Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Expert

When I worked in media relations at Carnegie Mellon University, an English professor who was a pop culture expert once told me she aspired to be the next Robert Thompson, the oft-quoted Syracuse University professor of popular culture. Alas, she never reached this rarefied air of punditocracy, but in my defense, how do you compete with a man capable of weighing in on the cultural import of spaghetti tacos?

In tomorrow's NYT, reporter Helene Stapinski performs what might appear to be a near-impossible feat of journalism dexterity -- producing a college professor to support her thesis that more Americans now consume spaghetti tacos than ever before.

“Spaghetti tacos has made it possible to eat spaghetti in your car,” Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, tells Stapinski. “It’s a very important technological development. You don’t even need a plate.”

But maybe Stapinski's reportage isn't so remarkable, after all. In fact, she's only continuing a longstanding NYT tradition in quoting Thompson -- and has become the 78th NYT reporter to do so, in 150 separate stories over the span of almost two decades. (hat tip to The NYTPicker)
OK, it's not in my professional self-interest to turn this blog into a forum for abusing the media, but, really, New York Times? Not that I wasn't guilty of similar behavior during my career as a newspaper reporter. Under deadline pressure you only have so much time to find a sage voice who can discuss whatever lame story idea your editor hands you two hours before deadline. I can't count the number of times an editor told me, "Call a psychologist" or "Get a sociology professor to talk about this."
And it's every university flack's dream to latch on to the kind of professor so eager for media attention they make themselves available night and day to talk about any subject even tangentally related to their discipline. Hell, we enable them. As I've told many professors, you don't really need to be an expert on a subject to answer a reporter's question. You just need to know more than the average person.
But the question is, of what value is this to our institutions? Does Syracuse benefit from the name recognition that Robert Thompson brings? Is that what people think of when they think of Syracuse? Does the average reader -- not media critics, not PR people, not academics, but real people -- even pay attention to an expert source's affiliation? I'm not sure.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to discourage my professors from taking media calls. If a university wants to raise its profile, particularly outside its home region, you can do worse than get a professor quoted a couple of times in the New York Times. (Which I happily did last year, thank you very much.) It certainly benefits an institution, and a professor, when he or she gets to discuss their own research in the course of being an expert source. 
And besides, who doesn't want to eat spaghetti in a car? 

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