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.
People have commented on many aspects of this lamentable paragraph, including the possibility that this sandwich-spurner may have just wanted Mexican food, the importance of money in dining decisions, how manners figure into culinary adventures, and so on.
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.