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the mb q&a

The Mediabistro Q&A:
Randy Cohen, The New York Times Magazine's "Ethicist"

Hometown: Charleston, South Carolina.
Current gig: Writes the "Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine.
Career highlights: "News Quiz" columnist for Slate; staff writer for Late Night with David Letterman; "stupid rock band" drummer.
First job: Parking lot attendant.
First Sunday Times section he reads: Weddings.

BY TAFFY AKNER | "I make no claims to virtue," says Randy Cohen, who has written the "Ethicist" column at The New York Times Magazine since 1999. Indeed, his favorite quote about his job is from Samuel Johnson: "Be not too hasty to trust or to admire the teachers of morality. They discourse like angels, but they live like men." Leading a self-proclaimed "dull" freelance writer's life, the divorced father of a 14-year-old girl ("a fine student at Stuyvesant, I might add, with great paternal pride") works from his Upper West Side apartment, spending his day sifting through the mail, making life-changing decisions at his readers' behest, and otherwise taking newspaper, bagel, and bike-riding breaks. Now, with his first book, The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations in stores, Cohen is losing his erstwhile self-consciousness about his lack or formal qualifications for his job, but maintains that it's mostly a relief that the caricature that accompanies both the book and the column prevent him from ever ("Never! Not even once!") being recognized by his readers.

In your new book, you refer to yourself as an "accidental ethicist." Is it just me, or do you seem almost proud that you have no official credentials as an ethics expert?
[Horrified shriek.] I'm not proud! Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm seriously and truly mortified by the great mass of ignorance in which I swim every day. It's like blurting out the most shameful thing about yourself in a pre-emptive strike — being on a horrible blind date, and saying, "I killed a guy."

Have you ever taken an ethics or philosophy class?
Never.

So there's no school of ethics that you subscribe to?
There is none.

Are you familiar with the schools of ethics?
More than I was three years ago. There are many ethical precepts that I find useful and am not bound by. Like the categorical imperative — there are times when I will invoke it, but other times, it doesn't seem to be a helpful tool for the situation.

On that note, are you always trying to read and learn more?
Are you saying I could learn more?! I wish I were a better-educated person. I wish I had a Ph.D. in philosophy. That would undoubtedly be a good thing. But I'll put it to you this way: One of the functions of credentials is to help you anticipate how well someone will do a job. The reader can see now whether or not they find my performance satisfactory. There are 150 examples. And if I'm not writing something engaging, they should by all means stop reading it. As I understand our laws, it's still optional — not mandatory — to read me. But I'm spending some time in Albany to see what we can do about that.

Do you practice what you preach?
I believe it's my job to write about these things in a compelling way, but I don't believe it's a job requirement to be exceptionally virtuous. I think it would be presumptuous of me to claim to be a better-than-average person. I think it would be particularly embarrassing if I were to get caught at the supermarket with a package of steak down my trousers.

In recent columns, you've addressed the fact that people attack you personally when they disagree with your advice.
I wish they wouldn't. I blame email, frankly. People say things in email that's rude and so personal, things they wouldn't say in a regular letter — or to your face.

Who are your favorite writers?
If I had to pick one, I'd say it was Alan Bennett. I admire so much the way he's able to be simultaneously funny and heartbreakingly sad. It's pretty impressive to pull off. He sees so deeply into the human heart — then it just makes you remember 50 more people you love.

What's your favorite magazine?
I don't think there really are any good magazines.

Not even The New York Times Magazine?
Yeah, but that seems so self-serving. I'm not such a big magazine reader. I subscribe to The New Yorker and the London Review of Books (because I love Alan Bennett).

How about your favorite newspaper?
That's not hard at all. And I don't think it's self-serving to say the Times.

What's your favorite magazine or newspaper feature?
I've always admired Dan Savage's column. He seems about as smart and funny and bold as anybody.

What's the first section of the Sunday New York Times that you open up?
The weddings section. Is there anything more inspiring than reading, "Lawyer to wed other lawyer"? My heart is pounding just thinking about it! Could anything be more romantic? Well, that, and the obits. And it's not just that marriage is like death — that was just my marriage — but they both give this wonderfully vivid picture in this short space of how life is lived now.

The Times won't let you answer political questions. Does that still get to you?
That sounds slightly more restrictive than it is. I don't feel like I'm being censored at all. I really don't. They've really been splendid. But my job is to address ethics, and they have many writers on staff who are employed to write about politics. And I think that's reasonable.

Have you ever avoided a question because it was too hard?
All the time. I defer them. There's a lot that just sit around. I feel like I don't have an adequate grasp. I talk to others and continue to think about it. "You discover inadvertently that your best friend's spouse is having an affair. Do you tell?" That's really tough. It hung around for months before I could work it out.

What was your last personal ethical crisis?
I have such a dull life.

There has to be something. You're raising a child.
I decided to let her live. I can't think of one, really. I'm not being coy — you have no idea how dull my life is. I'll come back to this one. I'll try to think of something sufficiently lurid.

How's the book tour coming?
There's a bit of book publicity for me to do for about a month, but then I'll sink back into the obscurity when the book stuff goes away. Then I'll take on a new project. It is true that 99 percent of all books swiftly move from the publisher's warehouse to the [bargain] bin without stopping anywhere in between.

You never know. It might go to paperback.
Yes, I've heard that such things happen. Actually, I'm having a lot of fun with it. But really, most book-publishing experiences are really so demoralizing for the writer. How could it not be? It's like dating someone who's dating 49 other people. You just don't get that you love you as much as you love them. I think they're publishing other books even this week. They're cheating on me.

What's been the highlight of your career?
The first time The New Yorker took a piece. This was when Bob Gottlieb had the magazine — before Tina [Brown] took over, when it still counted for something. I mean, seriously, it's a nice magazine, but it doesn't matter anymore. You know, it was thrilling when they took my piece. Also, getting hired at Letterman. It was a life-changing experience, just wonderful. I did it for seven years. You'd write something, and they'd put it on TV. Astonishing. I didn't write jokes. They had trained specialists for that. There were two guys who wrote opening monologue jokes, and the other eight of us provided the two six-minute chunks needed to fill up the show in an entertaining fashion. My best piece was Monkey Cam. Those who watched the show back then will know what that is.

Where did you go to college?
Oh, I made a complete hash of my education. I got 750 on my boards, had an A average, and was a National Merit semi-finalist, and I got turned down by every college I applied to: Swarthmore, Brandeis, Antioch, and Duke. An odd selection, I grant you, but still. Brandeis? I was a Jew! It's been a source of great mystery and misery in my family for years.
I ended up at Vanderbilt for a year, then quit to play drums in some stupid rock band. Then I went to Penn State for two quarters, then left school again to play in some other stupid band in Philadelphia. Then I got fed up playing in stupid bands — or did they get fed up with me? I can't remember — and I went to Albany State for two years as a music major, studying composition.

Did you ever work as a composer?
I came back to New York and messed about, trying to lead some kind of musical life. I once had a job where I was shown slow-motion film footage of a woman pulling out a spit curl and letting it spring back in slow motion — I remember it taking about two hours. It was like an Andy Warhol movie. It was a shampoo commercial, and I was to provide the sound [that the curl made]. That's the kind of work I would get. It was not a happy time.

Do you do any work outside your New York Times column?
The Times column is the only one I write now. Up until November, I did the "News Quiz" for Slate. I stopped doing it because, like Kmart, I was a volume operation, and five columns a week is an awful lot. We shut it down on Election Day. I had to clear time because I was writing the book.

Are you freelance status for the Times?
Yes. Health insurance, some sort of vacation time, some sort of pension, things a regular worker in an advanced industrial nation would receive? Why, no. None of that. Purely freelance.

Well, I guess we're done, unless you've remembered your last ethical crisis?
Wow, I really can't think of one.

No sweat. Maybe you haven't had one. Maybe this ethics stuff just comes so naturally.
No, no, no. It's just that my powers of self-deception are vast.

Taffy Akner is fabulous.


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