From time to time there emerges from the windy rhetoric and unanchored hyperbole of the fast-track media world a turn of phrase which unintentionally encapsulates everything that is most fatuous about the culture of contemporary journalism. Words which once carried weighty implications are drafted to serve as expedient slogans for the most commonplace professional practices. As a result, the words are emptied of meaning while their speakers are inadvertently self-identified as casualties of their own pretension.
Anoteworthy contribution to this lexicon of media fatuousness was recently given to us when, upon his appointment to the editorship of New York magazine, Kurt Andersen, lately of Spy and Time, disclosed in an interview in The New York Times that certain sections of New York would henceforth be “much more driven by events and the Zeitgeist of the week.” Reading this, we almost had to be grateful that the long saga of a search for a new editor of New York had culminated on such a delightfully comic note.
The Zeitgeist of the week! What term could better serve as a symbol for everything that is most trivializing about slick-paper journalism in the 1990s? What Mr. Andersen apparently has in mind for New York are what used to be known as timely topics. The word “Zeitgeist,” on the other hand, was reserved for something larger and deeper than the news of the day, or even the news of the week. For it was correctly assumed that it was not in the nature of “the spirit of the time” to manifest itself for the convenience of a weekly deadline. For manifestations of that kind, the word “fashion” was once considered adequate.
It is of course amusing to think of what a weekly dispatch by some latter-day Spengler would consist of, but we somehow doubt that Mr. Andersen will be able to deliver on this bizarre promise. What the “Zeitgeist of the week” is likely to be in practice, we predict, is the usual combination of recycled news and chatter about cultural fashion. In other words, what the fast-track media world is already bringing to us in superabundant quantities. Meanwhile, however, the word “Zeitgeist” will now have to be retired—except, of course, for comic effect.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 8, on page 3
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