27 September 2011

Meta-Opinion: Opinion Writers Suck

I have commented before on the New York Times's haphazard increase of Opinion Writing. I was not naive enough to believe it would be the last of my complaints. This time I am singing (Henry Rollins style) in a very different register. The basic outline of my last argument was that Opinion Writing needs to be kept far away from news to try and preserve the sanctity of bias. This time, the absence of basic proofreading is the flaw and the potential victim is "Writing."

Mark Bittman writes about a tenet of the food movement for this past Sunday's Review: eating in not out. True to the nature of Opinion Writing, Bittman is very anecdotal in his telling of the story. There is research that backs him up on some of his better points such as the social and nutritional value of meals where the entire family is gathered at the same time over the same food but Bittman hardly nods to it. 

The central theme of the article is that the cost of food as a deterrent to eating healthy is a myth and that other factors such as time/convenience and elements of addiction play the most prominent roles. As I am acutely aware, it is cheaper to cook food at home than to eat off of the dollar menu at a near by fast food hovel. I also agree, and I think science does too, that there are other social and biological factors that affect this unhealthy consumption.

Bittman claims to know the solution: fresh vegetables and dried beans from the grocery store and a change in the socialization of meal time. This is all well and good except that he either neglects to mention or is blissfully unaware that people often opt for the much less nutritious offerings at the supermarket because of prices. Macaroni and cheese is cheaper than a head of broccoli, white bread is cheaper than whole wheat and soda is cheaper than milk. This is where the problem is. The grocery store is no safer than burger joint. Bittman is right to hurry people out of McDonald's but he's wrong to rush them into the A & P. This is a fault of the anecdotal nature of Opinion Writing. Because Bittman is only giving his opinion he can do it without researching much of his argument. In fact, most of the points he makes in the article he also makes in his bio on the Times website. This, combined with the fact that he is not specifically reacting to any recent news regarding these food issues means he is pontificating rather than reporting.

The real gaffe is when the article cites examples that actually prove itself wrong.
The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people.
Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone.
(italics mine)

And herewith is the issue I have with the writing. Someone, should have read this over in an effort to weed out this glaring contradiction. If it really is so much cheaper to eat from the grocery store why are there non-profits focused on making grocery food affordable? If Bittman is aware of the cost of groceries why did he assert that they are so much cheaper in the first place? Does anyone really know? It makes for a very confusing logical loop that simply should not be.

I will not go all John Simon here and start blaming Bittman for the Fall of the English language or something silly but this case does point out that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to write disregarding the logic of your own statements. Articles are taking the form of long-winded monologues about personal invective with no regard for their validity. I probably agree with Bittman on the issue of food but I disagree with his way of writing about it. He is actually making some good points but he is making them in a way that comes of as sneaky, skewed or wrong which hurts everyone involved. I fear that opinion writing is moving more in this direction of unanswered monologue and hope that, as a journalistic medium, it falls out of fashion sometime soon.

Don't worry, it is not lost on me that my bemoaning Opinion Writing is in fact Opinion Writing. This, however, is a blog not a newspaper. I have also made the effort to carefully elucidate my point with written examples and pictures of sweaty hardcore punk rockers.

This is Ian Mackaye, friend of Rollins (above). He is responsible for aspects of the food movement in his own right.


  1. "Articles are taking the form of long-winded monologues about personal invective with no regard for their validity."

    In essence, opinion articles are glorified blog posts--and shouldn't they be relegated to that category before publication in a major news source?

    Photos appreciated.

  2. Yeah that is the gist of it. I understand that blogging is important for news organizations and journalists to "stay wid it" but it should stay out of their print or broadcasts.

    I am all about opinion and blogging and getting your side of the story out there. Freedom of expression and so forth. See above. I just think we need distinct times and places for opinion and facts.