New York Times columnist David Brooks is famous for launching very convincing rebuttals from readers, a talent that he showcased in a Tuesday column titled “How We Are Ruining America.” Abridgment is difficult in this instance, but Brooks makes the case that upper-middle-class parents have constructed a sort of class apartheid that keeps “the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.” A critical part of the problem, he argues, rests with “informal social barriers,” which are as ubiquitous as fancy pickles in a pricey sandwich shop. Brooks:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
What about this Mexican-food-preferring individual, though? How does she feel about having her existence boiled down to educational level and alleged inability to digest the linguistic staples of an Italian deli? Did Brooks check his draft with her before putting it into the public realm, where it still sits among the most-viewed at NYTimes.com?

It’s a strange circumstance. Most people reading the story don’t know who this person is. But she does — and so, likely, do people in the social orbit of Brooks. As media lawyers might say, the person is probably “identifiable” to some folks. What does she say about that? In his treatment, Brooks says that he “insensitively” took this woman to lunch in a gourmet sandwich shop. But what’s more insensitive — taking her to an upscale sandwich shop, period? Or taking her to an upscale sandwich shop, observing her reaction to the menu — and then processing the event as grist for your next column? The Erik Wemple Blog leans toward the latter as an example of superior obnoxiousness.

Using anonymity to drag your friend, via condescension, into your polemical conquests amounts to lazy tradecraft. There are other ways of getting at the dynamic that Brooks is attacking here. Reporting, that is. He could have asked people about their reactions to menu items, studied the restaurant business, examined consumer patterns. But why do all that when you can just describe the frozen expression on your friend’s face?

We’ve placed these ethical questions before the New York Times. Spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responds that the newspaper has “no written guideline or standard” regarding this scenario. And she’ll let us know if Brooks responds to the questions about the propriety of treating a “friend” like this in the columns of the New York Times.