Breakdown at the New York Times

Unprecedented dumbness strikes the good gray broadsheet.

The Dec. 4 New York Times contains the single stupidest sentence to appear in that newspaper since I began reading it more than three decades ago. It’s in a news story by Holli Chmela about the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual ceremony recognizing lifetime achievement in the performing arts. One of this year’s winners was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Here is the sentence:

Mr. Lloyd Webber is often referred to as the Shakespeare of his time with musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera.

Setting aside any aesthetic judgments (which I’ll admit is difficult), this sentence has an apples-and-oranges problem. William Shakespeare was a playwright and a poet. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a composer. Yes, they’re both popular and British and men of the theater, but to compare the two makes as much sense as comparing Nathan Lane’s acting with the set designs of Ming Cho Lee. Moreover, a quick search of the LexisNexis database indicates that it simply isn’t true that Lloyd Webber, however idiotically, is “often” compared to Shakespeare. What few comparisons turn up tend to fall into two categories:

1) Soup-to-nuts (as in the Liverpool Daily Echo noting that Cornwall’s Minack Theater hosts “a 17-week season of plays and musicals in the summer, from Shakespeare to Andrew Lloyd Webber”)2) Your-face-and-my-ass (as in Ireland’s Sunday Independent observing, “You don’t go to an Andrew Lloyd Webber show looking for Shakespeare.”)

The only favorable comparison I was able to find between Lloyd Webber and Shakespeare was from a piece by Peter Goddard in the Toronto Star, and that focused solely on business acumen: *

In truth, old Will was not a bad business role model himself, spending the years leading to his death in 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon a very rich man, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his time.”For starters, Shakespeare was from a business family,” says Bard-based American management consultant John O. Whitney, who sees the Bard as the Boss of Bosses. Shakespeare, after all, “was also a businessman, shareholder in the most successful theatre company of his time, a servant of the king.”

I don’t mean to hang Chmela out to dry. We all write something stupid now and then. But I’ve always believed it was impossible that the editors at the New York Times would ever let something this transparently stupid into their newspaper, except possibly during the last week of August or the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when most smart people go on vacation. We live and we learn.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2006: An earlier version of this column made erroneous reference to the Toronto Post. There is no Toronto Post. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)