Tuesday, October 5, 2010

It's True: Spaghetti Tacos "Expert," Prof. Robert Thompson, Has Now Been Interviewed By 78 Different NYT Reporters.

In tomorrow's NYT, reporter Helene Stapinski performs what might appear to be a near-impossible feat of journalism dexterity -- producing a college professor to support her thesis that more Americans now consume spaghetti tacos than ever before.

“Spaghetti tacos has made it possible to eat spaghetti in your car,” Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, tells Stapinski. “It’s a very important technological development. You don’t even need a plate.”

But maybe Stapinski's reportage isn't so remarkable, after all. In fact, she's only continuing a longstanding NYT tradition in quoting Thompson -- and has become the 78th NYT reporter to do so, in 150 separate stories over the span of almost two decades. We counted!

Only last month, Thompson was quoted in four television-related NYT stories over a ten-day period: an advertising column by Abby Ellin, a sports story by Pete Thamel, and pieces by two regularly Thompson-dependent television reporters, Richard Sandomir and Bill Carter. (Thamel has quoted Thompson 3 times, and Ellin has quoted him only once before -- while Sandomir has turned to Thompson for expertise on 8 previous occasions. Carter has quoted the professor in a NYT record-shattering 18 separate stories, )

Before the September quote spree, Thompson last appeared in the NYT in July to help explain the "Snooki" phenomenon to fashion critic Cathy Horyn for a Sunday Styles story -- Thompson's Ph.D apparently entitling him to pontificate on her pouf.

“Everything about this show is super-sized — from the over-the-top hair to the over-the-top nature of the comments,” Thompson told Horyn. Nice soundbite, Bob!

To these 78 NYT reporters, Thompson has offered a convenient shortcut past that necessary evil of journalism: the expert quote. Thompson's superior ability to deliver short, pithy comments on a wide spectrum of topics, on deadline -- along with his handy "professor" title -- has made him indispensable to the hordes of NYT reporters who've desperately dialed him for that all-important dollop of hot air.

We don't mean to suggest that Thompson isn't qualified to comment on television and popular culture. He's written and edited several books on television, chaired the Popular Culture Association, and runs the school's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. He went to the University of Chicago as a political science major, and got his Ph.D from Northwestern. Impressive credentials.

And Thompson has his own reasoned defense of the NYT's dependence on him.

"I understand the argument against 'rolodex journalism and the accusations that frequent use of the same source can be a sign of laziness on the part of the writer," Thompson told us via email last summer, just after his Snooki interview. "I'd like to think, though, that I get as many calls as I do (from the Times and lots of other publications) because I can provide an integrated level of background and insight that is useful to the story and relatively unique."

Less impressive is the NYT's co-dependent relationship with Thompson, to produce quotes on subjects that don't exactly pertain to his expertise. In turning to Thompson repeatedly for a glib assessment of just about anything, NYT reporters have revealed their willingness to sacrifice true expertise for the expedience of a quick phone call.

Consider these wide-ranging Thompson quotes that have appeared in the NYT with Thompson's name, culled from nearly two decades' worth of clips since he first turned up in a Randall Rothenberg essay on television as art, published almost twenty years ago to the day -- on October 7, 1990:

COMPUTERS. "We really have returned here, in spite of the centralization of technology, to the old-fashioned definition of what folk culture used to be," said Robert J. Thompson, an associate professor of television at Syracuse University. "We have these jokes and stories that will never see the printed page, that exist only as glowing dots of phosphorus. It's not word-of-mouth folk culture but word-of-modem folk culture."
-- "Computer as a Cultural Tool: Chatter Mounts on Every Topic," by William Grimes, December 1, 1992

MEDIA SLUTS. "In my opinion, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding may be the perfect ur-story of all time," said Robert Thompson, an associate professor of television at Syracuse University. "It has every single element one has come to expect in made-for-television movies. And what better protagonists for what is basically a lascivious medium than two young girls whose basic mode of operation is in a pair of tights?"
-- "Networks Rush to Adapt Kerrigan-Harding Story," by Elizabeth Kolbert, February 10, 1994

LONG ISLAND. ''Everybody wouldn't love Raymond if it weren't set on Long Island,'' said Robert Thompson, associate professor of television and film at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University.
-- "Can Sitcom Make It With L.I. Setting?" By Carol Strickland, December 1, 1996

MOBILE STORAGE UNITS. Still, the mobile-storage trend seems to tap into something very American. ''We are a democratic society not defined by caste or birth,'' said Robert Thompson, a professor in the film and television department at Syracuse University, who is also president of the Popular Culture Association, an international academic organization. ''We really are defined by our stuff.''
-- "Nothing to Haul: Storage on Wheels," By Lynn Ermann, December 2, 1999

SUBURBIA. Prof. Robert Thompson, who teaches American popular culture at Syracuse University, said, ''There is a sense among some academics now that the suburbs have developed their own culture and that it's time to move past the cliches that were formed after World War II. ''Colleges are moving to suburban campuses, there is art and employment and crime and museums and both the good and the bad of the cities in the suburbs'' as they have become a much more diverse environment, he said.
-- "Some Perched in Ivory Tower Gain Rosier View of Suburbs," by Iver Peterson, December 5, 1999

PEANUTS. [Charles Schulz'] saga of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus ''is arguably the longest story ever told by one human being,'' Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, observed on the PBS ''NewsHour'' with Jim Lehrer, longer than any epic poem, any Tolstoy novel, any Wagner opera.
-- "Charles M. Schulz, 'Peanuts' Creator, Dies at 77," By Sarah Boxer, February 14, 2000

CICADAS. "Cicadas are the sound of summer, of that year when you were young,'' said Professor Thompson....''They were there when you were young, and then they go away for 17 years, and then they come back, with all those memories. It's the closest thing to a time machine you can get outside of science fiction.''
--"17-Year Cicadas Answer Cue With a Crunch Across the East," By Iver Peterson, May 18, 2004

WINDSURFING. The stereotypes of the sport are unfair - there are lots of plumbers and construction workers windsurfing off Cape Cod and in the lakes of Iowa. (Better put: Who among us doesn't like windsurfing?) "I would have expected it to go over well, the stodgy, overserious guy trying to do something hipper," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It's not like he was going out having a row with the Harvard crew team."
-- "Who Among Us Does Not Love Windsurfing?" By Kate Zernike, September 5, 2004

WALT DISNEY. "It used to be Disney was exported on its own terms," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "But in the late 20th and early 21st century, America's cultural imperialism was tested. Now, instead of being the ugly Americans, which some foreigners used to find charming, we have to take off our shoes or belch after a meal."
-- "
The Feng Shui Kingdom," By Laura M. Holson, April 25, 2005

FERRARIS. "A Ferrari itself is a gold chain," [Prof. Thompson] said. "There's nothing subtle about it."
-- "They Love Their Ferraris, but Can Do Without the Stares," by Jack Smith, October 26, 2005

LACROSSE. This whole thing has been completely reframed,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “They’re now underdogs, wrongly accused and exiled from the sport they love. I wouldn’t exactly call them America’s team yet, but that’s probably because it’s lacrosse.”
--"Duke Lacrosse Is Focal Point Again, This Time for the Good," by Pete Thamel, May 20, 2007

FARMVILLE. Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said he had seen the craze firsthand among his students. “Just like Guitar Hero lets you feel a little like being a rock star — you get to pose and dance a little while you’re doing it — with FarmVille there is a real sense that you’re actually doing something that has a cause and effect,” he said. “The method of dragging food out of the ground and getting something for it is really satisfying.”
To Harvest Squash, Click Here," by Douglas Quenqua, October 28, 2009


Frolic said...

Pretty lame on the part of the NYT, but the guy is pretty clever.

PJHarmonic said...

This is hilarious. The guy is obviously an expert; he knows what things are. I would like my son to grow up to be an expert. I need to understand the curriculum that navigates an individual into this field so that I can send him to the proper school to cover the requirements necessary to becoming an expert (??!!) in this field.

Robert MacMillan said...

The New York Times is hardly the only news outlet that suffers from Robert Thompson Syndrome.

Anonymous said...

It's a considerable failing of the NYTimes, and makes me wonder about their other "experts" -- are they asking medieval history professors for comment on contemporary history, for instance, Africanists for comment on Chile, Spanish lit scholars for comment on Australian sculpture? It betrays a shocking and deeply concerning level of laziness, especially when anyone with a minute on Google could likely find a more appropriate expert (someone who actually studies reality tv, for instance, or who studies food and popular culture, etc.).

And while you may not want to criticize Thompson, I certainly will do so. If he was a true expert, he'd know the limits of his expertise, and would know who to redirect reporters to for true expertise. Expertise isn't just about knowing things, it's about knowing what you don't know, and what others know better. What hubris!

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is the 24/7 news cycle that the web has created -- gone are days when reporters could take as long as needed to develop a story...so we rely on our quote masters who are all too happy to pontificate on whatever fits the meme. At least the NYT is using someone with credentials, no matter how unrelated to the topic at hand. Plenty of news sites/bloggers/pontificators now simply grab comments from message boards or each other. Does the public care whether it's journalism or drivel?

Anonymous said...

Your research has a gaping hole: You fail to account for how many other experts the Times has interviewed through the same years -- 20,000 perhaps? Only with that perspective can we assess the significance of the numbers you set forth.
Meanwhile: Your examples illustrate that Thompson has a handle on pop-culture issues like no other source I've ever read. He's the gold standard for distilling "what it means" and he's the best at it, by a mile. Why begrudge the NYT for appealing to the best source? I trust what he says. It's not unlike having an expert reporter on staff: You go with those who know.
PS I don't work for the Times.

Gimme a break said...

Re: "Part of the problem is the 24/7 news cycle that the web has created"

Spaghetti tacos or any of those other topics are hardly what someone might construe as "breaking news."

Anonymous said...

>He's the gold standard for distilling "what it means" and he's the best at it, by a mile.

Gimme a break. There is a difference between having expertise and being able to deliver sound bites on command. Thompson's observations are no more informed or revealing than those of any random blogger without the imprimatur of pop culture professorship. His quotes merely perform a structural function in paint-by-numbers journalism, which is the citation to an "expert" demonstrating that the "trend" the journalist purports to have spotted is an actual "cultural phenomenon."

See also the following "expert" treatment of "jerking," from November 20, 2009:

"Seen in formal terms, said Sally Sommer, a dance historian who teaches at Florida State University, jerking may merely be a cousin to the “lambada or the twist.” It is certainly, Ms. Sommer said, less physically demanding than krumping or vogueing or the other highly skilled and innovative urban forms of dance. But the lambada was a fad. The twist was a fad. And jerking, its adherents say, has a cultural resonance that goes beyond the Reject and the Tippy Toe."

Not a fad, a "cultural resonance." That's what the NYT purports to describe, and that's what the expert quote is supposed to show us. But at least when the NYT quotes Sally Sommer it's quoting somebody who knows what the hell they are talking about.

Anonymous said...

"Thompson has a handle on pop-culture issues like no other source I've ever read."

Please. Stop. It's like saying someone heats up a TV dinner better than anyone else. It's pop culture. Much of it (and the comments made by the source) are pretty vague when you look at them. He's doing cold reading.

Example: "'We are a democratic society not defined by caste or birth,' said Robert Thompson ... "We really are defined by our stuff."

Hardly a stunning insight, is it? Also, it's contradictory. We are defined by birth. If you're born a poor black girl, you will MOST LIKELY (not definitely) have a much harder time making it in the world than a rich white boy. And birth into the right family means that you have more stuff, so you ARE defined by birth.

Still, it's good enough for what the New York Times has become.