Rod Dreher

According to John Palattella, writing in The Nation, anti-intellectualism at American newspapers has a lot to do with it. Excerpt:

It’s necessary to explain these broad economic trends to understand a crucial and overlooked point–namely, that it is disingenuous for newspaper executives to justify the elimination or reduction of the book beat by claiming that books sections don’t turn a profit. Undeniably, the executives’ math is correct. A newspaper books section, if one were to total up its costs, loses money. But does not the sports section or the metro section? Yet of all the sections that fail to turn a profit on their own, it’s the books section that is most often killed or pinched. Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can’t earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.
“Anti-intellectual” is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, “anti-intellectual” does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word “anti-intellectual” to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.
In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard’s new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper’s editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about “another dead, white, European male.” But the paper’s readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a “Talk of the Town” item that traced the book’s unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America’s newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”

Do you think this is true? I think the author is onto something, personally, but I need to think about it. I have also wondered something similar about newspaper religion sections. How is it that with so much lively, dynamic, interesting religious life in this country, newspapers can’t figure out how to make religion news sell? I suspect it has something to do with a latent hostility, or at least indifference, to the ideas undergirding religious life. Must think about that more.
I’m going through catalogues now for forthcoming books, and I’m excited that the online magazine I’m going to be editing, Big Questions Online, will be doing books coverage. We will limit our coverage to reviews of books about science, religion, economics and morals — the four areas BQO is going to cover — but that still leaves us lots of new books to review and otherwise write about. BQO, which we expect to launch sometime this summer, is going to be an online magazine of ideas. In a time in which fewer major publications devote space to covering new books that put interesting ideas into play, I look forward to doing what I can to push back.
(Via Alan Jacobs, who, happily, has agreed to be a monthly columnist for BQO).

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