Chief Conspirator Eugene commented on the legal aspects of the four-year old child and tortious negligence a couple of days ago, and linked to a story in the New York Times discussing the court’s holding. I was intrigued by something else linked to this story, but not about the law. Rather, when I opened the Times this morning – the paper edition (which, for reasons having to do with my Beloved New Yorker Wife, and despite my public announcements several times that we are giving up home delivery, continues to appear on our door at $65 a month ...) – I saw in the front page an article on this case. Not the one that Eugene linked to, but a first person essay by Susan Dominus, under a “Big City” tag. Here is a little bit from the middle:
This month, a judge ruled that the case against the 4-year-old girl involved could proceed (the family of the boy named in the suit did not file a motion for dismissal). Reading the judge’s ruling — which cites cases dating to 1928, and suggests that a 4-year-old could be held to the standard of some mythical “reasonable child” of that age — I kept flashing back to images from my college-era art history class: medieval baby Jesus, looking more like miniature adult Jesus, a representation of children as small adults so outdated as to seem almost incomprehensible through the lens of modernity.
Even as we expect our children to be ever more precocious — bilingual before kindergarten; too old at 4 for picture books, thank you; capable of showing us around our iPhones — somehow we never expect them to be ever more adult; certainly not so adult as to be potentially liable for negligence. One of my own 4-year-old twin sons not only believes Batman lives and breathes, but assumes he will someday grow up to be Batman. I have little fantasy that he is “reasonably” anything in particular when it comes to his judgment.
Obviously the Times or any other newspaper can sort out its strategy for the paper and front page however it thinks will be most successful, but I was struck that the Times has moved in the direction of an explicit magazine-type column, including first person commentary, on the front page. It is true that the Times has been essentially turning the front page into a magazine for years now, in the sense of running stories that are not really about news of the day or even the week in a format that one might see in a weekly magazine. But this was the first time I had seen the Times move to adopt a front page, first person, magazine style cultural criticism-opinion essay. Indeed, first person to the point of discussing one’s own four year children in the essay.
This is not a complaint; it is an observation about changes in how a leading newspaper sees the journalistic function of the front page. Perhaps the Times is seeking to differentiate itself from the WSJ, which despite many quirky front page stories, still maintains the stories as largely “news” stories. Perhaps it can work with the smaller and more homogenous readership that the Times seems to be targeting; I don’t know.
It does not appeal to me – and this is not about politics, but the question of whether I read the front page of a newspaper, as it were, mostly for sense or most for sensibility. The Times has for a long time been seeking to market itself as the bearer of a sensibility, exquisitely tailored (I myself find it tiresomely middle-brow, naturally, and most middle-brow in its upper-middle-brow condescensions). But of course the Times has no doubt discussed the options thoroughly for how to increase its readerly appeal at the least cost; this might be it, for all I know. Still, it did seem a noteworthy move in newspaper strategy. I would be curious if there is anything published, in the journalist-insider press, for example, on how the Times came to this editorial decision.