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Penney’s Takes Manhattan

jc-penney

Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column in Sunday’s NYT surprised me. He chose to address the apparent furor over Cintra Wilson’s Critical Shopper column two weeks ago on the opening of J.C. Penney in Manhattan’s Herald Square, right by Macy’s famed flagship store, ultimately judging her as crossing the line from edgy to objectionable. I read the article online the evening before it was printed, and I didn’t feel that way. I enjoyed it. Am I becoming dangerously inured to snark?

See for yourself. Read Wilson’s column, then Hoyt’s critique. Here is how Wilson opens:

J.C. Penney has broken free of its suburban parking area to invade Herald Square, and the most frequent question on New York’s collective lips seems to be: Why?

Why would this perennially square department store bother to reanimate itself in Manhattan — in the sleekest, scariest fashion city in America — during a hair-raising economic downturn, without taking the opportunity to vigorously rebrand itself? Why would this dowdy Middle American entity waddle into Midtown in its big old shorts and flip-flops without even bothering to update its ancient Helvetica Light logo, which for anyone who grew up with the company is encrusted with decades of boring, even traumatically parental, associations?

J. C. Penney has always trafficked in knockoffs that aren’t quite up to Canal Street’s illegal standards. It was never “get the look for less” so much as “get something vaguely shaped like the designer thing you want, but cut much more conservatively, made in all-petroleum materials, and with a too-similar wannabe logo that announces your inferiority to evil classmates as surely as if you were cursed to be followed around by a tuba section.”

I love it. But Hoyt writes:

Or, as one reader, Daniel Harris-McCoy of Boston, put it: How do writers “navigate the fine lines between observation, satire and snark,” and when should editors step in to restrain them?

Although Trip Gabriel, the Styles editor, said the lines can be blurry, it seems to me that they were crossed and left far behind in this case. Wilson’s editors should have saved her, themselves and the paper from the reaction they got from readers, who concluded that the humor was at their expense, not for their benefit.

[NYT executive editor Bill] Keller said, “The key, I guess, is to imagine that you are writing for an audience with a broad range of views and experiences, and to write with respect for them.” Dismissing a point of view “with a contemptuous sneer is not only bad manners, it’s bad journalism.”

Hmm. Hoyt had already noted earlier that “Keller said his mother was a Penney’s shopper for much of her life, and she would have found the review ‘snotty.’ He told me that he wished it had not been published.” Harsh.

Speaking of harsh, remember that Keller believes (and Hoyt agrees) that torture, when performed by the CIA, should be called “harsh interrogation.” In contrast, when done by Iran on protesters, it gets to be called torture. (See Glenn Greenwald last month on this point.)

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Categories: Clothing, Culture, Journalism
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