For many years I’ve subscribed to weekly issues of the New Yorker magazine, long recognized as one of the most prestigious general-interest serials on the market, where classic fiction (Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”), nonfiction (John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”), and criticism (the movie reviews of Pauline Kael) were first published, and which is still considered a top credit for professional writers of all kinds. Alas, I’ve never had an article appear in the New Yorker‘s pages, although I may hold some kind of record for having no less than three letters published in its “The Mail” column – from three different addresses, so they probably didn’t know they were from the same person – and I’ve read many copies cover to cover, or at least all the cartoons. But I’m thinking my loyal readership may be coming to an end.
Like all print outlets in the digital age, the New Yorker faces serious competition from online media, and it got some unwelcome coverage last year when one of its star contributors, legal expert Jeffrey Toobin, was dismissed for allegedly exposing himself in a Zoom meeting with other staff. For me, however, the problem has become the New Yorker’s editorial quality: once the industry standard for literary and reportorial sophistication, the magazine has declined into a trend-chasing emphasis on celebrity and demi-celebrity profiles which are too close to paid puff pieces for my liking, as well as a heavy-handed championship of social justice which looks awfully opportunistic. Many of its latest feature and “Talk of the Town” items seem on a crusade to correct centuries of racial or gender oppression in a single year’s subscription, with noticeably increased focus on gay (sorry, queer), Hispanic (sorry, Latinx), and black (sorry, Black) subjects, related with a chilling, Oceania-has-always-been-at-war-with-Eastasia assurance. This is not the New Yorker I first read in 1987.
For sure, fresh perspectives don’t automatically mean poorer product. I like the essays of Jelani Cobb, Kelefa Sanneh, and Masha Gessen as much as I’ve enjoyed the familiar prose of film critic Anthony Lane, polymath Adam Gopnik, and the occasional story by editor David Remnick himself. Good writing is an equal-opportunity discipline. Yet the obviousness of the New Yorker‘s diversity agenda means that racial and other minorities now take up a disproportionate percentage of its content, either as topics, authors, cover illustrations, or even figures in its famous one-panel comics. As well, any recent references to (for example) Lee Harvey Oswald, Harper Lee, Stan Lee, or Antonio Salieri come with apologetic acknowledgement of their “whiteness,” as if they have been somehow grandfathered into the canon of art or history by an obsolete cultural loophole that will soon be deservedly sealed off. It’s one thing for a magazine to change with the times, as the New Yorker certainly has since 1925. But it’s another to jump on a bandwagon.
This could all be considered “advocacy journalism,” although that term probably applies more to smaller political journals like Mother Jones or Reason, where the mandate is clearly to promote a particular leftish or rightward philosophy. The New Yorker, on the other hand, has traditionally been a wide-ranging forum for educated, middle- to upper-class readers – vaguely liberal in its stance but mostly above the polarization which has engulfed America in the last fifteen years. No longer. Defenders of the new policies, either on the New Yorker‘s payroll or among its audience, would argue that they are only an overdue attempt to address past mistakes and to confront the real legacies of racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices which once tainted the reporting and reviews it’s run over the decades. Indeed, a similarly corrective zeal now influences the output of other big legacy media organizations like The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and the Atlantic Monthly. Four tumultuous years of President Donald Trump, and Trump’s post-presidential popularity, make that mission understandable. But the joyless, pious, purist delivery of the message is a betrayal of the classiness and wit which once set the New Yorker apart, and it’s why I may choose not to weekly receive it in my mailbox much longer.