saahara Glaude, a media specialist whose clients include some members of the Martin Luther King Jr. family.

As a result, reliable affinities once based on race or religion are gone. “It used to be that an African-American could trust an African-American down here,” she said. “Those days are long gone.”
Some say it’s worse in the cities! And blacks can’t trust blacks in the South any more! We know that because one person said!

In the future, on-line dictionaries will link to this piece in their entry for “anecdotal.” Consider the strength of the evidence provided to Times readers here:
SEVERSON: Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Too demeaning, they say.

But she and others point out that manners are on the slide everywhere. Mrs. Mason blames a faster pace of life and the demise of the home-cooked family meal.
It isn’t just in the second grade! Manners are on the slide everywhere! And yes, we do mean everywhere. Once again, we know that what follows is true because one person said it:
SEVERSON: Civility is also waning at that most civil of events, the Southern wedding. How comfortable a bride made guests feel was once the mark of a successful event. Now, weddings are more selfish affairs, said Barbara S. Clark, the owner of An Elegant Affair in Raleigh, N.C., and a graduate of the Emily Post Institute.

“It’s more about the bride and groom and what are we going to get out of it,” she said.
“Life in Charlotte is not as pleasant as it once was,” we’re later stupidly told. As evidence, we’re told that, although the city's crime rate has dropped, some people got arrested at a NASCAR event. And this happened just six months ago!

This sort of nonsense goes on and on. This has to be one of the dumbest reports ever put in print, even by the Times. On the plus side, self-impressed subscribers get treated to a real easy-reader, served to them under the guise of scholarly inquisition. By now, though, you’re probably asking a question:

What about those scrub-faced kids at that ballroom dancing class? Aren’t they at least learning good manners? And that’s a question we asked ourselves as we plowed through Severson’s nonsense.

Severson’s story gets major play in the Times. It’s the featured report in the newspaper’s “National” section. And those white-gloved kids are smeared all over the paper. They’re shown in that photograph out on page one—and they’re shown in three more photos inside the paper, including a large, color photo at the top of the “National” page.

(You can see all the photos in this slide show. The slide show carries a comical title: "Civility on the Brink.")

Photos of those kids are everywhere. But Severson plows on and on, talking about lawsuits in bars, greedy brides and second-graders who won’t-say-ma’am, without citing the scrub-faced kids who litter the paper. Until we hit paragraph 37, out of 41 total:
SEVERSON: Keepers of Southern civility maintain that manners will always be a defining characteristic of the region.

One of them is Dorothy McLeod, 70, of Augusta, Ga., who has spent decades teaching thousands of children ballroom dance and etiquette through her program, Social Inc.

Mrs. McLeod attributes the slide of civility on the stress of families with two working parents and children who have not been held accountable for their actions.

But she is undaunted.

“I will not give up,” she said, firm in her belief that Southerners still want to raise children who are kind and well-mannered.

“They must,” she said, “or my classes wouldn’t be full.”
McLeod, the last of Augusta's Mohicans, simply refuses to throw in the towel. With that, we get a happy ending to a big bag of post-journo fail.

Presumably, no one was “hurt” by this big bag of dumb—by this most absurd of all trend stories. Sure, the nation’s IQ may have dropped a few points. But somehow, we’ll struggle forward.

But your nation’s top paper is just dead-dog dumb. We couldn’t help observing this fact as we leafed through this morning’s edition. And a modern nation really can’t function if its “elites” are this dumb.

Coming in today’s other posts: Several more big bags of dumb


  1. Let's hear it for the Southern Civility of old.

    I know the Freedom Riders appreciated it, as the yes-ma'am-ers were taking clubs to their heads and throwing bombs into their buses.

  2. My favorite quote:

    "Too many outsiders trying to escape the pressures of life in bigger cities have migrated to Atlanta and Birmingham, said Saahara Glaude, a media specialist whose clients include some members of the Martin Luther King Jr. family."

    Have these people ever been to Atlanta? It's the friggin' tenth largest metro area in the U.S. with over 5 million people! Not exactly the place to go to avoid the "pressures of life in bigger cities." Jeesh.

  3. This Times piece seemed to have been beamed down from another planet, or the reporter seemed to be from one, but I think it might have arisen out of someone hearing someone say something about someone not being so nice to someone down there, where, you know, they were always so genteel and polite, even when some people were getting hanged from trees or tossed into rivers with car engines strapped to them and so on and so forth, and, well, you know, now some dar...er, people refused to give up seats to some...well, you know. You know you know. Or something, tsk tsk!

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