Can The New York Times Weddings Section Be Justified?

Everyone makes fun of its status obsession. But if we’re being serious, doesn’t that make it indefensible?

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At this point, the weddings section of The New York Times is almost beyond ridicule. It has been mocked endlessly for its Ivy-infatuated elitism. It has inspired a fake Twitter account (“The bride is willing to overlook her groom’s public school education, saying, ‘sometimes you take a chance–the heart wants what it wants.’”) and even a full book of parodies. Placing one’s wedding announcement in the Times has become “a sacred and important ritual that rich people have been performing for years,” something the Times itself has even acknowledged.

David Brooks, in Bobos in Paradise, described the upper-crust values that saturate the Vows section:

When you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth Marries Berkeley, MBA weds PhD, Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Frères joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna–the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person–college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession–for these are the markers of upscale Americans today…

Everyone knows, then, that the Weddings section is disproportionately stuffed with members of the elite. In fact, this can even be proven mathematically. The “Wedding Crunchers” search engine collects all of the data from Times Vows entries, allowing one to carefully break down the demographics of featured weddings. With it, one can see “the omnipresence of the Ivy League, lawyers, and Wall Street,” and changes in the composition of the upper class over time (the rise of tech companies, for instance). The numbers confirm that a “gay Princeton grad from Davis Polk” has an unusually high chance of being featured in the Times relative to the number of gay Princeton Davis Polk attorneys in the general population.

The intricate application procedure for the Weddings strongly implies what the Times is looking for. The Vows department requests that those who wish to have their nuptials featured submit “addresses, schooling and occupations,” plus “noteworthy awards the couple have received, as well as charitable activities and special achievements.” The also require “information on the residences and occupations of the couple’s parents.” The section’s editor has described the decision-making process: “the basic premise is that we’re looking for people who have achievements. It doesn’t matter what field these achievements are in.”

Interestingly, the editor’s words imply a sort of egalitarianism. You can be in any field you like, so long as you have achievements. And indeed, as the Wedding Crunchers data confirms, this represents a shift from the old Times philosophy. Before, the weddings section was a “society page” for the WASP elite, heavily featuring alumni of the same few boarding schools. These days, featured couples are more diverse, especially in race and sexual orientation.

Yet it’s clear that this equality is extremely limited. It’s still the case that the weddings section disproportionately focuses on the wealthy and highly-educated. Rarely are couples without college degrees featured, and prestigious universities predominate. To argue that the page has diversified is tantamount to saying “Why, we feature lots of different kinds of people. There are transgender Harvard grads, Hispanic Harvard grads….”

Here’s the important question: if everyone admits that the New York Times Weddings section is disproportionately weighted toward the wealthy and highly-educated, how can it possibly be justified? How is it actually acceptable for an ostensibly liberal newspaper to conclude that wealthy, well-educated people’s lives are more interesting and worth more attention than non-wealthy, less-educated people? Everyone laughs about the Weddings section, even the Times itself. But joking aside, isn’t it morally indefensible to treat people as newsworthy in accordance with their elite social status?

There are several replies the Vows editors might make. One is to return to that theme of “achievement.” After all, they do not care which field you are in, so long as you have “achieved.” But we should note, first, the use of the term “field.” “We don’t care which field you’re in” means “we don’t care if you’re a psychologist, a hedge fund manager, or an American Studies professor.” But implicitly, “fields” refer to the sort of occupations that require advanced degrees. Is “working in a bodega” a field? Unloading trucks?  

Thus the kind of things the Times counts as “achievements” follow particular, narrow definitions of meritocratic success. Getting a promotion at Target isn’t an achievement. Getting your electrician’s license isn’t an achievement. Serving honorably in the military isn’t an achievement. Being the first in your family to get your associate’s degree isn’t an achievement. By viewing “achievement” through the prism of elite values, the Times implicitly dismisses non-elite achievements as being without worth, thereby diminishing the lives of the non-wealthy.

A defense that the Times looks for “achievements,” then, only further confirms that the Times has a narrow view of what constitutes accomplishment, and of whose lives are worth writing about. You’re worth writing about if you grow up on Martha’s Vineyard and get an advanced degree in theology at Boston College while wearing a three-piece suit. If you work at a Walgreens, you are unworthy of note.

Again, everyone knows that the Times thinks this. But how is that acceptable? The Times weddings section might be a trivial piece of fluff, without any serious social consequence. But it’s odd for the nation’s paper of record to have a little feature at the back that just screams “rich people’s lives are worth more.”

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The Times might point to its occasional inclusion of a non-traditional wedding announcement. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In 2009, the Times featured the wedding announcement of two former drug addicts who had met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The paper immediately received negative feedback from readers “who said they regarded the weddings pages as a place for upstanding people with good educations who come from good families.” One wrote: “Are we telling young adults it is alright to waste half their lives in a drug stupor and somehow it will magically work out?” From both the Times’ decision to include the announcement and the readers’ reaction to it, we can see that a Times wedding listing is not simply a reporting of an average cross-section of people getting married, but follows a conception of worth. 

The Times does insist that its announcements are more inclusive these days:

As the announcements under Woletz have become more diverse, parents like a union electrician, a retired firefighter and even a courier have popped up beside orthopedic surgeons and authors.

But the defense only confirms the objection. If “even a courier” is the way couriers are thought of, then we are still dwelling in a world that sees couriers as something odd and foreign, rather than a basic thing that people do. The Times attempts occasionally to inoculate itself against the charges of elitism by sprinkling an “unusual” person here and there. But these are such obvious contrasts to the rest of the page that they only confirm its general character.

Of course, the Times could always fall back on that classic journalist’s cop-out: we’re just giving the readers what they want. But this defense should never be taken seriously. (It’s often deployed to justify giving disproportionate coverage to atrocities committed against Westerners against those committed against non-Westerners.) The existence of a market for something cannot justify its existence. To test the absurd extreme of the principle: if I start a magazine called Kitten Stompers Monthly, and someone objects to my publishing a magazine about stomping kittens to death, it is no defense for me to say “Well, I’m just giving my readers what they want.” Of course I’m giving my readers what they want. But my readers clearly have despicable values, so why would that exonerate me?

The majority of New Yorkers (like the majority of Americans generally) do not have college degrees. Yet almost without exception, those featured in the New York Times weddings section have attended college, often a highly prestigious college. Let’s be clear what this means: a paper run by liberals, who would profess themselves averse to inequality, openly treats most of the population as insignificant. Now, perhaps this is not unexpected. Nobody, at this point, is surprised at the hypocrisy and elitism of The New York Times. But how do they defend it? How can they possibly believe themselves progressive while continuing to publish something that so openly views wealth and education as markers of virtue? How can they justify seeing “getting a Yale anthropology degree” as an accomplishment but not “working a physically-demanding job”?

My hunch is that the Times staff all implicitly do feel as if going to a prestigious university is more of an accomplishment than becoming a shift supervisor at a Costco. But my hunch is also that few of them would feel comfortable admitting that they feel this way. Yet if they really do believe it’s acceptable to prioritize certain people’s lives over others, they should be willing to say so, and openly state the reasons why, as well as their case for how this comports with their liberal values.

The ugly hypocrisy of the Times wedding page has been pointed out before. In 2002, journalist Timothy Noah called for its abolition, since it is “built on the false assumption that the weddings of wealthy non-celebrities constitute news.” (Noah’s case was undercut somewhat by the fact that he admitted having lobbied heavily to have his own wedding included in the section.) But for some reason, no amount of scorn seems to induce any amount of shame. Yet it is shameful. It’s completely trivial. But it’s shameful. And the Times should either justify the Weddings Section, by explaining why it’s acceptable to be an elitist, or get rid of it entirely. 

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.