Public editor Margaret Sullivan runs off with Mr. Peanut: We’re constantly puzzled by work we encounter in the New York Times.
Case in point: This morning, on the front page, a news report about Flight 370 started off like this:
FULLER AND BUCKLEY (3/15/14): A British satellite company has solved one crucial aspect of the mystery surrounding the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8, using a complex mathematical process to determine that it ended its journey in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean.We found that puzzling. If this method has never been used in this way before, why is the Times so sure that Immarsat is right?
Guided by a principle of physics called the Doppler effect, the company, Inmarsat, analyzed tiny shifts in the frequency of the plane’s signals to infer the plane’s flight path and likely final location. The method had never before been used to investigate an air disaster, officials said.
The first definitive news of the fate of the Boeing 777 jet brought heartbreak to the families of those on board as Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, announced on Monday that no one is believed to have survived the flight.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” a somber Mr. Najib said. “It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
We’re not saying the company’s wrong. How do they know it’s right?
What makes Fuller and Buckley so sure? The fact that the prime minister said it?
At no point did Fuller and Buckley feel the need to explain their definitive judgment. We’re simply supposed to take their word, and that of prime minister Razak, whose government has gotten about ten thousand other things wrong by now.
That reporting struck us as strange. But so it goes at the Times on a regular basis.
Still and all, the livin’ seems to easy at the Times. Public editor Margaret Sullivan made that clear this weekend.
Sullivan writes two columns per month for the Sunday Review. We’re not sure why she bothers.
Given the column she penned this week, it’s obvious that nothing of substance is wrong or imperfect at the Times. Wonderfully comical headline included, this is the way she started:
SULLIVAN (3/23/14): Trend-Spotting, With Wink at Mr. PeanutPoor Sullivan! It would be more fun to do her job were she better at satire! Possibly, she could write something as good as the “classic trend piece” she chose to discuss this week.
If only I were gifted at satire, or even its goofy little brother, parody. Those skills would sometimes make commenting on The Times's journalism so much more fun.
I could take on those Timesian headlines, front-loaded with prepositions, that the paper seems to love so well. (One from a few days ago: ''Amid Mayoral Missteps, Irish Eyes Are Rolling in New York City.'')
I could dream up elaborate new reasons to grant sources anonymity. (On that subject, one of concern to many readers, I recently started a new feature on my blog, ''AnonyWatch,'' to keep track of regrettable anonymous quotes in The Times.)
But most of all, I could write the definitive sendup of the classic New York Times trend piece. Maybe I could write something almost as good as the monocle story.
That’s right! With only two columns per month to dispense, Sullivan used this column to praise a piece about the monocle’s comeback. She quoted from the amusing piece, then discussed the playful commentary it occasioned.
Mr. Peanut made the headline! Here’s how her column ended:
SULLIVAN: With its large staff, great variety of sections and considerable resources, The Times has room on its diverse menu not only for coverage of world crises and global economic trends, but for lighter fare: book and restaurant reviews, theater coverage and, apparently, a full consideration of ironic eyewear.We agree—there was nothing wrong with the monocle story. But then, based on Sullivan’s topic selection, there’s nothing to worry about anywhere else in this famous newspaper.
While The Times's declarations of trends can sometimes seem self-serious, overblown and out-of-touch, they also can—at their best—provoke moments of recognition and lively conversation. And because they occasionally provide a full day's worth of hilarity, let's pray that they never go away.
By the way, I'm just back from biking to Bushwick. And I'm wondering: Has anyone noticed how many women are using lorgnette-handled opera glasses lately?
For what it’s worth: Journalists like Jack Shafer have long criticized the Times for its “classic trend stories.” But they have tended to focus on front-page trend stories which dream up non-existent trends, not on silly pointless fare inside the paper’s Style section.
We find the New York Times puzzling each day. Sullivan’s handling of Mr. Peanut is a small case in point.