New York Times Editor Howell Raines struck a blow for gay rights Sunday by announcing that, starting next month, the Times wedding pages will publish “reports of same-sex commitment ceremonies and of some types of formal registration of gay and lesbian partnerships.” Chatterbox is a strong advocate of gay marriage, and he believes that if the New York Times is going to have wedding pages, the weddings of gay people ought to be included. But no one should mistake this reform for a meaningful victory on behalf of social justice. If Raines is really interested in advancing the cause of equality, he shouldn’t reform the Times wedding pages. He should abolish them.
The Times wedding pages are built on the false assumption that the weddings of wealthy non-celebrities constitute news. They’re an anachronistic holdover from the days when newspapers carried “society” pages unabashedly celebrating even the most trivial events in the lives of the local (usually WASP) elite. In those distant times, it made a certain amount of sense. For one thing, America did not profess in 1940 to strive for the same degree of egalitarianism that it aspires to today. And on a practical level, newspapers—even the New York Times—were local institutions in communities that really were governed by relatively small, readily identifiable local elites. Today, Times readers and the distribution of economic and political power are more national and diffuse. It’s no longer reasonable to assume that most Times readers have the slightest idea who these people celebrated in the wedding pages even are.
So why do the wedding pages persist? Not because they convey news, but because the tiny number of people who are wealthy or influential enough to get their weddings written up would have a fit if this privilege were taken away. (Secondarily, Chatterbox will concede that the announcements have a certain camp value for readers. Chatterbox’s late father-in-law used to play a game called “Lucky Bride of the Week,” which involved identifying the woman in the Times wedding notices who was most unsightly, or who would acquire the homeliest husband or least mellifluous married name. With fewer women taking their husband’s surnames, and less social sanction accorded ugly-girl jokes, even that pleasure is now diminished.)
The wedding pages remain because a very small aristocracy demands that they remain. And when Chatterbox says “aristocracy,” he means it largely in the traditional sense, i.e., “those who pass great wealth or power on to their children.” The Times wedding pages are clearly more meritocratic than they were in the bad old days of what Nicholas Lemann has termed the Episcopacy, but there’s a limit to how meritocratic they can be because most people, even today, are too young when they get married to have acquired much wealth or power on their own. Although the Times wedding pages no longer give much preference to Mayflower descendents, it’s still true that the best way to get your wedding written up by the Times is to be the daughter (or, increasingly, the son) of the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company. There’s little reason to believe that a female telephone receptionist’s civil union with a female dental assistant stands any greater chance of getting a Times write-up under the new, more “inclusive” policy than it ever did under the old.
To the extent that Times wedding notices have become meritocratic, they reward the crudest measures of meritocratic worth—attendance at an Ivy League college, employment at the lowest rung of a prestigious investment bank, etc. It can’t really be otherwise because bride and groom are usually too youthful to have made any significant mark on the world. Even in cases where this is not so—say, the second marriage of an anonymous but highly successful insurance executive—it’s difficult to see where the news is. Merit-based wedding announcements are simply another example of the “winner take all” nature of contemporary success, wherein high achievement (or the expectation of high achievement) confers benefits in spheres that ought to be noneconomic. Just as everybody in the United States deserves equal access to a decent education, everybody in the United States deserves equal access to the wedding pages of the New York Times. Since the Times can’t accommodate everybody, the practical way to implement the latter policy is not to accommodate anybody, unless they’re so famous that their doings really and truly command the attention of Times readers.
It might be argued that equality-minded members of America’s wealthiest families and/or cognitive elite are free to eschew having their weddings listed in the Times. (You don’t get written up unless you ask to be.) As a practical matter, though, it’s unrealistic to expect that even the most idealistic among these elect will voluntarily give up the privilege. This is probably the appropriate moment for Chatterbox to confess that in 1990, he pulled strings to have his own happy day written up in the Times. (As David Brooks noted in an amusing 1997 City Journal piece about demographic changes in the Times wedding pages, media types who were shunned in the days of the Episcopacy now enjoy privileged access.) Chatterbox knew that a Times wedding notice would give great pleasure to his parents, to his in-laws, and even, to some extent, to himself. Perhaps that makes Chatterbox a hypocrite. But if it does, Chatterbox has lots of company: Rare is the saint who will turn down a privilege he knows he doesn’t deserve, especially when nobody’s likely to criticize him for taking it. Hypocrite or not, Chatterbox can see no reason why he should be permitted to impose his vanity on a Times readership that is nearly unanimous in its indifference to Chatterbox’s marital bliss. And he sees no reason, other than parity, why gay investment bankers should be granted the same privilege.
[Update, Aug. 20: This piece has stirred an amazing amount of commentary on the “Letters” page of Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews, most of it negative. The most improbable people turn out to be enormous fans of the Times wedding pages. Eric Alterman of The Nation and MSNBC pronounces them “the best pages in the whole newspaper,” though it’s possible he’s kidding.]
[Update, Sept. 1: The Times ran its first gay-union notice in today’s Sunday paper. Between the two of them, the couple has three degrees from Yale, one from Harvard, Columbia, and Brandeis, and a Fulbright scholarship.]