Press Box

Driving a Stake Into Bogus Trends

In which my readers do my evil work for me.

Sometimes I feel like Count Dracula, an evil shape-shifter who infects the minds of the unwary with a disease that allows him to control his victims over space and time. Take, for example, my intermittent feature, “Bogus Trendspotting,” in which I maul and devour publications for extrapolating a national trend from the narrowest of journalistic findings.

Since I started spreading my trendspotting disease a couple of years ago, I’ve enslaved scores of readers, turning them into my remote-control robots. They scan thousands of newspapers for me, they send e-mail, and they implore me, “Master, Master, please attack this example of bogus trendspotting I have found for you! Oh, my Master!”

In the last 10 days, three of these undead have pointed me toward examples and urged me to appease my thirst. So complete is my dominion over them that they have even written suggested copy for me.

A Gannett slave who chooses to go unnamed because he is attacking the mother ship ridicules an article in Wednesday’s USA Today titled “More of the Young and Hip Fight Urban Urge.” I’ve tutored my minions to recognize the weasel wordsmore, many, some, few,often, seems, and likely as bogus trend markers, and they slobber like the insane when they find them.

The USA Today piece is long on anecdotes about young folks who move back into their parents’ suburban basements or out of San Francisco to Sacramento on account of financial pressures. But that article could have been written anytime in the last 30 years. As my minion notes, USA Today presents no numbers to make the case that “more” of the young and hip are fighting the urge to live in urban settings.

One example of the urban resistance is the alleged popularity of Philadelphia, aka the “next borough,” as a place to settle. I’m as ready as the next guy to take cheap shots at Philly, but it’s as urban as Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco. How can it be an example of fleeing urban settings?

The USA Today reporter constructs a wiggle room big enough to swallow the article’s thesis, writing, “The young haven’t stopped flocking to urban jewels such as San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York.” I believe this is called “having it both ways.”

Indeed, if USA Today wanted to, it could use the same data to write a story titled, “Young Folks Love NYC Just as Much as Ever.” They could prove it by citing the high rents and proliferation of group housing as evidence that young people will do anything to live there. Then, for the supporting anecdotes, stop at the local U-Haul franchise and interview the out-of-staters dropping off their rental vans.

A writer who blogs at Balasco requests anonymity as he points me to a New York Times bogus trend story, “Twenty Years Later, Buying a House Is Less of a Bite,” which appeared on Page One yesterday. He writes on his blog:

[Y]ou can only perceive this trend by ignoring the 25% of the country that lives in the northeast, south Florida, and California, and more importantly, by making sure that you are comparing what families are paying today to what they were paying in the early ‘80s, when interest rates were severely spiked upward and the housing market was in the midst of a previous boom. What’s amazing is that even with interest rates through the roof in the early ‘80s and an ongoing boom, home buyers in NY, FL, CA, and DC were still paying a lower percentage of their incomes than they are now.But more importantly, if the NY Times had bothered to compare what share of income median families paid for their homes in the 1970s, I suspect (without having done my own study) that they would have found that the parents of the current home buying generation paid less. But that’s not a man-bites-dog story, so the NY Times didn’t go back to the ‘70s. In addition, they buried another interesting lede in the article, which is that the share of income median families must devote to home ownership is the HIGHEST it’s been since 1989. Gee, I wonder what happened to the economy after 1989?

Reader Robert Morgan concurs with Balasco, writing:

Males today make less in inflation-adjusted dollars than thirty years ago, perhaps by region, 2/3rds or 1/2 as much in real take home dollars. Married couples now send two people into the workforce and it is not uncommon to see younger couples with three jobs. Now it takes two or 2.3-2.55 earners to pay a mortgage rather than one and associated home ownership costs have also risen steadily.

How can housing be more “affordable” if the only way the numbers work is to shift from a one-earner to a two-earner family? The data cited are built on the size of the family’s income—ignoring the need for a second worker. …The article might find a home on the walls of Realtors, but it clearly is misleading in every respect.

A Ph.D.-physician in my thrall also requests anonymity in his dissection of a Dec. 20 New York Times story titled “Global Trend: More Science, More Fraud.” My learned vassal writes:

I don’t think there’s a drop of evidence supporting this trend, and it’s quite possible that the opposite is true—that science is now more scrutinized than ever, and frauds are both less frequent and more rapidly (and more visibly) exposed.

The article notes that there are increasing number of articles in foreign scientific journals that are more difficult to police. This is probably true, but on the other hand, no one I know in the scientific community believes anything in any of most of them anyway.

Thank you, Dr. Vassal. Now, bring me more flesh!

Titling the Bill Keller Memoirs: Since I alerted readers to my intention to write Bill Keller’s memoirs and invited them to suggest titles, they’ve been behaving as if they were my human robots. Strange …

Today’s e-mail brings these prospective titles:

I’m Not Howell: How I Made the New York Times Fun Again, submitted by Miriam Isserow.

The Fourth Estate Is but a Cabbage Patch: How I Stooped to the Occasion, submitted by “Jim.”

Why I Wish Judy Stayed in Jail and Other Regrets or I Want My Old Job Back!, submitted by Scott Butki.

My Reporter Went to War—And All I Got Was This Lousy Scandal? submitted by Kevin Jon Heller.

Almost “All the News That’s Fit to Print” or Gray Lady Down: My Bad! Submitted by Wes Wedermeyer.

And the ever-hyperactive mind of Michael Schrage suggests:

I’m Not Helen: My Vision—and Signs—of the Times

Pinch Me! My Life Making the News Fit to Print

Portents, Importance, & Impotence: Taking the Raines at the
New York Times

Hard Raines: Exorcising the Blair, Witch on
43rd Street.

Facts: They’re Not Just a Four-Letter Word

Keep those e-mails coming to If you write the column, I don’t have to. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)