Politics & Media
Jun 12, 2009, 09:04AM

Graydon Carter's Fantasy World

Vanity Fair’s editor tells daily newspapers to stop bitching and get back to work.

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I’ve met and conversed with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter many times over the years—in 1987, for example, when his Spy magazine was the toast of Manhattan, he was kind enough to buy me lunch and offer suggestions on my then-embryonic plans to launch a competitor to the Village Voice—and think he’s a grand fellow. Once, at a book party sponsored by VF for a writer who shall remain nameless, Carter whispered in my ear, “My God, isn’t he a bore! Let’s go somewhere and have a smoke.”

Nevertheless, Carter deserves a trip to the woodshed for his wacky, almost nonsensical, Editor’s Letter in July’s issue of his magazine, headlined “The Paper Chase.” The column begins on solid ground, rebuking all the chin-scratching and moaning in daily newspapers today about the print industry’s dismal condition, as if readers (those that are left, at least) don’t have problems aplenty themselves in maneuvering through this protracted and vicious recession. Carter says, “It’s no wonder readership is down,” which is hyperbole, of course, but his complaint is, I suppose, plausible.

The bulk of Carter’s words are devoted to praising London’s excellent broadsheet The Telegraph for its triumphant investigative series of stories about the expense report scandal in Britain’s Parliament, which has rocked that institution. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Labour Party’s dead duck, must’ve considered moving to the Congo after The Telegraph’s cataloguing of financial malfeasance dominated the news this spring. So, the longtime VF editor and gossip-magnet is on the mark there, too.

But it’s the window-dressing and conclusions that Carter draws from The Telegraph’s success that are, if not necessarily daft, amazingly out of touch. In a pro forma remark, Carter repeats the mantra that the “health and vigor” of newspapers is vital to the country’s well-being, if only to keep “a watchful eye on corrupt politicians and venal corporate overlords.” I’m sure that the dwindling number of employees at the Tribune Co., publisher of The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, among other properties, would nod heartily at Carter’s “venal corporate overlords” dig, if they weren’t too busy looking for work elsewhere to read Vanity Fair.

And this doozy: “I would also hope you feel that the loss or even weakening of the nation’s principal daily, The New York Times, would mark an end to life as we know it.” I’ve read the Times every day for most of my life—starting at the age of seven or so—but in the past year that frequency has diminished dramatically, and frankly, I’m no worse for wear, let alone having a life-altering experience. Carter says that “youthing” down a serious daily to attract young readers isn’t the answer, and that’s certainly true. However, when he writes that, “[T]he only way you’re ever going to get the average 21-year-old to read a daily newspaper is to wait 9 years until he’s 30,” it’s clear that Carter is living in an isolated world. Put simply, if someone isn’t reading a daily at 21, he or she sure won’t develop the habit at 30; let alone the brutal fact that in 2018 daily newspapers, those that are left, will be niche, rather than mass, products.

Carter believes that dailies can solve their problems by emulating The Telegraph’s exhaustive, expensive and time-consuming investigation of the political scandal that paper uncovered. Unfortunately, at least for the media, such an explosive story can’t be conjured up with the wave of a wand: in the United States, at least, explosive stories such as Watergate, Iran-Contra and Enron, are notable exceptions to the routine reporting of day-to-day activities in the world, nation or local community.

But Carter, who doesn’t once mention that glossy magazines, including those in the Conde Nast stable that includes VF, are no longer minting money, is undeterred in dispensing pointers to beleaguered reporters and publishers. His go-get-‘em guys! slap on the back: “My suggestion to newspapers everywhere is to give the public a reason to read them again. So here’s an idea: get on a big story with widespread public appeal, devote your best resources to it, say a quiet prayer, and swing for the fences.”

It could be that Carter himself doesn’t read, whether out of self-denial or indifference, the volume of stories about the demise of print media, for if he did, he’d know that the “fences” have been moved about a mile further, and no amount of praying will ever bring them closer.

  • Bull's eye on the Graydon Carter piece! A magnificent show of how a man's excess remove from reality undermines his grip on same. Carter could use a good walk among the regular folk for just a few hours before he loses his credibility altogether....

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  • @ramseyflynn: Graydon had credibility once? Great piece, Russ!

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  • Well said. His idealism could itself be called "youthful" if it weren't beyond out of touch. And as a UK resident, let me just say that a story like the MP expense scandal, paired with Brown's audacious self-destruction, comes along maybe less than once in a lifetime. Britain has a far stronger newspaper culture anyway, but this story has incredible legs that has to be selling a record number of papers. I thought Monica-gate and the last 2 years of the Bush administration were crazy, but this scandal is a whole new level of weird.

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  • mpoland: when do you think Brown will either step down or face the voters? You're right about Britain's newspaper, and reading culture, and I wonder what it was like when the Profumo scandal broke. But I don't think anything compared to Watergate--at least in the last half century--for an almost daily running soap opera/political thriller that was better than any book or movie at the time.

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  • You know, things have been a little quieter this week, but Brown had the worst week ever last week (having gotten rather close to rock bottom before the expenses scandal even hit). But bless his heart, he must still think he's the man for the job, and the back benchers haven't mounted a strong enough offense yet, or really spun the dreadful European Parliament election numbers to their advantage. Brown responds to looking bad in the press, and I don't think he's looked bad enough this week for things to go further south. But that's the shocking thing, that it's been a death march since well before the expenses scandal even started.

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  • I agree, Russ, Graydon Carter is off.The powerful tide running against actual paper newspapers, compared to fresh, ever-updating internet news, is that newspapers are perceived by former and never-to-be readers as too static, almost historical in nature.The investigative work product done by, say, crack NY Times reporters will be on the internet two seconds after publication so many wonder why waste two bucks on a physical, unchanging product (until the next issue 24 hours later). Carter's VF presents relatively time non-sensitive articles, usually well-written and enhanced with attractive photos. His product is fairly immune to internet incursion for now but that doesn't qualify him as the oracle on the newspaper medium.

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