Saturday, September 8, 2012

Editorializing

Roger Cohen's recent piece in the Times -- The Organic Fable -- has caused quite an uproar!

Briefly put, Cohen reports on a new study out of Stanford questions whether organic food is healthier and more nutritious than conventional foods.  Cohen uses the study as a springboard from which to go on what can only be described as a rant against what he views as an elitist and self-satisfied culture of privilege.  Based on dubious science, the organic food movement, Cohen writes, has "become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it."

I mainly write this post to share a link to Anna Zeide's excellent take-down of Cohen's argument (if you can call it that).

In the opening paragraph of her post, Zeide asks: "How can there be so much bad writing on this topic in the country's leading newspaper? How can an esteemed journalist write such poorly-argued drivel?"

I've been asking myself the same question -- a lot! -- lately.  It's not at all infrequent that I read an editorial in the Times or the Washington Post and wonder how this stuff makes it into print.  Both are very serious newspapers, both of which maintain a very high standard in their reporting.  (Although Lee's recent post puts even that statement in question.)  But in the editorial pages, it often seems like anything goes.  It does not matter if David Brooks has his facts right, or if his argument follows, because he's David Brooks.

I don't know enough about the history of newspaper publishing, but if anyone does, I'd love to learn about how the distinction between reporting and editorializing came into being.  Given my limited knowledge, my sense is that it's a fairly recent innovation.  As recently as the 19th century, entire newspapers were written in what we would now consider an editorial style.

This suggests an intriguing question: what, exactly, is the relationship (moral, epistemic, professional, and institutional) between the editorial pages and the rest of the paper?  Does the myth of objective, fact-based reporting give newspapers the license to print "poorly argued drivel" in its editorial pages.  And what does that make the editorial pages: the newspaper's id?

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out and positive review, Lukas! I really appreciate it.

    I've been feeling lots of frustration in response to the coverage of the Stanford study, but this Cohen piece really did take it over the edge, in such a prominent forum, that I just couldn't ignore it.

    Sometimes I worry that, although readers surely have an implicit sense of the difference between the reporting and the editorializing sections of the NYT, they still see all the entries as having the imprimatur of the newspaper of record, and they thus give "poorly-argued drivel" more attention than it's worth. (myself included?!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love catching up on what you all are blogging about!
    I just listened to a Freakonomics Podcast that touched on the policy of the Times' editorial page: http://www.freakonomics.com/2012/02/16/how-biased-is-your-media/
    It doesn't give you a historical picture, but might be worth a listen!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for pointing out Anna's piece, Lukas. I somehow missed it--- and it is worth the read. Cohen's editorial struck me as ridiculous, especially when he concedes all the important points in favor of organic farming in that middle paragraph. But Anna's essay doesn't just attack, it edifies!

    I am curious about the link between industrialized agriculture and decreased mortality and morbidity in the twentieth century. I am pretty content to think of the late nineteenth century transformations as a tragedy for most farmers and ag scientists (who by and large were not trying to eradicate local or family farms). But I am not certain if some of those transformations weren't better for the population at large. Is there a good history here?

    ReplyDelete