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Thomas Friedman’s Writing Style

Well, it was bound to happen that someone would write a critique of Friedman’s particular kind of writing. Matt Taibi did, decrying his use of awkward and inappropriate metaphors.

Before I address the issue, let me get one issue out of the way; Friedman writes newspaper columns, and often his books read like a series of columns strung together. Connected, yes, but probably not well developed and organized. The book vs. newspaper issue is a side issue here, and anyway most readers of his book are reading the book as a series of newspaper columns than as a book with a well-developed thesis.

However, I think Taibbi has chosen the wrong thing to criticize in Friedman’s style. Friedman rarely uses exciting imagery or metaphors; journalists rarely do. Anyway, it’s futile to expect journalists to use abstract imagery and language; Their purpose is after all to be read quickly. Friedman is a master of telling anecdotes and relating them to larger international events, something he does adeptly.

Friedman has a privileged position of being able to visit places and deliver impromptu opinions. However, so far Friedman’s intuitions about what issues are important or will be important have been on the mark (especially as a result of his background and knowledge of Arabic). While not strictly partisan, Friedman’s anecdotes (and their appeal to common sense) sometimes seem reductionistic; on the other hand, they boil the social and cultural issues to terms everyone can understand. Friedman’s anecdotes are memorable, though sometimes inaccurate. But his ideas are always intriguing.

It’s fair to compare Friedman’s style to Mike Royko’s raconteur style. Both share the same weaknesses of relying too much on one or two anecdotes to extrapolate a social position. How much can we generalize on the basis of Friedman’s anecdotes? What kind of person does an international journalist meet on his global treks? How similar are these English-speaking high-tech workers to non-English speaking workers?

Using first person narratives in journalism is controversial. At first glance, it appears to be tainted by subjectivity. Further experience reveals that not to be the case. Instead, it provides the opportunity for the journalist to express observations about an affair and then admit that his observation may be tainted by the circumstances. Contrast that with Time Magazine’s third person writing where imagery and conclusions are manipulated while presenting to the untrained reader the impression that it is all a spontaneous tabluex.

BTW, two excellent examples of first person reporting are Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent . Both are available as audio (realtime & mp3), but they are priceless bits of journalism.

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