Reading last Sunday's New York Times, I noticed an announcement in the magazine of a new format, and that set me thinking about long-term changes in that venerable newspaper and how they reflected changes in our society as a whole. I decided to compare two Sunday editions: February 17, 1965--half a century ago--and February 15, 2015. I picked two weekly sections to compare: the magazine, where I had started, and the Sunday Review, formerly the News of the Week in Review. The results more than justified my expectations--and here they are.
The very first story in the magazine for February 17, 1965 was in the long run probably the most important: "The Berkeley Affair: Mr. Kerr vs Mr. Savio & Co." It was a long survey of the student rebellion that had begun at Berkeley in the preceding fall, led by Mario Savio, a young New Yorker and veteran of the Mississippi Summer, on the issue of the right of students to conduct political activities on campus.
The next story is historical: "A Japanese Remembers Iwo Jima," a battle well within the memory of any New York Times reader of 30 or older--the audience the Times was trying to reach. Then comes a piece from London, "Could Maudling Win for the Tories?" Harold Wilson's Labour Government had come into power a few months earlier by winning an election by the very narrowest of margins. Reginald Maudling was not the leader of the opposition Tory party: he was one of the two contenders to replace Sir Alec Douglas-Home, whom Wilson had edged out, and who was now stepping down. As it turned out, Maudling lost the leadership election to Edward Heath. The intraparty battles of opposition parties in Europe are no longer newsworthy in major American newspapers, unless, of course, some kind of sex scandal is involved.
The next piece is a kind of prescient counterpart to the Berkley one: "We are in Too Deep in Asia and Africa," by Senator Frank Church. This was, as we shall see in a moment, the week that the bombing or North Vietnam got started in earnest, and we easily forget that a substantial cohort of major political figures, including Senate Majority leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William Fulbright, opposed the war from the beginning, as did Church. Nowadays no major political figure in Washington is standing against the Administration's Middle Eastern adventures. Of course, this was only the beginning.
Russell Baker was the Times's resident humorist, a place that has been vacant for some time, and he contributed a mildly entertaining page on living in Washington, D.C., emphasizing how relatively simple and easy life was there, compared to New York or San Francisco. I too remember that well, and it is interesting that Washington remained so small just as the Great Society was being put into place. Ronnie Dugger, a distinguished Texas journalist, then added an article about two reporters from Moscow who reached his home in Austin, Texas, while covering President Johnson.
Summing up, the New York Times Magazine in 1965 was a place for long news feature stories, as well as long opinion pieces by politicians and opinion leaders. It assumed that its readers wanted new insights about world events, and tried to provide them. It also provided a few puzzles for entertainment, including the famous Sunday crossword, which of course survives today.
This last Sunday's magazine has a similar format--although it is
much shorter and has far, far fewer ads--but the subject matter of most
of its articles is quite different. It leads with "Feed Frenzy," an
account of how people have unwittingly ruined their lives with
indiscreet or somewhat offensive posts on social media that went
viral--truly a story for the age that we live in. The second story, a
very long one, deals with the relationship between a female Stanford
undergraduate and a local businessman in his late twenties--single--who
was designated as her mentor in a program linking the campus with local
businesses. They had an affair, which has degenerated into accusations
of sexual assault and rape, and the piece draws on numerous emails
between the two of them, between the woman and her best friend, and
between the best friend and the woman's mother. Such stories,
obviously, did not find their way into major newspapers in 1965. The
third article would have been at home in the magazine 50 years
ago--it deals with the attempt to hold Hezbollah accountable for the
assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon in 2005. Then, on
the next page, we find, "Fear of Flying: What our Paranoia about Drones
tell us;" a piece by "the ethicist" on the very complicated roommate
policies of a college; a brief interview with David Axelrod regarding
his new book on his life in politics; and a science piece on how
atmospheric microorganisms may affect the weather. There's also a piece
about measurements in recipes, and a piece by Calvin Trillin, who is
apparently in his late seventies, about haircuts in the 1950s,
culminating in a revelation that his local barber habitually copped a
feel of his customers genitals when he finished the haircut.
The change in the magazine's subject matter seems to me quite simple. The main subject in 1965 was world politics, not surprisingly, given the astonishing events--both tragic and heroic--that had taken place during the previous half-century. The subject matter today, for the most part, is the readership that the Times is trying to attract--well educated young adults. The articles focus on their lives, their problems, and their interactions with one another. And all that began, in my opinion, in the Berkeley rebellion that was the subject of the main story on February 17, 1965.I shall return to this later.
The second subject I looked at was The News of the Week in Review--now,
significantly, the Sunday Review. It was very long in those days, and
it is no exaggeration to describe it as a third news magazine,
comparable to Time and Newsweek, but without the
entertainment sections. The first two full pages were exactly what the
section's title promised, a summary of the major national and world news
stories of the week. Most of the first page is about the widening war in Vietnam--a day-by-day review of events of the past week. . The rest of it deals with the United States' balance of payments problems--it was very recent that our imports had begun to exceed our exports, and the US government was still committed to maintaining the dollar at a fixed value in terms of gold. The next page carrries an item about changes in the State Department, where Averell Harriman had been relieved as Undersecretary for Political Affairs. Then comes an account of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign for voting rights in Selma and King's meeting with Johnson, who promised voting rights legislation. (Bloody Sunday in Selma was another three weeks away, but coverage of the campaign was already intense.) Then came a long story about the election of the President of the United Steelworkers union, in which half a million members had defeated the incumbent, David J. MacDonald, with I. W. Abel. Another piece about a longshoreman's strike involving 60,000 workers. Organized labor had been a tremendous economic and political power for thirty years now, and the subject of continuous coverage.
The World , the next subhead.begins with a story about Egypt and Israel: "A cardinal aim of United State policy in the middle East has been to maintain the balance of arab-Israeli military stgrength in that intermittently troubled area of the world." (Times do indeed change!) Then follow stories on government cutbacks in the aircraft industry in Britain; riots in India about the use of Hindi throughout the country; and a UK ban on TV cigarette advertising, which says a similar ban in the US is not likely. (It came about six years later.) The New York Section begins with a story about a fatal air crash off Long Island, followed by a story about the new NY Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, becoming involved in a fight to determine the new legislative leadership.
The next page is taken up entirely with two articles on the foreign policy of Communist China, with particular focus on the Vietnam War and Chinese-Russian relations. 2/3 of the next page is a more extended discussion of Johnson's attack on the balance of Ppayments problem; the other third is about Harold Wilson's slim majority in London. Then comes most of a page on voting rights campaigns in the Deep South, with the other 1/3 devoted to a regular feature, "The News of the Week in Law." The following page features the News of the Week in Science, with items on measles vaccines and changing rabies treatments. And then came the News of the Week in Education.
On the op-ed page, James Reston leads with a piece on Vietnam, "The Undeclared and Unexplained War." C. L. Sulzberger follows with a column on France, West Germany, and European unity, and Russell Baker, citing stories of increased teacher assaults in NY schools and marijuana at Harvard, talks prophetically about the threats posed by the Boom generation, which he does not specifically identify, who are tasting too many of life's pleasures too fast. A page later Arthur Krock weighs in with another Vietnam column, and there is a sampler of editorial opinion from around the world. On p. 10 we have "Report from the Nation," with stories from Tennessee, Houston, California, Detroit, and Atlanta. And that's that.
The News of the Week in Review is now the Sunday Review, and it is even more unrecognizable than the magazine. It does not include, much less begin with, a summary of the week's news. Instead, the two articles on the front page deal, respectively, with the impact even of hiking through the wilderness on the environment, and the second, with the impact of "faceless" abuse on the internet. The story taking up half of page 2 is about what readers' online comments on news stories signify--a telling counterpart to the summary of recent news stories one found there fifty years ago. The opinion section begins on p. 3 with a harrowing guest contribution, "Did a Text Kill My Brother?", about a fatal auto accident apparently caused by the other driver's lapse of attention. Then regular op-ed columnist Frank Bruni has a column, "Too Much Prayer in Politics"--a sentiment with which I certainly agree, but which does not address contemporary news events. An op-chart on p. 4 analyzes nine particular egregious misstatements of fact by various politicians. Below that is an article about vaginal reconstruction, the latest procedure women are being encouraged to undergo to make themselves more attractive. (Contemporary feminists might ponder whether such a story represents progress for women over the last half century--and why or why not.) Then the author Susan Jacoby contribued a long piece on the massacres of Jews during the first Crusade in Europe (there is nothing in the Sunday review about the massacres going on in various parts of the world right now), and another guest contributor argues that "Vitamins Hide the Low Quality of Our Food." On p. 6, there's an autobiographical piece about writer's block. Page 8 features a man-to-man letter, "To a Friend, On His Divorce." On p. 9 we find a feature by a beekeeper about beekeeping.
The op-ed page features three regulars: Maureen Dowd, who wrote about David Brock and infighting among Hillary Clinton's campaign team; Nicholas Kristof, with a typical piece about "Unpaid, Unarmed Lifesavers in Syria;" and Ross Douthat, about the film Fifty Shades of Grey. (Full disclosure: I saw it myself last night and while no masterpiece, it was much better than expected and featured a brilliant performance by Dakota Johnson.) The back page summarizes a study showing that even those who should no better accept misstatements of facts in movies as the truth, and an article about how a boy with a troubled childhood (the author) found refuge in skateboarding.
Now battles were building up in the Congress during the preceding week over immigration, and the Republicans seemed likely to shut down the Department of Homeland Security. An actual war between sovereign nations (albeit fought in part by proxy) is happening on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and a new revolutionary movement, ISIS, has seized substantial portions of Syria and the Middle East. A change of government in Greece has re-ignited the Greek debt crisis. Fifty years ago the French and German governments' discussions on European unity figured in the News of the Week in Review; this year the Sunday Review ignores those same governments' attempts to arrange a cease-fire in Ukraine. And so on. It was no accident, obviously, that the word "news" was dropped from the title of the Sunday review. My wife recently heard an interview with the administrator of a website, who referred to hard news as the "vegetables" of the information menu nowadays, the thing people didn't really want to eat, but thought they had to. I suspect that the MBAs who now run the world have convinced the Times management of something similar.
I chose this date almost randomly, but incredibly and coincidentally, the Times magazine of half a century ago documented the beginnings of the changes that would lead us to where we are. They can be found in A. H. Raskin's remarkable piece about the Berkeley student revolt, from which I cannot resist quoting some passages.
"The Berkeley mutineers did not seem political In the sense of those student rebels in the turbulent Thirties; they are too suspicious of all adult institutions to embrace wholeheartedly even those ideologies with a stake in smashing the system. An anarchist or LW.W. strain seems as pronounced as any Marxist doctrne. . .
"The proudly immoderate zealots of the F.S.M. [Free Speech Movement] pursue an activist creed -that only commitment can strip life of its emptiness, its absence of meaning in a great "knowledge factory" like Berkeley. That is the explanation for their conviction that the methods of civil disobedience, in violation of law, are as appropriate in the civilized atmosphere of the campus as they are in the primordial jungle of Mississippi. It was an imaginative strategy that led to an unimaginable chain of events.
"The cutoff in political recruitment [this refers to the ban on recruiting tables for local political action that triggered the first demonstrations] confirmed a conviction already held by some of the students that bankers, industrialists, publishers and other leaders of the Establishment in the Board of Regents were making a concentration camp out of the the "multiversity''--a term coined by [Berkeley Chancellor Clark] Kerr in a series of .lectmes at Harvard nearly two years ago to describe the transformation of a modem university, like Cal, into a vast techno-educational complex.
This conviction was not diminished by the extreme freedom the university has long allowed
students to express their own political views. how ever unorthodox, at "Hyde Park" areas
inside the cam pus. Even during the ban on the use of campus property for organizing off-campus political action, students retained their hberty to invite Communists, Nazis or Black Muslims to address meetings at the university. They also could-and often did-agitate for the right to smoke mari juana, to be able to buy contraceptives at the University Bookstore or for other far-out [sic] objectives.
"If Clark Kerr is the high priest of the multi versity, social ·critic Paul Goodman is its Amtichrist and thus beloved of the F.S.M. The opening theme of an F.S.H. pamphlet is a declaration by Goodman that in the United States today, 'students-mid dle--class youth-are the major exploited class. • • • They have no choice but to go to college.' Rejecting their role as factory workers on an academic assembly line. the F.S.M. demands a humanized campus. a 'loving community' based on comradeship and purpose. 'We must now begin the demand of the right to know; to know the realities of the present world - in- revolution, and to have an opportunity to think cleariy in an extended manner about the world," says the F.S.M. credo. It is ours to demand meaning; we must insist upon meaning!'
Towards the end of his piece, Raskin questioned how far the protest could go:
"And who is listening, now that the clear-cut issue created by the closing of the Bancroft Strip and the blackout of po litical recruiting has been resolved? The signs are that the overwhelming support for F.S.M. aims among students of all political hues and of no hues has evaporated along with the issue."
"One of the imponderables in trying to guess whether peace ha.s really come to the campus Is that some F.S.M. activists obviously have developed a vested interest in find ing things to fight about. They seem to operate on the theory that, in a. system they believe Is basically corrupt, the worse things get, the easier it will be to generate mass resistance."
"The reckless prodigality with which the F.S.M:. uses the weapon of civil diSobedience raises problems no university can deal with adequately. Harsh discipline carries the danger of martyrdom and a spread of sympathetic disorders to other campuses."
The events that would trigger the further spread of civil disobedience, disciplinary reaction and protest were the subject not only of Frank Church's article in the same magazine, but of the lead paragraphs of the News of the Week in Review: the beginnings of the escalation of the Vietnam War. Thus did the older generation confirm the worst fears and anxieties of their children, eventually convincing them that yes, meaning could be found only in their own thoughts and feelings, and not in the political, intellectual or journalistic legacy of the past. That generation has been in charge for about 25 years now, and the results are all around us.
Let us be fair: the front page (although now only six columns instead of eight) and the front section of the Times today is relatively similar to that of fifty years ago. It is for those that I get home delivery every day and plan to do so until either I or the paper Times finally expires. But in a failing effort to attract new generations of readers, the Times, it seems to me, has abandoned most of its educational role. Both the magazine and the Sunday Review are about the readers they want to attract--their lives, their fashions, their hopes. The readers of 1965 seemed to understand, bless their hearts, that their private lives were their own business. But the Berkeley undergraduates wanted the wider world to take their thoughts and feelings more seriously. No one in 1965 could possibly have imagined the scale of their eventual triumph.