The New York Times sinks even deeper

February 13, 2021 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Another sign of the New York Times‘ decline, besides its wokism and suddenly keen interest in astrology, is its attention to celebrity culture. (I use that last word with some hesitation.) This is mere persiflage, but after sharing my thoughts about this with Jerry, he urged me to post it on a Saturday, a day more amenable to such things.

The Times has put a lot of effort into producing, and now heavily promoting, a > 1 hour long documentary about Britney Spears, titled “Framing Britney Spears”, available on Hulu. Britney Spears, for the unfamiliar, was a 90’s pop star singer, who had some issues. (As Joe Walsh said, “it’s tough to handle this fortune and fame.”) She then had something of a comeback, including a stint at that old standby for fading pop stars, Las Vegas. She has been involved in various court cases over control of her assets.

JAC: Here’s a trailer for the Official New York Times video, more appropriate for the National Enquirer or TMZ than the Times.

Two things are wrong with this. First, why is the Times doing investigative journalism on Britney Spears? Who cares? There’s an extremely slim stab at justification on the grounds that her story reveals flaws in the legal practice of ‘conservatorship’, but they spend almost no time on this. It could also be justified as an examination of the bizarre manifestations of celebrity culture, but instead the documentary revels in and glorifies that culture.

Much of the program is taken up with interviews of obviously loony cultists of the “Free Britney” movement, who are slavishly devoted to carrying out what they perceive to be the wishes of a hidden figure whom none of them are actually in communication with. If this sounds like QAnon to you—bingo! That’s exactly what it seemed like to me. The conspiracy addled, sartorially conforming, group thinking, and delusional ways of both groups are striking. I immediately thought: “This is just like the nuts at the Capitol.” This might reveal deep and recurring dysfunction in human social dynamics, but that is not at all what the Times is exploring here, except inadvertently.

Second, they got bupkus! The investigation was a bust. No one who actually knew anything would talk to the paper. Everything they had was either old footage, not terribly relevant, or three Times talking heads. They had two modestly interesting people willing to talk. One was a woman hired to be Britney’s “assistant” back when she was a kid, but was eventually dismissed. Her interview is primarily of interest for the pathos of how this woman clings to memorabilia of her time in Britney’s entourage.

The other was a lawyer who represented Britney Spears for a brief while many years ago. He knows essentially nothing about the case, since he was dismissed by the judge before it really got started. But he is apparently an experienced conservatorship attorney, and makes a few enlightening remarks about how conservatorships are supposed to work; but not enough to give real understanding. This is a real missed opportunity. Is there widespread abuse of conservatorships? Are conservators failing in their duty to look out for the conservatees? This is strongly suggested to be so in Britney Spears’ case, but since the facts of the case are in sealed court documents, and no one who does know was willing to talk, we got nuthin’.

As one of my favorite movie critics, Ryan Jay, says, “Skip it.”


JAC: Greg should be praised here because I believe he had to pay to see that video!

GCM: Well, I paid for the Hulu subscription, but not for this particular program. A Hulu subscription is much like a New York Times subscription– there’s some good stuff in there, but also a lot of dreck. But while copious dreck is tolerable in a streaming TV service, it is not tolerable in the paper of record.

20 thoughts on “The New York Times sinks even deeper

  1. While I won’t be watching “Framing Britney”, there evidently are some serious issues involved here. As I hear it, her father was able to take control of her finances and still has it even now. That doesn’t seem right. I have also read an article comparing Spears’ experience with fame at a young age with that of David Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor. He has been hounded by Trumpists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. The article says that Hogg’s experience with fame at a very young age has parallels to that of Britney Spears and suggests that we should be more supportive of those in such a situation. There are too many people who will try (and succeed) in taking advantage of them.

  2. The NY Times covers a lot of things, including arts and (more peripherally, but of general interest) celebrity and celebrities. Growing up I frequently read the astrology forecast in my local newspaper, mostly for fun. Nowadays Britney Spears’ travails, and the general legal and human issues they raise, don’t interest me. I scan or skip such articles, but I know others may well read and enjoy them. I expect to see some such stories in a general interest national newspaper that don’t interest me, or that cause me to roll my eyes. The brief article today on experiments with archaic DNA in brain organelles is worth it.

    1. I’d take some issue with this, as I don’t think such a slight article would have been published in the NYT a decade ago. To beef up their clickbait, they’re increasingly publishing stories (or videos) like this. But I’ll let Greg, who wrote this post, answer if he wants.

  3. Is it possible that the ‘documentary’ is somehow really a creation outside of the NYT? It seems odd to me that the NYT would be the fountainhead of any product of a streaming service like Hulu. But I don’t know at all how these things can work.

  4. Many years ago, the New York Times used to telephone me frequently to offer one or another special subscription offer. I invariably responded by asking the voice on the phone one question: “Does the paper have funnies?”
    When the voice replied in the negative, I told them that, unfortunately, the funnies were my primary requirement in a newspaper. The last time they called, however, the voice replied that the NYT did have funnies. I concluded from this that the NYT could not be trusted about anything. But
    maybe the voice was referring, not to comic strips, but to astrology columns, weighty reportage about defunct pop stars, and similar matter.

  5. The comparison of her fans with Qanon is interesting. I have been thinking – yes I know the doctors warned me! – I have watched quite a lot of US tv series from the past 25 years that seem to centre around a deep conspiracy of groups of old men with a desire to control society. I’d have to sit & think a bit in order to draw up a list, but the daddy would be the X-Files. The most recent I just watched is Timeless – in terms of plot actually pretty incoherent from a time travel perspective, but with a government group battling a secret organisation. It was started in the time of Obama I think, & treats the issues of race & women in society, having black, female & Asian actors in leading roles. One even questions the idea of god! But it was cancelled ending with audiences of 3.5 million. Perhaps that’s because it was tosh, albeit entertaining tosh, but I now see that the US seems to be far more divided by those issues than I’d ever realised, & I suppose you will stop watching a programme where it dies not reflect your values, especially if you are a certain type of conservative.

    1. It was the similarity of her fans to QAnon supporters that made me mention it to Jerry. I wish the Times had pursued an examination of the excesses of fandom or the phenomena of cult formation, but they didn’t.


  6. Disclaimer: I am only familiar with this documentary because my daughters watched it out of curiosity. ‘The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears’ title was the first oddity as this heavily biased agenda-driven documentary would have been more suitable for the New York Post. Very little was said of Spears ongoing impaired judgment due to mental illness that resulted in reduced custodial rights and conservatorship. Investigation ID could have done a better job balancing Ms. Spears quest for autonomy, her financial obligations to her children, and the legal ramifications of conservatorship. Spears’ estate is valued at 60 million in a city where it is effortless to spend 10 million/month. She will need every dime going forward for the decades ahead in which she may very well not be able to support herself. None of that was covered. The entire ‘documentary’ (if you can call it that) revolved around ancient career highlights and fans who appear to know (and care) little of the legal reasons for custodianship or the best interests of both Britney and her young sons.

    ‘The New York Times Presents’ series dovetails seamlessly with the usurpation of the formally august NYTs by ‘New York Tripe” wokesters.

  7. Ps justice in secret is not justice. As with the old ‘D’ notice in the UK or more recent cases when the fact of an injunction is a secret… absurd. Powerful (rich) people must not be allowed a free hand.

  8. I’m not sure of the argument that because it’s a story about a celebrity it’s beneath what a respectable paper should cover. There are interesting and relevant social factors to the story, so I see no problem with it. I could see the topic also being covered by ‘This American Life’. It is a story about American culture, after all.

  9. I’m reminded of those noble souls, Times reporters Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman, getting in one last catty sniping dig at Melania Trump a few weeks ago. What particularly got me was the photo of only her bare leg (and of course dress hem and high-heeled pump) as she was getting in (out?) of a vehicle. I look forward to the day they similarly show the bare leg of a male national public figure. Perhaps shapeliness of legs should be a factor in qualifying to run for high public office.

  10. More absurdity from the NYT:

    Note that a blind audition actually allows one to hire the person based only on ability. At best, one could argue that some form of affirmative action is needed, i.e. hire more diverse people even if they are not the best, to provide role models and so on. (I disagree, but it is a logically tenable position.). But note that it is argued that there are already enough high-quality diverse players (i.e., the pipeline is not the problem,) and they are somehow still underrepresented despite the blind auditions! That is logically impossible.

    The one Black musician interviewed is more ambivalent than the author. Go figure!

  11. Now the NYT has published a hitpiece on Scott Alexander, shortly after he started posting again. No wonder exists. It’s best never to trust their reporters since you cannot expect fair coverage if you are insufficiently woke or do not belong to a protected class.

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