Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Times for Truth?

The NY Times continues to reach for new lows; in the first instance it is for new records in declining readership, but in today's paper it manages to scrape the proverbial barrel bottom in its editorial on the Department of Health's menu labeling rule. The editorial, filled with misinformation and dripping with a venomous disdain for the city's fast food restaurants, accuses Councilman Rivera of being a cats paw of the industry for introducing legislation that would "gut" the DOH reg.

One way to get things wrong is to get all of your information from a single source. Which is, of course, exactly what good reporters seek to avoid doing. The same should be said for a good editorial writer, if she is interested in getting a full and balanced picture of an issue (and to avoid the embarrassment of mischaracterizing basic positions of opponents of a policy). Which is exactly what our intrepid Timeswoman failed to do.

For instance, the Times alleges that the industry is claiming that the DOH rule will force restaurants to post calorie information for thousands of meals. This is simply untrue but when you don't talk to folks directly you can avoid the bald face lie charge. This is also the classic straw man argument. Put simply, the attack on the regulation is because it allows the food outlets to post a range, something that will sow confusion and will not lead to healthier dietary choices.

The Times doesn't stop there, however. It insists on attacking the fast food industry with the kind of class hauteur that has come to typify folks who are all for the common man as long as they don't have to associate with him. Here's what our Times writer says about fast food meals: The daily caloric allowance for the average adult is around 2,000 calories. A seemingly unremarkable fast food meal can consume half or more of that allotment. Without nutritional guidance, it's not too hard to polish off a day's worth of calories, with minimal nutritional value, in one setting." (emphasis added)

So the hamburger at Wendy's has "minimal nutritional value," while the $75 burger at the Old Homestead is good for you! Can you feel the contempt of the editorialist? "Without nutritional guidance," is another phrase that drips with paternalistic disdain for the ability of the average New Yorker to understand that a salad at Mickey D's might be healthier every once in a while instead of a Big Mac.

The Times also fails to get the essence of the Rivera bill. Why? The likelihood is because it didn't even bother to read it. When you are imbued with the truth why risk cognitive dissonance. The paper says that fast food restaurants "list calories now, but usually online or on place mats in small print." But the Rivera bill would require that the nutritional information be posted clearly at the point of sale. And the chains are not just posting calorie counts, something of limited dietary utility.

Fast food outlets and chain restaurants employ around 100,000 New Yorkers and are owned and operated by independent, often minority entrepreneurs. They have risen in some of the city's worst neighborhoods, and have contributed to the renaissance of the economies of low income communities. That the Times would exhibit little or no sympathy for these folks is unsurprising.

The small businesses of New York have never had a friend at the paper, and the Times has no real awareness of what kind of business is being done in the neighborhoods. They have made fun of bodegas and slandered Hispanic supermarket owners as exploiters in the big Pathmark controversy of last decade ("Where Supermarkets are Never Super" was one contemptuous headline). This editorial is in that tradition and, to paraphrase Bill Buckley, I'd rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Manhattan phonebook, than by the editorial writers at the NY Times.