If we policed every instance of puffery in the NYT, we'd need a small army of NYTPickers.
But Amy Wallace's Sunday Business section cover story -- a 3,126-word profile of Cesar Millan, better known as "The Dog Whisperer" -- stands as a classic example of the form. In epic length, Wallace manages to rhapsodize almost non-stop about the famous dog trainer, and to reduce any criticism to a, well, whisper.
"Not everyone agrees with Mr. Millan's methods," begins a paragraph more than 2,000 words in, where Wallace finally mentions a minor criticism of Millan raised by s single dog trainer.
But in fact, as any dog owner knows -- including Jill Abramson, the NYT's managing editor, who mentioned Millan in her NYT blog a few weeks ago -- Millan is a controversial, even polarizing figure whose popularity has brought with it some serious objection to his methods.
In her August 3 "Puppy Diaries" column about her new puppy, Scout, Abramson referred to "a raging argument between those who favor the Cesar Millan pack leader approach, which requires firm command and control, and those who prefer the positive reinforcement and reward technique used by Diane and other trainers."
No mention of that conflict, or any others, in Wallace's wet, sloppy kiss.
But in fact, Wallace would have had to go no further than back issues of the NYT -- or even Wikipedia -- to find evidence that Millan's methods have drawn significant opposition.
In September 2005, the American Humane Association (a watchdog group that keeps an eye on popular culture for animal mistreastment) asked the National Geographic Channel to stop airing Millan's "Dog Whisperer" series, calling his methods "inhumane, outdated and improper."
In a February, 2006 NYT story, the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, said the Millan had "put dog training back 20 years." He specifically criticized Millan's advocacy of pinning dogs down and pulling on their leash as part of the training process. Dodman also said he approached the TV channel to ask that they discontinue the show.
Wikipedia also makes references to two legal battles that Millan faced, including a lawsuit from a client and another from two former publicists. Both settled out of court.
But you won't find any of this -- or, for that matter, any real assessment of Millan's methods -- anywhere in Wallace's story. Instead, she blathers on endlessly with the encomia of movie stars and other dog owners who've used Millan to train their dogs.
"It's a miracle," the story begins.
"It's unbelievable," starts the second paragraph.
To her credit, Wallace does acknowledge her epic lateness to the subject (yet another flaw of the story) right away. "If you have a television, you may know Mr. Millan," she writes. She mentions his three bestsellers, his magazine and, of course, the show's high ratings. She doesn't mention that Millan has been frequently profiled and written about elsewhere, including a Q&A with the NYT Magazine's Deborah Solomon in May 2006.
Other classic lines from Wallace's piece:
"No wonder Mr. Millan's reputation as a fixer...has been immortalized in pop culture."
"Not bad for a once-poor native of Culiacan, Mexico....When he talks about transformation, in other words, he's living proof that anything's possible."
"According to MPH Entertainment, the production company that is Mr. Millan's partner...he will be a $100 million business in a few years. And he says he's just getting started."
"Like the dogs that he is world-famous for understanding -- and, notably, unlike some of their owners -- Mr. Millan doesn't judge others. Instead, he lives in the now and maintains a sort of über-balanced mien."
And that's just in the first thousand words.
Oh wait, we forgot. What about that paragraph that mentioned Millan's weaknesses? Here's what Wallace wrote:
“Positivist” trainers like Ian Dunbar reject the idea that a submissive dog is a happy dog. Mr. Dunbar advocates treating dogs as companions, not followers. While Mr. Millan uses his hand like a mother dog uses her mouth — to nudge dogs to behave — Mr. Dunbar shuns physical corrections and relies instead on treats and rewards.
But lest anyone else get the last word, Wallace hands Millan the mike:
To each his own, says Mr. Millan, whose favored “tsst!” sound is a correction heard around the world. “It’s just that I think I know something you might not know,” he says. “An open-minded human can learn from anybody.”
It's sad to see such weak work from Wallace, who has done distinguished journalism at the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine, where her memorably aggressive 2001 profile of Variety editor Peter Bart made her a finalist for a National Magazine Award. There's no evidence of her tough, skeptical side in today's piece.
Tsst! to Sunday Business editor Tim O'Brien and NYT business editor Larry Ingrassia for letting Wallace's poorly reported and deeply one-sided profile into print.