Thomas Friedman's habit of not venturing far to gain insight on the world--such as his column today in which he gains insight into the Egyptian crisis from a Marriott reservationist--has been well-documented. The foreign affairs columnist may travel the globe to do his reporting, but once he's landed in a trouble spot, he rarely travels the city. At Salon, Alex Pareene writes, "sometimes, the urge to explain big, complicated events in faraway lands by going directly to a service industry employee-on-the-street who sounds suspiciously like a fictional character drawn up to introduce a columnist's argument is too great."
The Columbia Journalism Review's Liz Cox Barrett has called his technique "quote-the-cabbie" journalism, skewering him with the brush-off line, "everything I needed to know about outsourcing I learned from Harish, who drove me to my Mumbai hotel." It is amusing to watch the great international columnist learn about "the people" from "the help." Normally, places like The New York Times frown on the idea of paying sources. And Friedman stops short of doing that. But the most convenient people he finds are drivers, waiters, and hoteliers, and the scenery he inhabits most is on the inside of Marriotts, so eventually his reporting comes down to what his expense account can buy, rather than who he finds through old-fashioned legwork. (Here's Anderson Cooper trying to find out what the mood of the people was during the Egyptian revolution.) So what does Friedman get for his cab fare/hotel fee/meal cost? Let's look at some examples, starting with today:
"Pray. Hope. Prepare."
What he paid: According to the Marriott Web site rooms start at $146.
What he got: Presumably a room, as well as this exchange:
“Do you have a corporate rate?” I said, “I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.” There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: “ Can I ask you something?” Sure. “Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.”
Value: Fair. He got a lead out of his conversation, but apparently not much in the way of pithy observation. She's abandoned pretty quickly in the column. For that kind of money, he could probably hire a driver for the day and get a lot more face-time.
"The Taxi Driver"
What he got: He didn't talk to the cabbie, who was busy on his Blue Tooth, but he based his whole column on that fact. He bemoaned the interference of technology in what Barrett calls an "Andy Rooney-esque rant" about alienating technology.
You know the old story, "As my Parisian taxi driver said to me about the French elections ... " Well, you can forget about reading columns starting that way anymore. My driver was too busy to say hello, let alone opine on politics.
Value: Great, if frustrating. Friedman would no doubt have preferred to get insights from this "young, French-speaking African, who probably had a lot to tell me," but he got material out of the exchange anyway, and finished most of his column before he even checked into the hotel.
"Ah, Those Principled Europeans"
What he paid: In a 2003 column, Friedman had a meal at his Davos hotel. According to a 2004 Switzerland guide book, dining in Davos cost anywhere from $15 to more than $50 at the time. At a hotel you'd probably be on the higher end of that, so call it $50 even.
What he got: He bases his thesis not on a verbal exchange, but on the menu at his Davos hotel. "At the bottom of the lunch menu was a list of the countries that the lamb, beef and chicken came from. But next to the meat imported from the U.S. was a tiny asterisk, which warned that it might contain genetically modified organisms -- G.M.O.'s."
Value: Excellent. Friedman got lunch and based his whole column on that menu note, combined with the fact that he was surrounded by cigarette smoke.
Friedman doesn't have to make a point of going out and getting himself beat up whenever he covers a story on political unrest, or inserting himself into a firefight when he covers a conflict. But sticking to the insides of hotels, taxis and restaurants for your on-the-spot reporting leads to more and more people like Barrett railing on you for "incorporating the cabbie’s wit and wisdom into an otherwise going-nowhere story."