Jesse Barron at Bookforum:
A generation gap divides readers of the New YorkTimes. On one side, it’s the publisher of the Pentagon Papers, the first draft of history, the indispensable source. On the other side, the Pentagon Papers do not define the Times at all; failure to publish the Edward Snowden papers does. If you were a teenager on 9/11, the Times introduced itself to you with news of WMDs. A couple years later, it confirmed your ill impression by dousing the fuse on its own domestic-wiretapping story—ready to publish in the fall of 2004—until after Election Day, removing a major obstacle to George W. Bush’s second victory. Bill Keller, then the Times’s executive editor, later told 60 Minutes that the National Security Agency said he’d “have blood on [his] hands” if he published. It sounds credulous in retrospect, as though he let himself be flattered.
The Times, in short, has made itself an easy target for teardowns by the young and media-critical. But there is another kind of teardown that is not so much angry as sorrowful, tinged with betrayal and aggrievement, written by those who once loved and trusted the paper. David Shields’s War Is Beautiful is in this category. Putatively the story of why Shields “no longer reads The New York Times,” it is a coffee-table book containing color reproductions of front-page war photos taken between 2001 and 2014, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an introduction, Shields explains that though he read the paper “for decades,” the war photography from this period disgusted him. It obscured the reality of “death, destruction, and displacement.” It was too pretty and therefore false.
The pretty-false equivalence has long preoccupied Shields, who mistrusts the beauty of artifice. He reads, he has said, for “existential knowledge” and to access writers’ minds, and he’s impatient with ornaments like character and setting; The Great Gatsby, in his opinion, should be twenty pages long. Like an old-fashioned modernist, he rejects the old-fashioned.