Monday, January 12, 2009

NYU Prof Accuses NYT Of Repeating Itself With Steven Pinker's Genome Article. He's Wrong.

NYU visiting journalism professor Dean Olsher has accused the New York Times of committing a "blunder" by printing Steven Pinker's cover story this past Sunday on personal genetics testing, 14 months after Times reporter Amy Harmon wrote "essentially the same piece" on the topic.

Olsher's wrong. The headlines may be the same, but otherwise there's almost no resemblance between the two.

It's odd to see Olsher taking a public stand on this issue without disclosing that he's worked with Pinker in the recent past. Less than two years ago, Olsher -- a radio journalist who has worked for NPR -- narrated the 2007 Penguin audio book for Pinker's bestseller, "The Stuff Of Thought." We're not sure what that connection means exactly, but we do know you won't find it mentioned on his website. You'd think an NYU journalism professor would understand the value of full disclosure.

As for the articles: Pulitzer winner Harmon wrote a newsy, 1,644-word first-person account of getting her DNA analyzed for possible future disease. Pinker's 8,010-word article filled a much larger canvas; he wrote eloquently and at length about the likelihood that such testing could accurately tell us anything about personality, or our true nature -- a topic left unaddressed by Harmon's engagingly personal but largely superficial piece. Other than their mutual interest in genetics testing, the two stories follow completely different approaches, and come to vastly different conclusions.

In fact, the Times Magazine -- usually packed to overflowing with earnest, dutiful journalism no one reads -- deserves credit this time for giving Pinker room to ruminate on a complex and fascinating topic too often written about only in medical terms. He's a celebrated thinker and academic who, from his perch as a psychology professor at Harvard, has become famous for his breezy prose style as well as his provocative ideas. In 2004, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The fact that the headlines were the same was an unfortunate accident that shouldn't take away from the articles' essential distinctions, and unique attributes.

So why was Dean Olsher so incensed? And why didn't he bother to read both articles before publicly, and falsely, labelling them the same?

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