The David Brooks files: How many uncorrected mistakes does it take to be discredited?

OK, why am I writing this? We all know that New York Times columnist David Brooks deals in false statistics, he’s willing and able to get factual matters wrong, he doesn’t even fact-check his own reporting, his response when people point out his mistakes is irritation rather than thanks, he won’t run a correction even if the entire basis for one of his columns is destroyed, and he thinks that he thinks technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook and can be learned by rote. A friend of facts, he’s not.

But we know all that. So I was not surprised when Adam Sales pointed me to this recent article by David Zweig, “The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book.”

Unlike Zweig (or his headline writer), I was hardly startled that Brooks had inaccuracies. Accuracy ain’t Brooks’s game.

And Jonathan Falk pointed me to this review by Mark Liberman of many instances where Brooks got things wrong.

Amazingly enough, the errors pointed out by Sales and Liberman don’t even overlap with the errors that I’d noticed in some Brooks columns—the anti-Semitic education statistics and his completely wrong guess about the social backgrounds of rich people.

Anyway, this is all known, and my first response was a flippant, Yeah, no kidding, David Brooks is like Gregg Easterbrook without the talent.

Just to be clear: this is not meant as a backhand slam on Easterbrook, a columnist who, like Brooks, loves to quote statistics but can get them horribly wrong. Easterbrook is a good writer, a fun football columnist, and sparkles with ideas. He really does have talent.

So here’s my question

Anyway, to continue, here’s my question: How is it that Brooks, who has such a reputation for screwing things up, continues to occupy his high post in journalism? Where did he get his Isiah Thomas-like ability to keep bouncing back from adversity, his Ray Keene-like ability to violate the norms of journalistic ethics?

And it’s not just the New York Times. Here, for example, is a puff piece that appeared on NPR a couple months ago. The reporter didn’t get around to asking, Hey, David Brooks, what about those fake statistics you published??

What will it take for Brooks’s external reputation to catch up to his internal reputation? Lots of things have come out over the years and it hasn’t happened yet. But this new story that came in, maybe it will make a difference. Straw that broke the camel’s back and all that.

For example, that NPR story quoted Brooks quoting a statistic that, according to Zweig’s thorough investigation, got “nearly every detail” wrong. NPR reporters don’t like to be patsies, right? Publishing fake numbers in the NYT is one thing—heck, Brooks has columns to fill every week, he can’t be picky and choosy about his material. But promulgating this in other news outlets, that could annoy people.

And, once Brooks loses the constituency of his fellow journalists, what does he have left?

At that point, he’s Dennis Miller without the jokes.

31 thoughts on “The David Brooks files: How many uncorrected mistakes does it take to be discredited?

  1. This sounds flip but it’s true. The norms of DC journalism require that liberals have respectable Republican interlocutors. Brooks has been anointed the secular

  2. My phone posted my comment prematurely.

    Brooks is the anointed urbane, secular, ironic voice of his side — palatable to the NYT and NPR crowds. The villagers can’t afford to lose him because he has no real competition for that slot, but they don’t truly take him seriously anyway, so he must just be propped up as long as possible.

      • I predict that Brooks will fall rapidly if he ever says or does anything brazenly offensive, but factual inaccuracy can go on indefinitely, because his role requires him to be “charmingly wrong” in the eyes of his primary NYT/NPR/PBS audience anyway, so they fundamentally do not expect better of him. George Will has also repeatedly lied in the Washington Post.

        • Kyle:

          I thought Brooks was being pretty offensive when he wrote that thing back in 1997 mocking someone he’s never met (I assume) for being proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. Here’s Brooks:

          Imagine how happy Stanley J. Kogan must have been, for example, when his daughter Jamie got into Yale. Then imagine his pride when Jamie made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. . . . he must have enjoyed a gloat or two when his daughter put on that cap and gown.

          And things only got better. Jamie breezed through Stanford Law School. And then she met a man—Thomas Arena—who appears to be exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about. . . .

          These two awesome resumes collided at a wedding ceremony . . . It must have been one of the happiest days in Stanley J. Kogan’s life. The rest of us got to read about it on the New York Times wedding page.

          Stanley J. Kogan, Stanley J. Kogan: that’s a pretty funny name, huh? Nothing normal-sounding like Brooks. And . . . he’s a urologist. Geddit?

          This is the kind of thing that makes me think of Brooks as “a knockoff Tom Wolfe without the wit and insight.”

          Tom Wolfe is offensive too, but at least there’s some payoff there, not just a bunch of urologist jokes.

        • I agree, Prof. I don’t want to make intemperate remarks about what offends Upper West Side liberals. But that ain’t it.

  3. A few things:

    1) I tried to comment on Brooks’ TPP-related drivel today but I wasn’t quick enough to make the cutoff. My (attempted) comment was in response to a Brooks-sympathizer complaining along the lines “Why are you all so mean to him?” My response:

    It would be much easier to civil if he didn’t load his columns and books up with “factually-challenged” statements. See Sasha Issenberg’s 2006 “Boo-Boos in Paradise” and David Zweig’s recent piece in Salon, “The Facts vs David Brooks”, as well as errors pointed out by Columbia Univ. Statistics Prof. Andrew Gelman.

    Beyond factual errors, there are also his tireless efforts to re-write history via gross omission of inconvenient truths (Ref: A few occasional errors could be attributed to honest mistakes. But Brooks’ errors are neither few nor occasional. He consistently misrepresents things. The cause is mendacity not honest mistakes or differences of opinion. People rightly take him to task for that – often using unkind words.

    2) Andrew, you are far more charitable with Brooks than he deserves. At this point there should be no expectation of reasonableness or honest on his part. He has no honor. The evidence indicates that he’s a craven little s.o.b.

    3) Why does the NYT keep him? Follow the money. My bet is that he generates lots of clicks and clicks generate revenue. So long as he generates clicks and doesn’t lie so badly that he creates legal problems for them I bet they keep him on. And it’s not like he’s the only embarrassment on their op-ed page. He’s certainly the biggest embarrassment but with Friedman, Bruni, Douthat, and Dowd he’s got some competition.

    4) Thanks for the Liberman link.

    • Chris:

      I hate to admit it but I’ve often found Friedman interesting, perhaps because he writes about topics I know nothing about, whereas Brooks treads close enough to my areas of expertise that I can spot his errors. That said, nothing Brooks has ever done is as embarrassing as the “Friedman unit.” And none of Brooks’s ethical violations are as clear as those of Ray Keene. Brooks’s violations may well be more consequential than Keene’s, but they’re not as clear-cut.

      Finally, yes I agree that clicks rule, but credibility is an issue. Just for example: if the NYT ran an astrology column it might get lots of clicks, but the NYT is not going to run an astrology column.

  4. Someone should do random fact checking on NYT Op Eds. What’s our control here?

    Admittedly Brooks is bad but somehow I’m not convinced he’s unique. Bad facts in op eds might be more common than we think.

    • At least in Germany, mainstream newspapers routinely make up stuff in their articles. E.g., there was a flood or earthquake (I forget which—I didn’t have time to fact-check this, but heck, I’m not a reporter) some years ago in China that was characterized as the worst ever in the history of mankind. This was the Berliner Zeitung. I ended my subscription that day, and they actually called me to ask why I was no longer subscribing, and I told them. They said they’d look into it, this was around 2007 or 2008. Reading them online now and then doesn’t suggest they did anything about it. So I imagine all news magazines just make up stuff. In Indian newspapers this can reach truly absurd proportions, way beyond anything that German papers can cook up.

  5. I wrote in the email to Andrew that I wish Brooks could put an asterisk next to each of his “supporting facts” to indicate that he either made it up or he is only vaguely recalling it–i.e. that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Apparently enough people find his columns interesting enough to click on them, if only he wouldn’t mislead them into thinking they had a factual basis it would be OK. I mean, I think the Onion is not only funny but sometimes insightful, and that has no factual basis either. But to present made up facts as true is lying which ain’t cool. Also ain’t cool: reacting irritably when people correct you. Also, Kyle C has a point–hadn’t thought about that.

  6. Could someone fill me in on the context of the Dennis Miller reference? I know he goes on O’Reilly to very slightly disagree with BOR, but don’t watch that show.

  7. I think the last thing Brooks will ever do is apologize for factual errors.

    Everybody who writes a column, as Andrew points out, makes mistakes constantly. None of them ever admit it. Why? First, their critics are not officially drawing any blood. As long as they are complaining in either rival rags or from the ivory tower, they can – and will – be dismissed by other journalists of Brooks’s stature as either ideologues or cranks, people who can’t see the forest for the trees. And, since every other columnist like Brooks is in pretty much the same boat, they and their editors will give Brooks a pass. The sole exception to this is Paul Krugman, but he can be and usually is dismissed since, in general, none of these people have a clear idea of what he’s talking about and they assume that none of their readers or listeners do either. The only thing that could change this is Brooks admitting to a mistake. Then the criticisms would count and he’d have difficulties.

    Second, Brooks, like a lot of these people, makes most of his money on the speaking circuit. Brooks charges between $65K and $90K per speech (I just looked it up). That’s a boatload of money. There are a large number of people at the second tier of the speaker game who are trying to break into the top ranks. They all have professional representation. If Brooks admits to the number of mistakes he actually makes then he can depend on it that the sharks will try to knock him off. Both his own interests and those of his agents are opposed to that.

    So, bottom line: if you are waiting for either Brooks or his employers (including NPR) to either get their facts right or admit any errors, you’d best bring lunch.

    • > If Brooks admits to the number of mistakes he actually makes…

      David Brooks’ errors are not mistakes. Mistakes are accidents. There’s no @#$%ing way his errors are accidental.

      • Chris:

        With the famous “Red Lobster” story, I’m with ya. Brooks was actually at the restaurant; he had to have realized he was lying on that one.

        But with the story of the Jewish high school students, there I think Unz and Brooks were both blinded by ideology and they believed what they wanted to see. Not correcting when the error is pointed out: that’s dishonest, for sure. But I’m guessing that it started out as a mistake; it only progressed to dishonesty when they wouldn’t let go.

        • > Not correcting when the error is pointed out: that’s dishonest, for sure. But I’m guessing that it started out as a mistake; it only progressed to dishonesty when they wouldn’t let go.


          I agree on what constitutes a transition from a mistake to dishonesty. Beyond that though, I believe Brooks studiously avoids facts which refute the story he wants to tell. Yes, he gets an occasional fact wrong accidentally. That happens to everyone. What sticks in my craw is how far out of his way he goes to avoid an honest narrative. Whether one calls that dishonesty, fraud, moral cowardice or intellectual cowardice, reasonable people can disagree;-) Whatever the label though, the substance of it is really bad and needs to be called out every time it happens.

          Ta-Nehisi Coates had a good characterization of moral cowardice the other day: “Moral cowardice requires choice and action. It demands that its adherents repeatedly look away, that they favor the fanciful over the plain, myth over history, the dream over the real.” That’s Brooks. If nothing else, his Road to Character schtick should get him an award for chutzpa.

    • Tracy said, “Brooks charges between $65K and $90K per speech (I just looked it up).”

      After reading that, I looked it up and found (on Speaker Booking) “$100,000 or more”. Wow!

  8. Have you tried reading any of the other NY Times columnists? The others are worse.

    The NY Times and PBS like Brooks because he somehow passes as a conservative while still being an Obama supporter. So they can pretend that he speaks for Republicans while not actually expressing the Republican views that they all detest.

    • Roger, Brooks is a moderate conservative, and Obama governs as a moderate conservative. Thus, Brooks’ support of Obama is actually the rare instance of intellectual honesty on his part, in contrast to other right-wing writers comically fulminating that Obama is a wild-eye leftist. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, although that is more often than Brooks.

  9. It’s not just (or even primarily) Brooks’ cavalier way with the facts that infuriates me. It’s when he departs from political/social commentary and tries to remake himself into a philosopher, with excruciating middlebrow bloviating that would be too simple-minded and unsubstantial to even qualify as a “good” Rod McKuen poem (yes, an oxymoron, I realize, but that’s my point).

    Why the New York Times wastes time on this kind of tripe when there are plenty of actual philosophers out there, capable of legitimate and provocative deep thinking, who would certainly love the gig, is beyond me. What’s next — hiring Ann Landers to write a parenting column for their weekly “Science and Health” section?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *