Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Collateral Damage

[These remarks follow yesterday’s about the New York Times story of the marriage of Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla.]

As you may recall, many bloggers found the Times derelict for not interviewing the jilted ex-spouses of the happy couple.

Now, Jeff Bercovici of Forbes has inteviewed Carol Anne Riddell’s jilted ex-husband, Robert Ennis. Link here.

Whatever we all think about the different issues that have come into play by this indiscreet disclosure, Ennis has a right to be heard on the matter. After all, his reputation and his children are directly affected.

As many have suspected, Ennis explains that he was not: “contacted or interviewed or given any opportunity to opine on any of it, including having my seven-year-old daughter’s picture in the paper.”

To his mind, Riddell and Partilla chose to “celebrate” their nuptials and glorify their love story in the Times because they wanted to “whitewash”  their bad behavior.

Ennis does not reproach the paper for not fact-checking a style story, but he believes that what they published was: “a choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history for two people who are both members of the media industry.”

Nearly all of the love stories that are given prominence in the Weddings section have a requisite quota of charm. And some of them are slightly irregular. Which is perfectly fair. Life is sometimes messy.

While I am not an aficionado of this section, I would venture that these stories never involve multiple public humiliations.

Until the story ran, Riddell and Partilla were suffering their own kind of humiliation. As the Times reported, their actions had provoked family and community condemnation.

So, they seem to have decided to go public in order to salvage their reputations, as though they are saying: how can all of you people think ill of us; all we did was fall madly in love.

If memory serves, that was exactly Woody Allen's reasoning when he tried to explain how he managed to have a cache of pornographic polaroids of his son’s adoptive half-sister.

Of course, Robert Ennis is most appalled by the way his daughter was used, in the Times photo, to legitimize bad behavior: “You could easily try to brush this off as a ... a self-serving act by a couple of narcissistic people who for whatever reason have a need to try to persuade people, except for the fact that there are lots of children involved.”

Then he adds: “These folks are well within their rights to tell whatever version of reality they want to tell, and if The New York Times is gullible enough to print it, that mostly reflects poorly on the Times…. The picture of my daughter is another matter. I sure as hell would have objected if they had told me they were going to print it.”

Ennis lets us know that this great modern love story has produced considerable collateral damage. Despite what the poets say, love does not conquer all. Character counts, and ultimately it is the deciding factor in relationships.

Riddell and Partilla seem to have acted foolishly. Having become aware of the collateral damage, they seem to have decided to throw a Hail Mary pass by telling their story to the Times.

But, should we follow Ennis in blaming the Times? I have received several emails arguing that it is really not fair to blame the newspaper. They are just trying to provoke a public reaction and to draw attention to their website. The Times is in the business of attracting readers to its newspaper, and, as they say, all is fair….

I consider it a reasonable point and I am cognizant of the fact that a newspaper is a business that must generate profits to survive.

When it comes to profitability, the New York Times, as everyone knows, has not exactly been a roaring success.

If the editors at the Times had decided to play the Riddell/Partilla love story for profits because it would freak out the blogosphere, that is their right.

And yet, it is well enough known by now that the Times has long since sacrificed objectivity to pursue its own political agenda.

The Times printed dozens of reports about Abu Ghraib because it would embarrass the Bush administration.

When John McCain was running for president, it published a hit piece about his supposed mistress.

How many Jewish New Yorkers have stopped reading the Times because they feel that its coverage is slanted against Israel?

Robert Ennis joins no less than Noam Chomsky in expressing distrust over the Times' objectivity.

Fewer and fewer people read the Times because they do not trust it to report the news objectively. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they are the Times readership and no business succeeds for very long by disrespecting its customers.

I would also add that the Times has been hurt by the growth of the internet, which has made the news widely available for free. And it has also been hurt by the financial crisis.

Obviously, the owners of the Times have every right to risk their reputation by taking down the wall between news reporting and analysis.

It isn’t for me to decide whether that is a good or a bad business plan.

If the strategy attracts more readers and more profits, it is a good thing for them.

But, since the Times is a business, the final verdict will be delivered by the marketplace. As of the past several years, the Times has been closer to bankrupt than it has been to thriving.

So, let’s say that the Times published the Riddell/Partilla love story because it wanted to gin up internet traffic, to get quoted on Gawker and Jezebel and DoubleX. It was trying to make the paper into the news.

At a time when information is readily available at the touch of a mouse click, it makes perfectly good sense for news outlets to make themselves into the news. Then, they become the place were people have to go to follow the story.

Again, it is within the Times'  right to do so.

Was it a sound business decision? That will depend on how much the paper has alienated people who have a certain expectation about what they are going to read on the Weddings page.

Personally, I felt that the story was vulgar and tasteless, but I do not subscribe to the paper and do not read the Weddings and Vows section anyway.

I was certainly interested to see how many Times readers saw the story as I did. To my knowledge, no other wedding announcement in the Times has ever had a comments section. And I doubt that the editors of the Times were thrilled to see how much hostility they had provoked.

Many faithful and loyal Times readers felt that the paper had defiled something that they considered to be sacred and solemn. You are not going to get rich by offending your readers and your customers.

All of this being true, is it fair to say that the Times was also trying to promote a cultural agenda. If so, what is that agenda?

Surely, the paper has an editorial position on the definition of marriage. I would say that it agrees with the trendy definition, whereby marriage is an expression of the deep personal affection that two people have for each other.

And that it believes that there is something of a moral imperative-- I would call it an amoral imperative-- to express your feelings by living your love.

Would any culturally correct thinker dare suggest that this couple repress their feelings and their urges? Yesterday, I quoted Emily Yoffe's advice to Carol Anne and John in yesterday's post, but I daresay that her more subtle explanation of the alternative courses of action would not have appealed to people whose culture prescribes the full and open expression, to say nothing of, sharing of emotion.

But if marriage is just about two people expressing their feelings and living their love, then any two people who fall in love ought to have every right to get married. Human institutions are nothing compared with the amoral imperative to live your love. If the Times would not see gender as relevant to who does or does not marry, why should it see their marital status as an impediment?

After all, Riddell and Partilla were just following their bliss. I suspect that they were shocked when they discovered that their friends and family did not worship them for doing so. They seem to have decided to appeal to the ultimate New York arbiter of cultural values: the New York Times.

Surely, they felt that with the imprimatur and support of the Times they would shame their friends and family into embracing them as a happy loving couple.

Apparently, they miscalculated.


Cappy said...

Maybe the Times wanted to be edgy for the sake of being edgy.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It's certainly possible and plausible. I'm sure that they thought that edgy would drive internet traffic.

Still, they should have given the matter a little more thought, as the newlyweds should also have.