Monday, May 25, 2015

The New York Times has a class problem -- "Poor Little Rich Women"

Actually, it's not just a NYT problem -- it extends throughout the media -- but it has gotten particularly embarrassing with what is supposed to be our best paper. The NYT has always identified with the upper classes ("It does not soil the breakfast cloth") but recently it has come to focus on and empathize with the one percent to such a degree that the identification is distorting its journalistic judgement.

We've seen irony-free articles about how hard it is getting by on 300K and op-eds on how unfair it is when wealthy students at top prep schools have to settle for safety schools because their SATs are too low.

And now the New York elite have their own personal anthropologist in Wednesday Martin:
A social researcher works where she lands and resists the notion that any group is inherently more or less worthy of study than another. I stuck to the facts. The women I met, mainly at playgrounds, play groups and the nursery schools where I took my sons, were mostly 30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities and business schools. They were married to rich, powerful men, many of whom ran hedge or private equity funds; they often had three or four children under the age of 10; they lived west of Lexington Avenue, north of 63rd Street and south of 94th Street; and they did not work outside the home.

Instead they toiled in what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” exhaustively enriching their children’s lives by virtually every measure, then advocating for them anxiously and sometimes ruthlessly in the linked high-stakes games of social jockeying and school admissions.

Their self-care was no less zealous or competitive. No ponytails or mom jeans here: they exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were. Many ran their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my background in anthropology might help me figure it all out, and that this elite tribe and its practices made for a fascinating story.
Martin's observations are "fascinating" only if you start with a strong proclivity to find the lives of the New York elite interesting and important. For the rest of us, there is little here that is notable or even all that surprising.

For example, you would expect a great deal of time and money to be spent on maintaining personal appearance given the wealth and leisure, the-see-and-be-seen culture, and, to be blunt, the fact that some of these women are married to rich older men who demanded highly restrictive prenups and who have shown no compunction about dumping spouses.

Nor does the explicit and rather cold-blooded talk of wife bonuses come as a shock to anyone. Given the culture of the industries that produce the elite of New York, it would be rather strange if the language of these industries did not make it into day-to-day life.

Martin clearly wants to imbue her subjects with an importance and dignity not shared by the millions of other stay-at-home spouses around the country. This, along with other embarrassing traits of New York Times journalism, is beautifully illustrated when she talks about her subjects as "CEOs" of households.

Anyone who follows financial reporting will have encountered the big swinging check syndrome: a questionable or downright bad business decision will be lauded as bold and brilliant because it involves a stunning amount of money. In this article, the fact that these spouses are managing household with large budgets is seen, in and of itself, as an accomplishment. (The real accomplishment is doing the opposite.) Adding to the embarrassment, all of this comes on the heels of a slue of stories about well-to-do New Yorkers who are comically bad at household finance.

As mentioned before, this is an ongoing concern. It's not just that the press tends to see the world from an increasingly homogeneous lens -- top quartile, Ivy League, Northeastern, largely white -- but that the press does not realize how different the world looks to the rest of us.

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