In his legendary torture-chamber staff meetings, Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times during the seventies and eighties, liked to say that he couldn’t imagine a world without the Times. On one level, the mantra was a perfect expression of a Timesman’s overweening moral vanity, that cloying certainty that West 43rd Street was the center of the universe. And at that point, the statement was more or less true. What could possibly bring low the Times, with its benevolent dictators, the Sulzbergers, its ancient religion of truth-telling, and its bushy-haired armies of Ivy grads fanning out over the globe? For all its arrogance, the Times supplied a picture of the world that was—and still is—indispensible.
Lately, however, the empire has seemed to teeter. Watching the various scandals at the Times is like seeing your dad on a psychotherapist’s couch. It’s a riveting spectacle, seeing those imperfect and even sociopathic personages emerge from the gray pages to strut their hour. And the paper’s Hamlet-like hand-wringing over its own ethics (something that doesn’t seem to have gone on in many other quarters lately) is a definitionally neurotic drama—The Front Page as if scripted by Larry David. But watching the Times struggle can’t help but make one queasy.
Meanwhile, there’s an administration that has boasted of its ability to create its own reality, letting the facts follow. In the face of this, the Times has become the most important institution of the reality-based community. Frank Rich’s passionate, bitter Sunday sermons come to mind—essential, connect-the-dots counter-narratives, putting Bush-administration fictions in their factual context. Whatever its lacunae, its occasional clumsiness in pursuit of its goals, the Times does a better job of seeing the world in three dimensions than any other news organization. At a moment when it’s more difficult than ever to believe that West 43rd is the hub around which the world turns, the paper’s work has never been more necessary. As another former Timesman said, it’s the only New York Times we have.
In this city, The Villager uncovers what really matters: an endless series of devious secret plans by the city and developers to undermine . . . well, pretty much everything. “We broke open the story about the backroom plans to change Washington Square Park,” says the weekly’s publisher and editor, John Sutter, 56. The renovations, which include moving the fountain to align it with the arch, is a “Pandora’s box,” he adds. “There are people who want to throw themselves in front of the bulldozers.” And his paper is right in the middle of it: Keeping the fountain where it’s always been is to The Villager what exposing Iraqi prisoner abuse is to the Times. It’s already helped get the city to roll back a nightly park curfew, and led the successful crusade to retain the asphalt play-mounds. “People grew up skiing on them,” he says. “In a city that’s been flattened, it’s the hills!” The Villager is the paper of record for such energetic crankitude (after all, Sutter hired Ed Koch to review movies). There’s a version of “Page Six,” “Scoopy’s Notebook,” and a letters page that gives every nut job his moment in the sun. But its letters also reveal the paper’s real importance as a forum for microdemocracy, with rants about the “landlord class” and worries about the safety of smaller pups if the dog run stopped being grouped by size. For all these reasons, The Villager does a good job on its beat: It breaks news. “There are hundreds of block associations downtown that are constantly feeding us information,” Sutter says. “If The Village Voice does a local story, it’s hit and run. The Times might cover it a couple of times in the ‘City’ section. We follow it week after week.” Someone came up to him at a meeting the other night wondering why The Villager hadn’t been writing about “the oversized pizza sign on Bleecker and whatever,” and threatening to give the exclusive to the Times. “Like the Times is going to write about that,” Sutter says. “People depend on us for redress.”