On scattered occasions in the late-1970s I’d leaf through a copy of Penthouse, the late Bob Guccione’s successful competitor to Playboy—to which I subscribed—either at a friend’s place or purchasing it for a long train ride. It was tawdry, though innovative in the “mainstream” porn biz (public hair, full-frontal, vulva and anus pics), and unlike Hugh Hefner’s monthly, there wasn’t much to read (although a number of well-known writers, such as Studs Terkel, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal contributed, probably for the paycheck). It really was an “I buy it for the pictures” magazine.
One of the most popular Penthouse features was the “letters” section in which correspondents would relate “You might not believe this, but…” anecdotes of bizarre, rude, far-fetched and often entertaining descriptions of their sexual adventures. A little went a long way, but it was a draw for Penthouse’s immense number of readers, which peaked at around five million in the early-1980s. At that time, a common refrain among those in the journalism trade—at least those who even publicly acknowledged skin mags—was that some sub-editor at Penthouse was having a jolly old time making up these ribald entries. I’ve no idea if that’s true, or if the staff took turns cleaning up, so to speak, the ramblings of letter-writing exhibitionists, or a combination of both. It didn’t really matter.
I was reminded of Penthouse’s letters upon reading the most recent “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times, which falls under the purview of Kwame Anthony Appiah, who’s helmed that slot since 2016. The question of the week, from “April,” was widely ridiculed on Twitter, and, curious, I read the column, perhaps for the first time in three or four years.
April begins her question to Appiah with a recitation of how much she and her fiancé love children, piling it on thick by writing, “My fiancé was drawn to me because of how much he appreciated my talent with and love for children… We also have always been clear with each other that we would try to have biological children soon after getting married.”
Sounds fairly normal, but then April brings up her quandary.
“[W]e are both Generation Z, care deeply [as opposed to shallowly!] about the planet and painfully watch as scientists predict the earth will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the 2030s. Is it selfish to have children knowing full well that they will have to deal with a lower quality of life thanks to the climate crisis and its many cascading effects… We realize that a child’s very existence adds to our carbon footprint, but as parents we would do our best to foster an environmentally friendly household and try to teach our children how to navigate life sustainably. My fiancé says that because we are privileged as two working engineers in the United States, we can provide enough financial support to keep our children from feeling the brunt of the damage from climate change. Is it OK to use this privilege?”
The Ethicist gives April permission to have at least one child—who may be “part of the solution” to the climate crisis—a blessing that’s buried in four paragraphs of gobbledygook academic “word salad” that’s common to “experts.” This isn’t significant. (My wife and I have two children—and didn’t give a thought to the climate when they were born—but I’ve no beef with people who decide to forego parenting, since that’s their business, not mine.)
The real question to me, as an “ethicist” today on modern journalism, is if April’s letter was a prank on his/her/their part or whether it was just made up in the Times newsroom or in a Zoom chat. The query is so filled with jargon—“privilege,” “carbon footprint,” “cascading effects” of the “climate crisis,” and an “environmentally friendly household”—that I doubt its authenticity. It sounds like a less salacious version—unless you’re partial to “environment porn”—of those Penthouse letters so many years ago.
I’d guess my opinion will be brushed away by those who still believe “The Gray Lady” is “the paper of record” and wouldn’t stoop to such an unseemly level, although some do recall Jayson Blair and Judith Miller. There are precedents: in 1966, Clyde Haberman (now 78) was a stringer for the Times and fired by editor Abe Rosenthal for inserting a fictional prize in a list of City College of New York awards. Haberman migrated to the New York Post but the prodigal stringer returned to the Times in 1977 and has had a long and productive career at the paper. (His daughter Maggie, at the Times since early-2015, is now the famous one in the family, as the Times’ reporter/stenographer of every move Donald Trump makes, a lucrative windfall that she couldn’t have imagined in 2014.)
Anyway, returning to April and her ludicrous question for The Ethicist, I hope it was fake, for that would mean at least someone was having fun at the mirthless New York Times.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023