Alex Kuczynski is a dish best served cold

Why did the New York Times allow a longtime style writer to look like a jerk in its own magazine?


Amy Benfer
December 10, 2008 1:01AM (UTC)

Last week, we and many, many, many others took one look at the cover of the New York Times magazine and came up with the same conclusion: Someone must really have it in for longtime style reporter Alex Kuczynski. Not only did they essentially allow her to hang herself by running a first-person essay in which she describes her experience hiring another woman to carry her biological child with all her petty resentments and tone-deaf musings on class intact. But they also chose to punctuate the whole sorry mess by selecting photos that were clearly meant to underscore the class differences between the two women, pictures whose impact had somehow eluded their own writer.

This disparity didn't escape the sharp editorial minds at the paper of record either. "The cumulative effect struck some readers as elitist," writes public editor Clark Hoyt in what surely must be the understatement of the week. (Also: Any guesses as to why Hoyt deems the controversy on both this story and a front-page story on Angelina Jolie worthy of space in his column, and yet continues to make smirking asides about how both pieces address topics "far from the weighty issues of the day"?)

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Those sentiments have apparently beamed their way to Ms. Kuczynski, via the 400 or more comments posted to her article before the thread was cut off. But she's blaming the photos. Apparently she, like everyone else, noticed that they were "incendiary" and "disagreed" with their publication. Huh. While everyone seems to agree that the photos make Kuczynski look like a neo-colonialist mistress standing in front of a modern-day Tara, it’s hard to figure out why, exactly, Kuczynski didn't figure that out until she saw her life spread out in glorious full color on the photo editor's desk. Culture Vulture took a stab at an explanation:

a) The photographer went rogue, and without informing the magazine's editor or photo editor or the subject, beamed the nanny into the above shot, using the hologram technology CNN used during the Election Night coverage. (b) Alex Kuczynski is actually blind and deaf. This would explain why she not only failed to hear the photographer going "Oy, nanny, stand here looking as though you may be expected to take the sniveling brat back at any minute," and didn't realize, when it came to the cover shoot, that she was wearing a little black dress, a chignon, and those shoes with famously splashy red soles while her surrogate mom was wearing the Wal-Mart Special. Or (c) she trusted the place she's worked at for years not to let her look like a jerk. Whoops.

So why did they let her look like a jerk? Jill Abramson, who, as the managing editor for news presumably knew something about the piece before it went to press, admits that Kuczynski didn't spend enough time on the class differences between the two women and "got people thinking there was a kind of cluelessness about that." As for the photo: It "dripped with to-the-manor-born."

What's missing is an explanation of why someone at the paper didn't think to mention this "cluelessness" to their writer in the many weeks and/or months before this piece ended up on the cover of the magazine. Perhaps somewhere in the process known as "editing"? Isn't it a little sleazy to let a woman who has spent more than a decade in your employment look like a narcissistic asshole on the cover of your magazine? Might it also undercut the credibility of your magazine?

Honestly, upon reflection, I’m not so sure that it's such a terrible way of doing business. This piece is uncannily similar to the Emily Gould cover story of a few months back, which suggests that perhaps the Times is a little too comfortable with allowing women writers to stir up controversy with salacious first-person essays. And I really do empathize with surrogate mother Cathy Hilling, who said she was frustrated with the one-sidedness of the story and said she wished she had more of a part in it. I do, too.

And yet I cant help feeling that the story as it stands serves a fairly useful instructional purpose. When I wrote on it last week, plenty of readers pointed out that part of the reason I was able to skewer Kuczynski was because she had given all of us plenty of ammunition with her brutal honesty. This doesn't mean the rest of us should lay off, any more than, say, the dude who brags about being an asshole boyfriend should get a free pass on being an asshole boyfriend. Moreover, as another woman who writes first-person essays, I can certainly attest to the days and weeks of trauma one must endure after the horror of seeing pages of letters and blog links all describing the particular brand of awfulness embedded in your particular psychic makeup. But as a reader, and, incidentally, an on-again, off-again editor who began my career largely editing first-person essays by women on difficult topics, I have no problem understanding why that piece ran the way it did. We absolutely don't have to agree with her; we don't even have to defend her. But honestly, I think we learned much more from looking at surrogate pregnancy through Alex Kuczynski's jaundiced lens than we ever would from a judicious, equally balanced perspective. Now it's up to someone else to write from the other side.

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Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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