The end of this month – September 30, 2010, to be exact – will mark the second anniversary of the death of the best conservative newspaper in America, and one of the best newspapers in the country, period. It was called the New York Sun (2002-08) and was edited by Seth Lipsky, a man who, as well as possessing an eye for news, also had an appreciation for beauty. Visually ravishing, on a good day the Sun could make almost every other paper around look like a middle aged frump standing next to Maria Sharapova.
The motto on the Sun’s masthead was, “It Shines for All.” Unfortunately, this was never quite the case. When it came to this particular celestial body, most New York Dems acted like vampires in a midday heat wave. They stayed in, they drew the blinds, they locked themselves in coffins, and hid from the shoestring conservative challenger to the almighty New York Times as if it were a cross borne by a Pope chewing on garlic.
The original version of the Sun was published from 1833-1950, when it was merged with the New York World-Telegram before finally exiting history in 1966. When Lipsky revived the Sun on April 16, 2002, he attempted something almost suicidally bold: To create a stylish up-market paper that would have the best arts section in New York tied to editorials that were pro-Bush, pro-Israel, and against most of the Democratic agenda. The cognitive dissonance caused by the combination of a conservative paper with voluptuously highbrow arts pages and Euro-friendly sports pages left smart New York liberals in a dither. If they could have channeled T.S. Eliot, their sentiments might have read:
O O O O that New York Sun
It’s so elegant
But so dreadfully Republican!
When I first caught sight of the Sun on a newsstand, it was its look, retro but cool, that drew me in. Soon I started reading it, though doing so in downtown New York, especially as the 2004 Bush-Kerry election approached, was a bit like belonging to a cult without knowing if there were any other members. Opening it in a café felt like a political statement. It’s not as if there were no other conservative papers in the city – the New York Post certainly made a lot of noise—but reading the Sun meant something specific. It was an act of rebellion against the Times’ eternal monopolization of the city’s intellectual class.
This did not turn out to be something the intellectual class was keen to promote. Evidently, they wanted to be monopolized. Even if people moaned about it, the Times was a badge of belonging, as much a symbol of the city as Broadway or the Empire State Building. The Sun evoked a murkier possibility, namely membership in a silent minority. No one could be sure whether you belonged to it for political or cultural reasons or both.
The Sun was read and enjoyed by most of the elites in New York and Washington. For the most part, however, they were careful not to commit their enthusiasm to print until it was safely in its death throes. Instead, a steady drip of cheap-shots, sneers, and quibbles were meted out from the likes of Gawker, which called it “a vile rag”; Slate, which accused it of Fascism; and the Columbia Journalism Review, which, given its purported job description, particularly disgraced itself. There were exceptions. In 2007, five years after the Sun’s launch, the Nation’s Scott Sherman finally wrote a semi-credible account of the paper: “All in all, a fabulous read for culture, and a tendentious (though not uninteresting) one for politics,” being the key sentence. An intriguing portrait of Lipsky aside, however, most of the article was taken up by the tired subject of the paper’s stance on Israel and the U.N.—a constant source of controversy, not least among Jews themselves. Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott also praised the arts and sports pages on his blog, while making plain his dislike for the rest of it.
The most interesting political fact about the Sun went largely unnoticed. Robert Messenger, in setting up the culture section (as reported by Meghan Clyne in National Review) for the paper’s approach to arts criticism: “It’s the idea,” he said, “that there’s one set of standards, which doesn’t recognize whether you’re black or white, male or female.” This was a unique position to take in New York’s newspaper world, and remains one. The results spoke for themselves. Nat Hentoff offered this assessment: “There is no other paper that has an arts section that goes anywhere near on a daily basis what the Sun has. I would bet that…there may be no paper in American journalistic history that has an arts section like the New York Sun.”
The Sun’s editorial stance, as elucidated by Lipsky in 2002, was for “limited government, individual liberty, constitutional fundamentals, equality under the law, economic growth… standards in literature and culture, education.” Which, eight years later does sound remarkably like what voters are demanding right now. Throw in cultural coverage which stole the high ground from the Times, a crack real estate section, a literate sports section, lush visuals, and one of the best crossword puzzles in the country, and the loss to conservatives (and anyone else with an open mind, including those less preoccupied with Israel than Lipsky) is immense.
According to the post-mortem in New York magazine, the Sun needed $10 million from new investors to keep going – peanuts to wealthy New Yorkers even in a financial crisis. As one of the original investors, Michael Steinhardt, complained at the time, “There are all sorts of people in this city who purport to love reading the Sun who could easily have said, ‘I want to be part of this.’” But they didn’t. Lipsky is mum on the subject of the Sun’s attempt to save itself financially, so who knows why what didn’t happen didn’t? But I bet if David Geffen were an east coast Republican, he, and others like him, would have ensured the Sun’s survival. They would never have allowed such a political and cultural asset to disappear. That’s not praise of Geffen; it’s just a fact.
Lipsky is a gruff optimist of the old school, and not a person inclined to complain. While conceding that the Sun (which has begun to revive online), though mostly in the form of editorials) was “not admired by the press critics, to put it mildly,” he also adds that “No one owed us anything.” This is technically true, but those who label themselves “media critics” do owe journalism (and the public) something – namely, the truth—and in this case they rarely delivered it. To criticize the Sun’s stance on Israel was one thing; to pretend there was nothing else in the paper was merely an under-handed way of driving off potential readers. The treatment of the Sun made for a shabby chapter in New York’s media world, and is proof that even in arts-mad Manhattan, politics trumps culture – by a mile.
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