How To Be A Man In the Street

Several years ago we noted the emergence of a remarkable phenomenon: a New Yorker, whose name I can’t readily find, had been quoted in newspaper articles as a “man in the street” something like 150 or 200 times. How does that happen?
This morning’s “Public Editor” column in the New York Times sheds light on how “random” Americans get quoted or cited in newspapers:

Last Monday, a front-page article said that technology — e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, texting and the like — has completely altered family routines at the start of the day, creating tensions in many households. Like similar trend stories, it began with an example: the Gude family of East Lansing, Mich. — Karl and Dorsey and their two teenagers.
The Gudes’ story was fascinating, but the reporter, Brad Stone, did not find them by chance. Stone and Karl Gude used to work together at Newsweek, though both said they had not talked in 10 years. Then there was a source identified only as “Gabrielle Glaser of Montclair, N.J.” She is a freelance writer who has been published 54 times in The Times and is married to Stephen Engelberg, a former Times reporter and editor.
Three other sources were all media-savvy veterans. Naomi Baron, a professor at American University, has been quoted seven times in other Times articles and has written once for the Op-Ed page. James Steyer has been quoted 13 times and is the co-founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that deals with children and entertainment issues. Liz Perle, identified only as “a mother in San Francisco,” is the other co-founder of Common Sense Media and is its editor in chief. …
An anonymous blog, www.nytpick.com, revealed most of the sources’ connections, embarrassing The Times. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said, “You can’t do a story on a national trend with so little evidence.” …
Gude said it didn’t occur to him that there might be a problem. Many years ago, when he worked at United Press International, he was the top anecdote in an article written by a reporter sitting at the next desk.

This is a relatively benign example, but it sheds a revealing light on how ostensibly random people turn up in articles in the NYT, the Associated Press, etc., and how incestuous the news business is. I’ve been curious about this for years, and have occasionally Googled names in news stories on polls, for example, and found that “Susie Smith, a nurse from Lincoln, Nebraska,” who is singled out as the spokesman for the reporter’s point of view, is a Democratic Party precinct chairman.

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