When his first book "Bobos In Paradise" was published in 2000 as a sociological journalism book, a sharp and enterprising reporter named Sasha Issenberg ("Boo Boos in Paradise", Philadelphia Magazine) thought the data cited rang false. He decided to do a little of his own research. What he found was that David Brooks wrote a book of made-up-facts, known by those outside the public intellectual pantheon as fiction.
I will begin with the end of the story. Issenberg called him up regarding his research of Brooks' research. This was Brooks' response,
"This is dishonest research. You're not approaching the piece in the spirit of an honest reporter," he said. "Is this how you're going to start your career? I mean, really, doing this sort of piece? I used to do `em, I know `em, how one starts, but it's just something you'll mature beyond."
I love the power of the narrative, and Issenberg wields it well. I will let Issenberg tell his own story:
As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. "On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu--steak au jus, `slippery beef pot pie,' or whatever--I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee's," he wrote. "I'd scan the menu and realize that I'd been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and `seafood delight' trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it."
Taking Brooks's cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The "Steak and Lobster" combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. "Most of our checks are over $20," said Becka, my waitress. "There are a lot of ways to spend over $20."
So why is it that all of the fawning book reviewers and "intellectual establishment" did not care to notice this? What is the responsibility that journalists have to the public? Do we even have the expectation that any publication has a desire to do anything other than package its readers as a product to its advertisers?
Here is Issenberg's ensuing conversation with Brooks:
I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. "I didn't see it when I was there, but it's true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn," he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. "That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end ... " he replied, his voice trailing away. "That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20."
I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being "too pedantic," of "taking all of this too literally," of "taking a joke and distorting it." "That's totally unethical," he said.
Ok, here's where you pause for breath. Unethical, did you say? Mr. Brooks, I think I can rustle something up for you.
Here is the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists: Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.
Back to Issenberg:
I looked at another of Brooks's more celebrated articles, an August 2002 piece in the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard in which he discerned a new American archetype he dubbed "Patio Man."
... Brooks's suggestion that Patio Man's brethren would become the basis of a coming Republican majority found many friends. Slate identified him as a "new sociological icon." The New York Times Magazine 2002 "Year in Ideas" issue cited Patio Man in its encapsulation of "Post-Soccer-Mom Nomenclature."
Unfortunately, as with the Red/Blue article, many of the knowing references Brooks deftly invoked to bring Patio Man to life were entirely manufactured. He describes the ladies of Sprinkler City as "trim Jennifer Aniston women [who] wear capris and sleeveless tops and look great owing to their many hours of sweat and exercise at Spa Lady." That chain of women's gyms has three locations--all in New Jersey, far from any Sprinkler City. "The roads," Brooks writes, "have been given names like Innovation Boulevard and Entrepreneur Avenue." There are no Entrepreneur Avenues anywhere in the country, according to the business-directory database Referenceusa, and only two Innovation Boulevards--in non-Sprinkler cities Fort Wayne, Indiana, and State College, Pennsylvania. There is also an Innovation Boulevard in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Brooks is the Microwave Intellectual--he's an instant "scholar" with fresh research pulled out of his ass, enabled by the Public Intellectual establishment.
Unfortunately, a public spoonfed with this garbage has shifted from malnutrition to starvation--and is losing the ability to have any control in what the government does with our money, our environment and our lives. And corporations are only too happy to fill this vacuum that nature abhors.
More from Issenberg:
Brooks could be dismissed as little more than a snarky punch-line artist, except that he postures as a public intellectual--and has been received as one.
I said I would begin with the end of the story, but I didn't. The real end of the story is this--the New York Times continues to employ David Brooks as an Op Ed columnist although this article was published in 2004. And according to Brooks' Wikipedia entry, Brooks is scheduled to join Duke University's school of Public Policy this fall, 2006.