It’s hardly surprising when someone fires back at a harsh critic of his or her employer’s competence and/or ethics. But when that someone is superstar New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and the return fire takes the form, in part, of “Fuck you,” it raises a few eyebrows — and makes you wonder about a broader hubris.
The exchange in question came yesterday at the Freedom to Connect conference, a gathering in suburban Washington where people discuss issues related to data networking and the information revolution. Friedman’s keynote talk was all about his latest book and touched on the conference theme only briefly during the Q&A.
He’d already dropped the F-bomb at the start of his talk (in a WTF mode) when he noticed the conference back-channel discussion scrolling by on a stage-monitor screen. Later, during the Q&A, he was asked to comment on a question posted there that challenged the Times’ credibility in a fairly general and nasty way.
He began, appropriately, by saying that yes, the paper makes mistakes. But then he offered what sounded like a more heart-felt response, the above-noted “fuck you,” winning applause from some but certainly not all or (by my estimate) even a majority of the audience.
Friedman had my sympathy in some ways. It’s hard to sit there and take abuse, even though pundits dish it out for a living to people who have thicker skins than all but a tiny minority of journalists. (I’ve fired back at some folks on my various blogs over the years, even ones written as part of newspaper gigs, but always remembered that there were lines I wouldn’t cross in that professional venue or, short of the most extreme provocation, in any situation.)
Yes, the question he’d been asked was shallow and accusatory — and yet absolutely reasonable in several key respects. The Times (I own stock in the company) is a great institution that does absolutely vital work. But it has had to answer, and not always persuasively, for its own grotesque lapses — not least, in recent history, the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals — and Friedman himself has hardly been a pundit whose pronouncements are infallible or, on some issues, even mostly correct in retrospect. His self-involvement isn’t off the charts, meanwhile, but it’s plainly strong.
So while understandable, his arrogant retort reflected more than merely the self-assurance of a pundit who’s won multiple Pulitzer prizes, has penned best-selling books and gives speeches around the globe promoting his viewpoints. It was entirely illustrative of his newspaper’s famous confidence, which more often than it should bleeds into hubris and outright arrogance.
Saying “Fuck you” didn’t make him more authoritative. It diminished him.
UPDATE: Friedman sent the following (very slightly edited) to a Freedom-to-Connect mail list, and gave me permission to repost it here:
To those who understood where I was coming from, thanks. To those who didn’t, thanks also. We should all learn from our critics.
I believe passionately in the New York Times, a place I have worked at my whole adult life. Lord knows, it has made its mistakes. Which newspaper or blogger hasn’t? But I believe that when it is at its best it plays a vitally important role in our democracy, and flippant, denigrating remarks about it, at a time when it is in economic peril and our country desperately needs serious journalism to sort through this crisis, struck me as deeply unserious.
That said, when I’m trying to make a point, especially a heartfelt one, and my choice of words ends up getting in the way of that point — even if for just one person — then I chose the wrong words. So thanks to all for a great discussion and a learning afternoon.