The Myth of the Liberal Media, or Further Evidence that the NYT is an Elitist Paper

Originally posted on SexInThePublicSquare.org – join us there!

I’ve always known that the New York Times is an elitist paper. Most national papers are pretty directed at the upper middle and upper classes. You can tell just by looking at their advertising. Million dollar studio apartments and thousand dollar watches are not for the masses, after all. And I learned from a beloved sociology instructor in college to recognize the significance of the fact that there is never a labor section but always a business section and that the Times has two “Style” sections a week where you can learn about the newest expensive trends. So it isn’t like this is a revelation. But today’s Metro Section really beats all:

new york times screen shot of headline emperors club sold an oxymoron high class prostitution

The story itself is worse than the headline. It contains stereotypes, overgeneralizations, faulty logic, bad assumptions and lots of other problems that I warn my students about. And aside getting the prostitution stuff wrong, it’s very clear message is this: don’t try to pass yourself off as belonging to the upper classes if you weren’t born and bred among them.

Where to start?

Perhaps with the faulty logic. Susan Dominus asserts that Emperor’s Club was selling a fantasy image of “Kristen” that didn’t match Kristen’s real life. Of course many sex workers do in fact shield their identities by disguising other aspects of their lives. Dominus must know that. What she is pointing out in her article is that Kristen’s image was one of upper middle class or upper class upbringing, and to prove that Kristen was not in fact of such a background she poses a series of what she presumes to be inherently contradictory statements:

that she was a successful swimsuit model who’d traveled the world (as opposed to a singer getting nowhere with a boyfriend who’d paid her rent, as The Times reported yesterday); that she enjoyed civilized pursuits like dining at exclusive restaurants (actually, she’s been hoping for work at a friend’s restaurant); and that she liked sampling fine wines (no mention of the drug abuse she’d reported on her MySpace page). The site also described her as 24 (in fact, she’s 22, an age that might have sounded dangerously collegiate to an affluent clientele).

Can Dominus really believe that a working class or middle class person could never enjoy “civilized pursuits” like dining at fancy establishments, or that a person who enjoys fine wine never abuses drugs? (Wall Street, anyone?) Are these things really logically related in any way at all?

Only if one buys the assumption that pursuits like fine wine and fancy restaurants are reserved for the upper classes. And only if drug abuse is somehow different from addiction and the Betty Ford Clinic only serves the masses.

Then there are the overgeneralizations:

Once the story of Ashley Alexandra Dupré’s life actually came out, it was a fresh reminder that the words “high class” and “prostitution ring” pretty much never make sense in the same phrase (expensive prostitution ring, yes; high class, no). This was not someone who’d been turned down by the consulting firm of her choice and decided to make an alternative entrepreneurial move. Ms. Dupré’s MySpace page said she’d left home at 17 and had been abused. She’d been homeless. She said she knew, at 22, what it was like “to have everything and lose it, ” even if she’d built herself up since. Her story was not self-empowering; it was, even in its scant detail, profoundly sad, all the more so because of her extreme youth.

Somehow because this young woman herself is not of the upper classes no prostitute ever is. Somehow because her profile fits that of the stereotypical sex worker she must represent all sex workers. And somehow the fact that she reports having built herself back up (in part using sex work) after having lost everything is not evidence of any kind of self-empowerment.

Sudhir Venkatesh is quoted later as if his work supports this overgeneralization about prostitutes but if you heard him on the NPR the other day or read his piece on Slate.com you’d know that he has in fact interviewed women who left professional-class careers for upscale escorting. I have not reviewed his research so I’m not attesting to its quality, though I think highly of some of his other work. (And I should note that Melissa Gira Grant has taken Venkatesh to task for oversimplifying things, too.) But he introduces a three-tier categorization of prostitution that would certainly challenge the statements that Dominus makes in this article.

My real anger, though, actually comes from Dominus’s acceptance of the term “high class.” I know that is the term that much of the press has been using to describe the escort service in question. But to accept its use and to apply it to people is appalling.

“High class” is a value judgement and a way of obscuring the real stratification of wealth, power and privilege in the United States. Why not talk about the upper class, the elite, or the working class or the middle class, which are much more meaningfully descriptive?

And why not come out and make the message clear:

If you aren’t born among us you can never be one of us and we’d much prefer it if you’d stop pretending.

The ad at the top of the NYT screenshot is for Loro Piana and the Americana Manhasset, shopping for the wealthy.

2 Comments

Filed under Eliot Spitzer, feminism, Gender, inequality, New York Times, public discourse, sex, Sex in the Public Square, sex work, sexually oriented businesses

2 responses to “The Myth of the Liberal Media, or Further Evidence that the NYT is an Elitist Paper

  1. Yeah, that was pretty bad. Thankfully, I grew up on the opposite coast from Upper West Side society, and so generally don’t have to deal with quite such elaborate codes to show that one is born into the right class.

    I’m somebody who often falls into the “little visible means of support” category, but I can tell a bottle of good Pinot from plonk, or rattle off at least a few of the better declared years of Vintage Port. That just comes with having traveled in some quite varied social circles in my varied life, which is about where I imagine Ms Dupré is at, too. Perhaps Susan Dominus is miffed because Dupré doesn’t seem to “know her place”?

    To be fair to the NY Times, they did do a much better article than the above a few days later, “The Double Lives of High-Priced Call Girls“. While it does play up the headline-grabbing “high-priced call girl” shtick, it does at least provide a realistic portrait of many middle-class sex workers, and certainly is in keeping with one’s I’ve met. The NY Times is generally on better ground when doing actual journalism than with their op-ed pieces. But op-ed idiocracy is why we have blogs as an alternative.

  2. For a different perspective on that same New York Times article see this piece on Bound, Not Gagged. It was posted by Amanda Brooks on behalf of Faith O’Donnell, one of the women profiled in the Times piece. Briefly, she felt like the journalists (Cara Buckley and Andrew Jacobs) wrote what was essentially a fluff piece, omitting any discussion of her political analysis of sex work, while providing too many possibly identifying details (which were provided to them only so they could confirm her identity for the story, but not for inclusion in the published piece), and that details attributed to her actually came from one of the other women. It seems like the Times, whether on its opinion pages or in its news pages (the Dominus piece was on the front page of the Metro section) has a hard time reporting about prostitution, or sex in general really.

    It is a disheartening observation about what is reputedly a liberal newspaper.