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Sonny Rollins + the New Yorker

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When executives at chemical plants fail to inspect their facilities, standards grow lax, things crack and toxic substances wind up leaking into rivers and polluting the water supply. Established publications face similar custodial issues relating to their editorial content and the public trust. After all, most of us buy established publications and visit their sites under the assumption that what we read is true and that the line between truth and fabrication will be clear. It's a matter of trust.

Last week, the public was unknowingly duped by The New Yorker. The magazine's online edition posted a “Daily Shouts" column by Django Gold, a senior writer for The Onion, a satirical site that specializes in japes. The New Yorker column was entitled “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words“ and featured a series of 11 quotes attributed to Sonny, including this one: “I really don’t know why I keep doing this. Inertia, I guess. Once you get stuck in a rut, it’s difficult to pull yourself out, even if you hate every minute of it. Maybe I’m just a coward."

The problem is none of the quotes in the column came from Sonny. Even worse, The New Yorker never bothered to warn readers that the column was satire. Apparently, the magazine thinks we all should know what's a joke and what's not.

By now, it's clear to most thinking people that we are living in a jackass culture, where the people who do inappropriate, outrageous things in public get the most laughs. This new twisted sense of humor ranges from calling in phony threats to institutions to YouTube videos of people being spoofed in fake interviews. Humor today is increasingly about shock and gotcha, while subtlety and art take a back seat to the clever shenanigans of gagsters and guerrilla towel snappers. I suppose the jackass culture's rise has something to do with the high percentage of terrifying news stories today, which has created an appetite for humor that is increasingly surreal and disturbing. Think Mondo Cane meets Candid Camera.

Why would The New Yorker, one of the country's finest and most esteemed print magazines, wade into the jackass morass? The only reasonable answer is ivory-tower insensitivity. In the case of the Sonny Rollins spoof, there's a disturbing subtext that smart editors missed. Boiled down, the fun at Sonny's expense seems to be saying that jazz is a joke and a futile endeavor, that Sonny is a fool and a laughing stock who has been wasting his time with that saxophone of his, that jazz's struggle to remain relevant in an age of nihilistic pop is slapstick funny—like videos of an injured giraffe struggling repeatedly to get to its feet. This is repulsive for a magazine that prides itself on its arts coverage.

At one point in the New Yorker column, Gold writes in Sonny's name, “I released fifty-odd albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and played on God knows how many session dates. Some of my recordings are in the Library of Congress. That’s idiotic. They ought to burn that building to the ground. I hate music. I wasted my life." This “quote" is an overreach even for Gold and casts Sonny as a muddled arsonist.

Assuming the New Yorker's column of invented quotes is clever (beats actually interviewing him), one finds it hard to imagine the magazine's editors or guest columnist playing the same cruel game with Jay-Z [above], Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift or any superstar with a powerful, backbreaking legal team. Instead, it chose to have fun at the expense of a defenseless jazz legend whose gifts to this country's culture will last far longer than virtually everyone else on stage today.

But there's an even bigger problem here. Like that lax chemical plant, the New Yorker column of fake quotes is now in the Internet's blood stream, which means that somewhere down the line someone is going to assume that Sonny actually said them. And this is where the New Yorker's lame attempt at humor becomes as puzzling as it is frightening. Either the esteemed print side had no idea what its electronic crew was up to, or the print editors have thrown in their lot with the jackass culture, an unfortunate misstep for the magazine's brand and reputation. Jackasses don't pay their subscription bills.

The irony in all of this is that the column, though fiction, is rather funny once you know what's going on. The gross error here isn't what was written but that the magazine's online crew never told readers that this was all made up. “Shouldn't we at least tell the reader this is a goof?" someone smart must have asked at the editorial meeting prior to posting. At which point, the online editor must have insisted, “No, no we can't—that would spoil the fun."

Simply put, passing information along as fact under the assumption that everyone will know it's a joke is poor editorial judgment. But in the new jackass culture, anything goes, and if you feel offended, well, you clearly can't take a joke. All of this makes me wonder how far off we are from adopting the new European law that forces Google to delete links to personal information that are irrelevant or not in the public’s interest.

All of this reminds me of the Seinfeld episode called “The Cartoon," in which the Elaine character confronts the New Yorker's cartoon editor about how unfunny and unintelligible the cartoons are. When the editor finally admits that he doesn't understand them either, Elaine stands up and says, “You people should be ashamed of yourselves." I'm with Elaine. The New Yorker owes Sonny an apology and a disclaimer on Gold's column.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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