This week, upon the recommendation of a pushy but pleasant bookstore worker, I picked up journalist Chris Lehmann’s 2010 text, Rich People Things: Real Life Secrets of the Predator Class (if you’re looking for a book to throw in your beach bag this weekend, I recommend doing the same).
In it, Lehmann enumerates the institutions, individuals, and ideas that he believes the super-rich--conservative, liberal, and everything in between--have created or hijacked in order to maintain their stronghold on the country’s most valuable assets. The list is more surprising than one might think, and no matter what your political affiliation, Lehmann is bound to challenge it with his exhaustive list and pull-no-punches writing.
I was punched right from the get-go when I found the New York Times as number two on his list, right after the U.S. Constitution. The attack seemed almost personal: the Times has framed my interaction with almost every major news story since I can remember and nary an hour goes by where I don't check the homepage.
Nevertheless, Lehmann's essay argues that with the ever-shrinking audience for daily newspapers, the Times has purposely catered to the target audience that advertisers are the most interested in: the super-rich themselves. Lehmann finds evidence in the sonorous, condescending coverage of the “working class” that almost always cite a “culture of poverty” for the economic situation of the poor, rather than fiscal and social policy, along with “adoring profiles of executives since exposed as all-purpose brigands.” He even went after the section that--okay, I’ll admit it--I flip to excitedly every Thursday and Sunday: the Styles section.
I was unconvinced.
Until yesterday, someone tossed the Thursday Styles section, asking me if I had heard of the Brant brothers, ages 15 and 18.
If you haven’t, there’s probably a reason why: “The brothers seem well on their way to transitioning from Internet to general fame--all for just being...well, fabulous.”
Fabulous they may be, but fabulous does not an interesting and subversive profile make. Offspring of art collector Peter Brant and model Stephanie Seymour, the boys dress fashionably, attend incredible parties, and Tweet reflexively. Gawker published a hilarious and scathing line-by-line take down of the article and its subjects, hastily pointing out that it’s clearly not the boys' fault that the Times chose to go in the direction that they did. The article does illustrate a larger point about our paper of record though: what is it that they value, and what stories do they want their audience to value?
“Society” has come to refer to any host of dynamic movers and shakers. No longer is fame and prestige confined to a small, dynastic group, and so it’s troubling to see the Times make this editorial decision. Footnoting the Hilton sisters, the article justifies the Brants’ fame as birthright. The title of the article even employs dynastic language: “The Brant Brothers, the New Princes of the City.” The boys’ career aspirations are treated as afterthoughts, perhaps because they are, indeed, afterthoughts to these two young men.
There are the obvious points--the media is obsessed with celebrity children, the American public is obsessed with celebrity, everybody is obsessed with wealth--and the sociological reasons behind them can be teased out by someone more qualified than me. But thumbing through this article and the accompanying photographs, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment that the Times had so thoroughly confirmed Lehmann’s charges that I had tried to resist all week. It's very, very likely that this is only news to me--charges of liberal media elitism are a dime-a-dozen in today’s political world, and many of them are directed at the Times--but I found the Brant story a shockingly accurate case-and-point. Often in indulgent, somewhat elitist Times pieces, there is at least an introduction of opposing views. Here, not so. This profile would have been excellent and entertaining fodder for any host of periodicals and websites, but in the Times, its presence speaks volumes about their desired audience.
These young men are 15 and 18 years old. They very well could forgo the privilege and luxury that they were born into and prove themselves to be innovative and interesting people, irrespective of their birthright. And when they do, I’ll want to read about it in the Times--but not until then.