You didn’t have to be the son or daughter of somebody famous to be written about in the New York Times Magazine during 2013, but it helped. Last year the Times Magazine published stories about the offspring of David Mamet, Ted Kennedy, Mel Brooks, Stephen King, Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (and perhaps Frank Sinatra?), and Johnny Cash. Expanding the kinship circle to include blood relatives of famous people, we discover additional Times Magazine articles about Ernest Hemingway‘s granddaughter and Ben Affleck‘s brother, and a Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg‘s sister. All of these pieces spring from journalism’s gentler provinces, that expanse of lavender and honeybees where tough questions might be asked, but the writer stands ready to catch the subject — “trust game style” — should the question ruffle.
The soft feature has a place in journalism, of course. Not every article need be an interrogation, a prosecution, or an execution to earn our attention. But the uniform generosity exhibited in these Times Magazine pieces poses the question of how many marshmallows a reader should be asked to swallow before he can ask for a barf bag. Kindness has its place: Children, animals, our colleagues and even prisoners of war deserve a default setting of kindness from us. But, as a former boss of mine loved to say, journalism isn’t a Montessori school. Conflict husks the seed to its germ faster and better than the investigative device of kindness. But few celebrities or their kin will submit to the grinder when they know they can get a journalistic massage for the asking. The average value of features produced via celebrity ego-massage might be low, but kindness will deliver future returns, encouraging other celebrities to agree to sit for their own soft-focus portraits.
I single out the Times Magazine for abuse not because it created nepotism. Nor is it the Times Magazine‘s fault that a certain percentage of famous people owe all or a smidgen of their fame to their ancestry. Nor do I believe the Times Magazine has any exclusive on the easy-does-it-on-the-famous-relatives beat. The style section of your local newspaper, your city magazine and any number of popular titles on the newsstand are likely to contain similar featherweight features and Q&As. It’s just because I expect more bites and fewer licks from the alpha dog of journalism. The sogginess of these stories probably has as much to do with the choice of subjects as it does the editorial tip-toeing. It might be possible to write a two-fisted profile of a junior member of the Mamet, Kennedy, Brooks, King, Hemingway, Affleck, Zuckerberg, Farrow, or Cash clans, but I wouldn’t want that assignment. Only columnists can reliably make something out of nothing.
To dismiss the Times Magazine profiles and other examples of the genre as nepotism pieces is too harsh. To completely ignore the nepotistic element, though, would constitute malpractice. Our interest in literary, political, business and entertainment celebrities is well-founded: As status-seeking creatures, we constantly chart who is up and who is down inside our orbit, who must be worshiped and who must be shunned, who is sacred and who deserves a fastball to the head, and we hone this skill by practicing it on famous people we’ve never met. It’s the iPhone game you can play without having to whip out an iPhone. Because most of us obsess about the families we come from and the families we’ve created or married into, it’s natural for us to want to measure our families against those of the famous. But that’s the amateur anthropologist in me talking, not the professional journalist. Understanding the appeal of sugar-hearted journalism is not the same as justifying it.
If it’s justification you seek, scratch a journalist on this topic and he’ll patiently explain the appeal of writing famous offspring pieces. To begin with, it’s easy. To profile a relatively unknown artist, politician, or business person is hard work: The journalist must do original reporting, draw a vivid picture of the subject, and make the reader care about the topic. But if the subject is the offspring of a Kennedy, a King, or a Cash, no matter how accomplished or unknown they are, no matter how much or how little they owe to nepotism, the scenes and synopsis of the piece can be drawn with a crayon. The writer doesn’t have to introduce the subject because the reader already knows plenty about him or about the dynasty to which he belongs. He’s a Kennedy for god’s sake! We all know what a Kennedy is! Great chunks of the piece can be gathered from Nexis and repurposed to remind the reader of what he already knows about the clan and fill him in on what he doesn’t. After a couple thousand words of typing—of annotation and updating—the writer is finished.