Journalism has always wrestled with the tension between finding fresh, new angles on stories and perpetuating falsehoods and fantasies, though never more so than amidst the click-driven insanity of its present circumstances.  An excellent study in the subtle dangers of erring on the wrong side of this line is currently sitting atop The New York Times's list of most emailed stories.  

Seductively entitled, "You Try to Live on 500k in this Town", the article tries to cast a new angle on the uproar over executive compensation and the caps President Obama has proposed as part of the broader and bailout and stimulus package.  The article invites the reader to step into the ostrich loafers of the investment bankers facing down the barrel of this sudden and radical austerity.  From $16,000/month co-op rentals to $250/hour SAT tutors, the article invokes an elite brand of relativism to parade New York's extravegances as  equivalent to the experience of those losing their jobs and worse yet.

The article's base formula of "1 part counter-intuition + 2 parts Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous voyeurism + a sprinkling of spite = page view gold" has the unintended consequence of injecting a moral ambiguity that abets Wall Street's circular and transparently self-interested defense -- that their industry model is sustained by the best and brightest and they must be sustained by mega bonuses (which are themselves needed to sustain the necessities of a New York existence). 

Unlike porno, however, Wall Street's value is not a function of its capacity for titallation or obscenity, but rather its ability to effectively allocate capital and manage risk--and that alone is how it should be measured and rewarded. If the "geniuses" of Wall Street aren't capable of generating the real value that merits huge bonuses, they should look for work elsewhere.  The challenge and opportunity before talented people is to invest their intellectual gifts in the sorts of innovations that extend the very limits of potential value.  If their individual claim is in line with the value they create, for themselves and for us all, no one will begrudge them their wealth, no matter how large the absolute sum--Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are proof positive of that.

The Times, for its part, has a duty to be more creative amd effective in how it upholds and builds upon its dearly held mission, even as it struggles for its survival.  Simply put, few institutions in our society have as much real influence or the human capital by which to realize it.  The Times's failure to speak more clearly, consistently and prescriptively on aspects of our culture that work against our greater interests is an opportunity lost.  When The Times yields to convenience, and works against this already difficult societal project, we are set back that much more.

Make no mistake, there is a path by which The Times can reinvent itself and flourish as a modern media company, arguably more than any other (the subject for a future post).  Until it does, though, more considered restraint could well be the Times' best contribution to a brighter future -- one in which there are more worthwhile angles to cover, and more opportunities to cover them.