The NYT's continuing coverage of the economic crisis moves to Michael's this morning, the lunch scene for the literary world where suddenly, customers are now forced to forgo bottled water and, at times, even appetizers.
The thesis of Laura M. Holson's story is that business lunchers no longer leap for the check -- a dubious notion to begin with for anyone who has ever been within arm's reach of a Michael's lunch tab. Holson contends that in the wake of the downturn, publishers once happy to plunk down the Amex now stare at the check in the hopes of rendering it invisible.
The story exists mostly thanks to the generous quote-mongering of Larry Kirshbaum, a former publishing executive-turned-agent whose flair for exaggeration should be a cautionary tale for anyone who might want to publish his memoirs.
Kirshbaum complains that instead of long lunches at Patroon, his colleagues take him to the Comfort Diner on East 45th Street, "where a grilled cheese sandwich costs $8.95." Didn't Holson or Kirshbaum (or the editors of the Dining Section) stop short on that price? That would rank among the most expensive grilled-cheese sandwiches in the United States.
Sure enough, a check of the Comfort Diner menu online (elapsed reporting time: 7 seconds) revealed that the cost of a Comfort Diner grilled cheese sandwich is, in fact, $5.95, with bacon and tomato available at no charge.
Next, Kirshbaum asserts that a "top book publisher" invited him to lunch this week, only to then reveal the restaurant of choice: McDonald's.
A great detail. Sorry, but we don't believe it. Not after the grilled-cheese fiasco.
You know reporters are pressing a hard-to-prove thesis when they're forced to quote a corporate flack -- in other words, someone paid a salary to give interviews to desperate NYT reporters. Holson (formerly on the Hollywood beat) pads her piece by quoting Peter Thonis, "chief communications officer" for Verizon Communications. Thonis tells her he now takes reporters to coffee, instead of lunch, to help them avoid ethical issues created by their poverty. "It is a tricky balance, maintaining relationships in these precarious times," Thonis said. Spoken like a true communications officer.
But there is a tricky balance here. It's between our genuine concern for Americans suffering from the ravages of a painful recession, and the NYT's seemingly endless obsession with the narrow concerns of the not-quite-so-rich as they cope with the fallout. It's time for the NYT to stop embarrassing itself with these stories, and devote its dwindling reportorial fire power to the real, painful problems confronting Americans who can't afford a grilled-cheese sandwich at any price.