Sunday, April 04, 2004

Okrent Control 

My actual email to Okrent (and the editor of the magazine), which is a bit more reasonable:

Dear Mr. Okrent --

I realize you've been getting a lot of complaints about columnist accuracy lately, and most of that is simply a partisan mud-fight, but I hope you've had the chance to actually look at the more reasoned critics, from both the left and right, as their criticisms of the columnists ability to write "the truth" as opposed to a "wrong-headed" opinion comes to be much more important when columnists write for another section of the paper.

I'm referring to this Sunday's Times Magazine feature by David Brooks. I'll tell you now (so you can safely disregard this email as yet another left-wing whine) that I disagree with his politics. But the man's politics have nothing to do with his ability as a Journalist or a Social Critic, two things I think he is very bad at.

Mr. Brooks is a lazy writer. I'm sure you've been emailed this link a thousand times, but this article in Philadelphia Magazine points out a few examples of laziness in his previous work.

There aren't any lies in Mr. Brooks' "Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia." There are no misrepresentations of facts, because there are simply no facts in it. There are about four statistics, but other than that, he never bothers to tell us where, exactly, he picks up all the information he relates in such an authoritative, Sociological tone.

How, for example, does he know this:
"For example, if you are driving across the northern band of the country -- especially in Vermont, Massachusetts, Wisconsin or Oregon -- you are likely to stumble across a crunchy suburb. These are places with meat-free food co-ops, pottery galleries, sandal shops (because people with progressive politics have a strange penchant for toe exhibitionism). Not many people in these places know much about the for-profit sector of the economy, but they do build wonderful all-wood playgrounds for their kids, who tend to have names like Milo and Mandela. You know you're in a crunchy suburb because you see the anti-lawns, which declare just how fervently crunchy suburbanites reject the soul-destroying standards of conventional success. Anti-lawns look like regular lawns with eating disorders. Some are bare patches of dirt, others are scraggly spreads of ragged, weedlike vegetation, the horticultural version of a grunge rocker's face."

And, for that matter, what suburb is this? Has he driven through it? Does he know these wacky, rich hippies? I mean, besides having made them up for his last book?

This is what I mean by lazy writing: generalizations based on confirming stereotypes. "Everyone knows" this group lives like this. "Everyone knows" these people shop at these stores. Brooks' writing often seems to be like the routine of an observational comedian -- "you ever notice how rich liberal doctors only drive the cars of countries that are hostile to our foreign policy?" (that bit of paraphrased wisdom is from the paragraph after the one I quoted)

This kind of thing is perfectly fine in his columns, and even in his books, but the Times Magazine, as an instrument of the Times, shouldn't put forth lazy, un-researched stereotypes as journalism or social critique.

A correction would be pointless. There's nothing to correct, because no facts have been presented. But if you could maybe explain a bit further the policies of the Times Magazine, the standards for publication of a work by a Times staffer, or how the requirements for objectivity differ from the rest of the paper, I would be interested. I think all your readers would be served by a higher burden of proof for articles claiming to explain some (possibly invented) new social phenomena.


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