At a Branford College Master’s Tea Wednesday afternoon, Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker and an editor-at-large at New York Magazine, spoke to a group of roughly 50 students about topics of television, technology and journalism.
Nussbaum spoke about how television influences audiences and how the development of new technology such as TiVo and DVDs has allowed television to be viewed as art as well as entertainment. Although the tea was delayed by an hour due to a “traffic snafu,” according to an email from Branford Operations Manager Susan Anderson, Nussbaum didn’t let that time go to waste. She allowed students to ask her questions via text message, and her replies — ranging from her favorite “Sex and the City” characters to her current writing projects — were then read aloud at the event.
After Nussbaum’s arrival, Branford Master Betsy Bradley GRD ’96 began the talk with a question on the relationship between digital culture and the growth of television. Nussbaum replied by mentioning how her interest in television criticism initially began on Internet discussion boards, such as Television Without Pity, and dates back to her days of watching “Dawson’s Creek.”
“Television is a form that is historically condescended to — it is graded on a curve because people do not take it as seriously as they should,” she said. “Being critical of a TV show … raises the quality of television as a whole.”
When asked if she believed television could be considered an academic discipline, Nussbaum said there is already an academic field that exists around discussing television — even if it exists primarily online and “may not occur within the confines of an established institution.”
Nussbaum described how her path to becoming a writer was not a traditional one. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1988, she tried her hand at a wide range of fields, including working at a women’s shelter, writing 70 pages of a novel and contributing to Lingua Franca, an academic magazine.
Although she attributed much of her professional success to lucky timing, her cardinal piece of advice to the audience was to work for talented editors. Nussbaum noted that she began writing for The New York Times when her editor at Slate, Jodi Kantor, became the editor of The New York Times Arts & Leisure section.
“Never disbelieve that knowing people helps,” she said. “It is important to have a political sense of what is going on in the journalism world.”
She also told students interested in writing professional criticism that they need to be confident and “have swashbuckle” about their ideas.
Nussbaum mentioned “The Wire,” “Scandal” and “30 Rock” as some of her favorite shows. She said she is particularly proud of a piece she wrote for The New Yorker website — titled “In Defense of Liz Lemon” — that responded to backlash over the changing tone of Tina Fey’s character.
When she is writing her columns, Nussbaum said she often needs to find ways to insert criticism because her default response to television is optimistic. Still, she noted that when she does find fault, the show “cannot simply be bad — it must be bad in a meaningful way.”
Nussbaum also explained that shows do not have to be cinematic or expensive to be meaningful. She cited “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Sopranos” as two examples of shows that, while differing in style and budget, were both successful.
Still, Nussbaum stressed the limitations of her knowledge of television, specifically on the business end of things.
“I am always wrong about what will be a commercial success,” she said.
After the talk, students expressed appreciation of Nussbaum’s advice and honesty in approaching the field of journalism.
Jack Newsham ’14, a former deputy opinion editor for the News and chairman of The Yale Record, which sponsored the Master’s Tea along with Branford College, said that he found Nussbaum entertaining and that the “crowd hung onto what she was saying.”
Caleb Madison ’15 said Nussbaum’s voice in person sounded exactly the way he imagined from her writing. For Dara Eliacin ’15, the most interesting part of Nussbaum’s talk was hearing about the influence of social media on the way viewers engage with television.
In addition to television, Emily Nussbaum said she enjoys fiction, memoirs, poetry, stand-up comedy and Broadway musicals.