Tropes of the Times


And the award for The New York Times‘ cliché of the year goes to . . . an insider and an outsider. Yes, the newspaper’s trope du jour pairs these words in hopes of giving readers a pleasing paradoxical jolt. Thus, on August 25, the Times‘ Charlie LeDuff wrote that while Arnold Schwarzenegger was billing himself as “the Sacramento outsider,” he had “surrounded himself with accomplished Sacramento insiders.” The concept of an outsider among insiders, the wise-cracking reporter added, might be a good theme for the next Schwarzenegger flick.

LeDuff wasn’t the first to use the winning paradigm, nor will he be the last. Herewith other examples of Times usage: Under the headline “Ex-Insider Becomes an Outsider on Gun Issue,” the paper of record profiled a gun industry lobbyist turned whistle-blower. A former civil rights activist who worked recently to get rid of New York City party primaries was dubbed an “Inside Outsider, Still Fighting for Disenfranchised.” Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean prompted the headline “Mr. Inside Embraces Mr. Outside, and What a Surprise.”

The Times posed so many subjects on the in/out threshold this year that it’s beginning to look like a crutch. For example, novelist Meghan Daum recalled at a May reading that “a writer needs to be an outsider,” but “at the party afterward, she proved it pays to be an insider, too.” The late artist Ad Reinhardt was “a consummate art-world insider,” but “his ingrained populism made him suspicious” of insiders’ rhetoric and power-brokering. In a profile of artist Robert Indiana, who lives off the coast of Maine, the Times noted, “Once a downtown art-world insider, [Indiana has transformed himself into] the consummate art-world outsider.”

In the old days, when social status was more secure, readers knew what it meant when the Times called someone a “quintessential insider” or “consummate outsider.” But in the age of recession and terror, every boundary is porous and a good citizen can never tell where the enemy lurks. Outside is the new inside, and vice versa.

In part, the uncertainty can be traced to spiraling global violence, which had everybody worried about their location. Thus, a Jerusalem rabbi told the Times, “When you get on the bus, you check everyone out before you sit down. At restaurants, you wonder, is it safer to be inside or outside?” Early in 2003, Maureen Dowd described the kind of confusion that came to typify the war: “The Pentagon started last year with an ‘inside out’ strategy that would rely on a quick capture of Baghdad. . . . That was scrapped in favor of the ‘outside in’ strategy that we’re now witnessing, [but Saddam responded] with his own ‘inside out’ strategy.”

In New York, even something as mundane as the smoking crackdown had residents worried about their security. When a Times reporter had his drink seized at the door of an East Village bar last summer, he noted, “You can’t smoke inside, you can’t drink outside.” Further underscoring the tension, the Times ran several stories about businesses that use feng shui to balance unseen forces that exist indoors and out.

To recall the old-fashioned distinctions, consider some of the Times‘ “insiders” of 2003: presidential candidates John Kerry and Richard Gephardt, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, and former Clinton aide Sid Blumenthal. The Times profiled its share of “outsiders,” too, including presidential candidates Wesley Clark and John Edwards, a former trial lawyer. Some would argue that staying away from the red-hot center helps ward off corruption. Thus, when John Reed was named interim CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, the Times noted that this inside/outsider, “during a long career in commercial banking, kept his distance from stock exchanges and brokerage houses.”

To be sure, the Times adores insiders. This year, the paper fetishized such “insider hot spots” as Soho House, a private club in Manhattan, and interviewed the friends of hedge fund manager Edward Stern when he turned up in an inside-trading scandal. Insiders remain the preferred job applicants, both because they know the rules (a key factor in choosing The Washington Post‘s gossip columnist, the Times reported) and because they can talk the talk (a Times op-ed noted that jargon “may be foreign to outsiders, but it is lingua franca to insiders—the codes . . . that allow colleagues to live together well.”)

It is possible to trust an insider too much, as the Times learned when it had to fire fabricator-plagiarist Jayson Blair. An outsider on account of being African American, Blair forged inside connections and blurred geographical lines. In the end he became a centrifugal force strong enough to dislodge two top editors and to prompt what Frank Rich called “two outpourings of rage, both that directed at the Times from outside and that boiling over from within.” In Blair’s wake, the Times hired ombudsman Daniel Okrent, who hyped himself as an “outsider”—though he writes like a pensioned insider.

In the classic sense, “outsiders” are noble heroes known for their undesirable class status and seething resentment of insiders. (The term was popularized by a 1983 Francis Ford Coppola film that pitted greasers against rich kids in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) Authentic outsiders named by the Times this year include Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, immigrants of all stripes, and the boxer/gangster/soldier type played by the “ethnic” actor John Garfield.

Outcasts can be allowed a break. For example, the Times noted, the snobbish Lord Byron “had some compassion for outsiders . . . provided they were picturesque.” And they are always welcome in the arts. The Times‘ 2003 crop of outsiders included David Bowie, critic Alfred Kazin (“an eager outsider”), photographer Bruce Davidson (“the outsider’s insider”), and Yoko Ono (“I always had such a feeling of being an outsider”). Indeed, comedians who remain strangers to the fringe are doomed: One critic noted that while “the best monologists are outsiders who thrive on skewering the status quo,” Bob Hope was an “inveterate insider who treasured his access to the powerful”—and whose jokes lacked edge.

Alas, 2003 will go down as the year the Times introduced “Fashion Insider Ken” and used “outsider décor” to describe an actor’s habit of collecting found objects. It was the year the Times promoted a collection of “outsider art” (defined by Christie’s as work made by “insane, institutionalized, unschooled, and other ‘culturally isolated’ individuals”), first calling the work a hard sell, then asking why it couldn’t be sold, then explaining why heavily hyped outsiders might turn into sellouts. Finally, it was the year the Times‘ Guy Trebay reported that because mainstream marketers have learned “how to bottle the subversive, the margins, the fringe,” there are no outsiders left to co-opt.

Now all that remain are faux outsiders, the ones who drop the insights as soon as they get in the door. One hopes the Times will get better at screening the two-faced cliché. As R.W. Apple Jr. asked about Howard Dean recently, “Is he an outsider still, or is he an insider? On tour last weekend, he sometimes sounded like both in the same day.”