Friday, October 26, 2012

"Luxury"

Gawker and I are, amazingly, in sincere agreement: young children brutally murdered by, it seems, the babysitter is the story. Not how fancy-schmancy the journalist feels their lifestyle appears. This is not a story only if the parents are rich, but it doesn't become less of one if they are. Yes, it's unusual for this kind of horrific crime to happen in "luxury" buildings, but it's not an everyday thing among regular-folk Americans, either. Barring the most extreme circumstances, I'm going to guess that most human beings live in relative comfort that their kids won't be bludgeoned to death. It's not some privilege specific to Manhattan's finer zip codes. The NYT article - which has apparently been edited a bunch since first going up (the word "luxury" removed, for example) - gave the impression that this was somehow the comeuppance of a family that had been too new-New York - fanciness, strollers, none of the grit or low-rent-ness of back-in-the-day. How exactly was this the place for a conversation about gentrification/blandification, or (ugh!) how Moms These Days hire other women to care for their kids? Ugh doesn't even begin to describe it.

22 comments:

PG said...

I guess I've gotten so used to the Times's tendency to note surroundings that when I saw the headline and initial paragraph on a feed (didn't read through), the reference to "the ornately detailed prewar building on the Upper West Side where the day before a mother had returned home to her luxury apartment" didn't impinge on my consciousness. Bad on them for editing without noting that they've done so, though.

Britta said...

I started reading that article and then stopped, mainly because I didn't want to think about how horrible it would be to have two of your three kids murdered. But yeah, the weird ressentiment tone was uncomfortable. Being wealthy doesn't make it less tragic that your children bludgeoned to death in the hour you were at swim class. This is not a first world problem in the way that, having to walk 2 floors to your espresso machine is.

If there is a larger sociological point to be taken away, it would probably be about mental illness and what sort of support mechanisms we have in place to notice and take care of psychosis, especially when it could affect vulnerable people like children. Of course, if that was the case won't be knowable until the nanny's motives and state of mind are clearer.

Sigivald said...

As usual, I think the real problem here is reading the Times in the first place.

You don't even live in New York now!

Life both continues and is, indeed, quite pleasant when not reading the Times, ever.

Try it. You might like it.

(I kid. A little. Seriously, though - the Times is only relevant when you make it relevant.)

PG said...

Seriously, though - the Times is only relevant when you make it relevant.

Certainly the Chinese government is working under that theory. If no one in China can read it, it's like it doesn't exist!

Miss Self-Important said...

I didn't think that article suggested that this was their comeuppance for being rich at all. I assumed the lifestyle details provided were there because the reporters had practically no information about what happened (at first, then they updated and did note the edits until there were too many to note - the downside of instant online journalism) or why, and neither family was speaking to the press, but they knew this was a big story that needed detail.

All the neighbors they interviewed emphasized what a nice, child-centered family they were, and the lifestyle details emphasized that. No one said they were snobbish or oblivious or anything you'd associate with a typical NYT Styles rip on the rich. Nor was the article pillorying them for having a nanny - again, the quotes emphasized that everyone in the neighborhood has nannies b/c both parents work, and that's why the murder was so resonant and horrifying to them. It's not like a drug deal gone bad, where the neighbors can think, oh well, that's what happens when you get involved in that kind of stuff, so good thing I'm not.

Maybe elsewhere on the internet, people are blaming the family, but I didn't think the NYT piece was all that problematic. It's a national paper; not everyone who'd read this kind of story has intimate knowledge of the demographics of NYC neighborhoods. It does help to know that the UWS is affluent, but not so rich that people don't work for a living, etc. If the story just says that two young children were killed somewhere in New York by their nanny, that might get the basic information across, but the NYT is not a newswire.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Something can be shocking but not surprising.

Britta,

Yes, it's too early to know what if anything sociologically-speaking can be gleaned from this. But what certainly can't be gleaned is that if mothers outsource childcare, bloodshed ensues, because that's an unusual outcome to say the least. Agreed, of course, that this was a tough read to get through.

Sigivald,

Where to begin. How about: 1) I probably spend most of my waking hours in NYC, 2) I live in a suburb of the city, 3) it remains my hometown and where my family lives, and 4) it's a/the national newspaper. I suppose putting my head in the sand would have some advantages, but in my life, that's what ignoring the paper would mean.

All that said, this wasn't just the NYT, but also the AP/Huffington Post.

MSI,

If it was all just neutral description, why the need to surreptitiously backtrack?

It's all in how it was presented. There was this real insistence on the socioeconomic status. And I didn't get at all from this that we were to believe these were families who had to work. We're told that the mother did not work outside the home.

The original article, and the one(s?) that accompany it, reminded me very much of private-school classmates I had who assumed anyone who had to go to public school was a Save-the-Children charity case. I mean, no, we wouldn't expect this sort of crime in a "luxury" prewar whatever. But nor would we expect this to occur in a blue-collar household on Staten Island. On the relevant level, most everyone outside an active war zone feels safe. The coverage gave (me, at least) the impression that we were to believe that only the fanciest and schmanciest go about their lives confident that their children will not be brutally killed by a babysitter.

Miss Self-Important said...

They have to backtrack b/c it's breaking news, and they're publishing it as information is discovered/released, so they're bound to make a lot of errors. If they'd just waited until this morning to go to press with the story, they wouldn't have these difficulties, but that's not how the internet works. The NYT typically publishes corrections to stories that have already been printed, but when the story is evolving online, it's too hard to keep track of all the changing info. I don't think there's anything particularly suspicious or sneaky about that.

I definitely recall reading something like "in a neighborhood where nannies are necessary because both parents work" in last night's version. It might be gone by now, but as a non-New Yorker with only cursory acquaintance with the city, this was not a fact floating around in my head previously. It also claimed that the mother had been at work, although this was changed later. So they didn't know at first and did not assume that she was a lady of leisure.

I don't think the point is that no should or does feel safe but the rich. Actually, I don't really even understand what that would mean as a form of reverse-snobbery. The NYT writers are resentful b/c the rich can feel safe while they can't? Or the NYT writers are mocking the rich for feeling safe when actually NO ONE IS EVER SAFE, which all sub-rich people know but the rich do not?

PG said...

MSI,

I think you're correct; reading one of the earliest versions of the article, published Thursday night, it's obvious that the reporters were struggling to get information. Much of the second half of the article, attempting to describe the family, clearly came from Googling their names. Quoting in part:

"A mother returned home to her luxury Upper West Side apartment on Thursday evening to find two of her children, a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, fatally stabbed in a bathtub by the family’s nanny, the authorities said. The nanny herself lay on the floor, near a bloody knife, with an apparently self-inflicted slash to her own throat.

"Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the mother, Marina Krim, had left her apartment a block from Central Park at 57 West 75th Street to take one of her children, a 3-year-old girl, to a swimming lesson. The two other children were left with the nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, 50.
...

"On the Upper West Side, with its dual-income families in which nannies are often an integral part of children’s lives, pushing strollers or walking their charges by the dozens home from school in the afternoon, the news of the double killing was met with stark disbelief.

"“It's family-oriented, this neighborhood,” said Pauline Sklar, a real estate investor who lives a block from the building where the children were stabbed. “Parents are working. They have to depend on people. My niece hires people. She researches them.”

"Ms. Sklar paused, then added, “Or tries to.”

"Nannies are there for meal times, for bedtime, for birthdays and holidays, and go on vacations. Indeed, on her blog, Ms. Krim described how she and her family had spent several days visiting Ms. Ortega’s family in the Dominican Republic, speaking to just how close her relationship had been with the family.

"“We spent the past 9 days in the Dominican Republic. We spent half the time at our nanny, Josie’s sisters home in Santiago,” she wrote. “We met Josie’s amazing familia!!! And the Dominican Republic is a wonderful country!! More pics to come!!”"

I suppose that quote from the blog can be read as a hidden sneer by the reporters -- oh, look how oblivious this rich white woman was to how her poor Latina nanny must have hated and resented her -- but I don't think that's the only plausible reading.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

"The NYT writers are resentful b/c the rich can feel safe while they can't? Or the NYT writers are mocking the rich for feeling safe when actually NO ONE IS EVER SAFE, which all sub-rich people know but the rich do not?"

I'm surprised you find my reaction so hard to figure out, considering that what's going on here is kind of a hard-news equivalent of Styles style. The NYT writers are on one level implying that everyone but fancy UWSers (and yes, two-parent income, but more in the Ann-Marie Slaughter, super-ambitious-parents sense than in the need-income-to-get-by one) lives in constant danger of this sort of thing. In other words, the coverage on one level comes across as seeming oblivious to the fact that lower-middle-class families outside war zones are not exactly facing this threat en masse. On another level, there is, yes, this kind of tying it into various citywide and broader culture wars. Some of it is unavoidable, but with anything above and beyond stating the facts - this family had a nanny, whether or not which parents worked outside the home - there's the risk of editorializing. I thought the coverage toed the line in that regard. Colorful detail to some read as dog-whistling to others, I guess.

PG,

"I suppose that quote from the blog can be read as a hidden sneer by the reporters -- oh, look how oblivious this rich white woman was to how her poor Latina nanny must have hated and resented her -- but I don't think that's the only plausible reading."

It's certainly how some are reading it. (See this especially.)

I think the problem is, it's of course awkward if not outrage-provoking how much income inequality is on view in posh areas of Manhattan. You've got the super-rich (or maybe just very-rich?) and their help, with middle-income NYers out of view, in other boroughs, neighborhoods, etc. But this crime really should not be the point of departure for that conversation. It absolutely shouldn't matter what our feelings are re: SAHMs having nannies, UWS moms having mommy blogs, etc. These things really do need to be kept separate. Even a nanny who was being exploited by her employers would not be justified in doing something like this, and by all accounts this particular employee was not being exploited. If anything, pretending that this crime was some kind of down-with-the-rich revolutionary act is damaging to the fight for better conditions for nannies and other household employees.

PG said...

It's certainly how some are reading it. (See this especially.)

I generally don't take the views of some commenters on one NYT article as particularly indicative either of how another, related article was most likely to be read or of any of the reporters' intent. And even those two comments are more "this poor woman cracked under the pressures of inequality" than "rich bitch should have seen it coming."

I just don't get why you see reporting the details of the family's life as a dog-whistle for "pretending that this crime was some kind of down-with-the-rich revolutionary act." When the NYT first reported Etan Patz (a Soho public school attendee in 1979, so presumably not super-fancy) was missing and being searched for, the article mentioned "the Patz home, a large cooperative loft on the third floor. Mr. Patz is a photographer..."

The second article about the search noted, "Mr. Patz, a 37-year-old commercial photographer and a man of slight build. Yesterday, Mr. Patz spoke calmly as he puffed his pipe, sitting on a couch in the living room cluttered with children's toys. ... In contrast to the mood in the Patz loft, hundreds of Sunday SoHo tourists strolled along the streets, one minute under clouds, the next under sunshine. They wandered in and out of shops that feature luxury items such as antique furniture, coffee, cheeses and pastries. Within steps of the Patz home there are art galleries and boutiques."

Do you think the reporter on that article, which may well predate the existence of a Styles section, also was going beyond the necessary facts of a missing child in order to "imply that everyone but fancy [SoHo artists] lives in constant danger of this sort of thing" or "tie it into various citywide and broader culture wars"? That just seems like an unnecessarily harsh assumption to make about a writer's motives.

Basically, the reason those words "luxury" and "ornately detailed prewar building on the Upper West Side" didn't impinge on my consciousness is that the NYT style hasn't been just-the-facts-ma'am for years, if ever. I don't read anything more into the reporters' efforts to paint little word-pictures for the reader and get vaguely creative nonfiction-y than I do into the WSJ's insistence on pen-and-ink drawings despite photography's now being over a century old technology. It's how they do.

Phoebe said...

PG,

My reaction to the coverage - the several NYT pieces and others - wasn't yours, wasn't MSI's, and I respect both of your opinions, even if I'm not convinced. I think I've explained to the extent of my ability why I read it as I did, so all I can offer above and beyond is that maybe it comes of this being my hometown paper, this having all happened very, very close to where I grew up. Or maybe we just disagree, and it's as simple as that.

Britta said...

My reading was also along the lines of Phoebe's, and I couldn't finish the article. It might not necessarily be that the intent one was of malice, but that the genre of 'Styles' reporting isn't the same genre of hard crime reporting, so conflating the two is bizarre. The Ethan Patz article, IIRC, was a follow up piece about life 30 years later, which arguably is a 'human interest' piece, not a news piece, so we'd expect a different style of reporting. In this case, what we needed to know was just the facts, who, what, where, why. I'm confused as to why the rest of the US needs to know the exact details of the family's house, building, and neighborhood demographics to understand the crime. SAHM takes one kid to swim lessons, and part time nanny attempts a double murder suicide with the other kids. People can get the concept of nanny and also will probably understand the family is not poor without needing to know explicitly that X neighborhood in NY is posh. To include such superfluous details opens the article up to two readings, both of which have been widely taken up: 1) bad things don't happen to super rich people, or 2) they had it coming. The first is problematic in that bad things like this don't happen to pretty much anyone in the US or the world, so we don't need to know they're really rich to find this shocking. Even in the poorest slums in Mali, we don't expect children to be bludgeoned to death by caretakers, as such acts go against human nature. The second is simply repugnant and untrue.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Thanks for articulating what I could not!

PG said...

The Ethan Patz article, IIRC, was a follow up piece about life 30 years later, which arguably is a 'human interest' piece, not a news piece, so we'd expect a different style of reporting.

The Etan Patz articles I was quoting were from May 1979 when Patz first disappeared. That's why I said, "When the NYT first reported Etan Patz (a Soho public school attendee in 1979, so presumably not super-fancy) was missing and being searched for..."

They were news articles headlined, "Police and Neighbors Join in a SoHo Search For Missing Schoolboy" and "Volunteers Take Major Role in Search for Missing 6-Year-Old SoHo Boy; Boy Never Boarded Bus; Father Makes Appeal; Many Volunteers Join With Police in Search For Missing SoHo Boy." I don't know if you're a NYT subscriber, but if so you can see that the recent articles about Patz linked back to the original ones, which can be read as PDFs scans of the printed articles.

So that's why I'm asking whether the two readings that the article opens itself up to by including details are actually just an objection to how the NYT has been writing news stories since before we were born (with lots of perhaps-irrelevant detail), or if this is a claim that including such details in hard news stories necessarily must be done with a negative attitude toward the families, or what.

I think it's a lower-case "s" matter of style, and one can argue that this style in cases like missing or murdered children is tasteless or inappropriate to the subject, even if there is no ill intent. But it seems a stretch to say that it's a problem of the Styles section rhetoric creeping into hard news, when that's how the Times has been writing hard news for decades.

Miss Self-Important said...

What Britta describes - the five W's version of news - is a job now done by newswires like AP and Reuters. In order to cover all major national news with a limited staff of reporters, they do only limited reporting and their stories are used to fill in gaps in local and regional papers precisely b/c those papers' reporters are assigned to detailed reporting of local/regional news. The NYT is not a newswire or a crime bulletin, and to compete with newswires, must provide more detailed reporting, especially about its regional base. So crimes that happen in NYC and that would be of any interest to a broader audience (that is, not an isolated car-jacking on Staten Island) get a lot of detail, even if there isn't much available information to go on. Consider this crime reporting. Little hard info to go on, but all kinds of lifestyle details here: poverty, housing projects, family in complete and total disarray (no one notices their relative has disappeared for a decade, 13 kids "cared for" by people implicated in dumping a kid's body, etc). This article struck me as no more condescending than the UWS article, just an effort to make a story with little to go on but neighborhoods, buildings, neighbors' quotes, etc. Is this article also problematic, b/c this event plays out many stereotypes about poor black people instead of reporting the bare-bones (um, no pun...) facts of the matter? Would any detail not be problematic in this sense?

Phoebe said...

PG,

Point taken re: original coverage.

PG, MSI,

It could be different people have different taste in news reporting. I've had similar responses to news stories about different demographics, but the is-this-Styles-style? response is kind of particular to the news story being about a Styles demographic.

Maybe we could compromise, though, and say that the problem is allowing comments, or allowing them in too many places?

PG said...

but the is-this-Styles-style? response is kind of particular to the news story being about a Styles demographic.

That's why I quoted the 1979 Etan Patz articles -- a pipe-smoking photographer's family in a SoHo loft surrounded by luxury cheese stores is a Styles demographic, though again I'm not sure the section actually existed at that time. It just seems unfair to assume that details about a family's life are given out of malicious intent rather than to try to flesh out a story that's basically "about" not knowing one of the 5 Ws (in Patz's case, What happened; in the nanny story, Why).

Maybe we could compromise, though, and say that the problem is allowing comments, or allowing them in too many places?

No doubt there were jerks in 1979 who would have spun those details negatively -- the self-righteous could have had a field day with the next article's opening, "Last Friday was the first day that 6-year-old Etan Patz had ever been allowed to walk alone the two blocks from his home to a school bus" -- but there was no NYT.com on which to post those comments. I'm just not sure the NYT should be faulted for what people say in the comments.

I'm generally pro having-comments, though I usually only read them on articles where people who know what they're talking about can add/ correct information, which are rarely breaking news articles about crime. But it's still a variety: articles about school cheating scandals; about Delaware's corporate and banking laws; about the best places to eat in Charleston. So if the NYT decided to put more limits on comments, I wouldn't want them to go overboard.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sure, NYT comments are bad, but I don't read them, so I was just going by what the reporters wrote. I'm sure comment-snipers say worse things, but like PG, I don't those people are NYT's fault.

Phoebe said...

PG,

That this coverage isn't new/unusual doesn't make me like it more.

MSI,

A paper presumably decides when to allow comments on its own articles.

PG, MSI,

I respect both of your opinions, but can't come around on this, I'm afraid. Those articles just did not read as right/fair to me.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not actually sure how much the NYT moderates its comments sections. They were hiring people for this job when I left (sounds like employment that would drive you straight to the nuthouse), but they also relied on all those peer-moderation mechanisms like voting up certain comments, etc. However, none of the comments should be thought to correspond to the intentions of the article writers, who have no part in moderating them at all.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

You seem to be under the impression that I have personal beef with the authors of this one news story. Not the case! My problem was with the coverage, which was several stories, not all even in the NYT.

But surely a paper decides if to allow comments to a particular article. This is an editorial decision, and maybe not up to the reporters, but a decision made by the paper in some capacity.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, sorry, I thought you meant comment moderation. I'm not sure how they decide which articles are open to comments, but I don't think it's based on the sensitivity of the topic, b/c right now, an article on school closings in NYC doesn't permit comments, while updates on the post-storm body search in Hoboken does.