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The New York Times Finds Familiar Professor to Back Up Bogus Spaghetti Taco Trend

The paper’s go-to source, Robert J. Thompson, gives ridiculous piece stamp of approval

The New York Times is often ridiculed for its declaration of trends (Slate’s Jack Shafer has created a cottage industry identifying bogus ones). But the Times latest suspect trend-piece — on the alleged, growing phenomenon of kids who are demanding their parents make them spaghetti tacos — is attracting a new level of vitriol.

According to the Times’ Helene Stapinski, spaghetti tacos — apparently first seen on an episode of “iCarly” — have “become part of American children’s cuisine, fostering a legion of imitators and improvisers across the country.”

“Spurred on by reruns, Internet traffic, slumber parties and simple old-fashioned word of mouth among children,” Stapinski writes, “spaghetti tacos are all the rage.”

The NYTPicker blog was one of the first to call b.s. on the report:

Stapinski performs what might appear to be a near-impossible feat of journalism dexterity — producing a college professor to support her thesis that more Americans now consume spaghetti tacos than ever before.

That was Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

“This combination seems to be an inevitability, sort of like chocolate and peanut butter running into each other on that Reese’s commercial,” Thompson told Stapinski. “The amazement should be only that it took ‘iCarly’ to bring it into our melting pot of a culture.”

“Spaghetti tacos has made it possible to eat spaghetti in your car,” he added. “It’s a very important technological development. You don’t even need a plate.”

It seems Thompson has become the go-to “expert” for rubber-stamping cultural trends at the Times. As the blog notes, he has been quoted by the Times in “150 separate stories over the span of almost two decades,” including four in a 10-day period last month. Stapinski is one of 78 reporters to seek out Thompson. (Television writer Bill Carter has used Thompson 18 times.)

In turning to Thompson repeatedly for a glib assessment of just about anything, NYT reporters have revealed their willingness to sacrifice true expertise for the expedience of a quick phone call.

But Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times, who considers Thompson a “professional pal,” defended the professor and the fellow newspaper journos who rely on him for soundbytes.

“Thompson has a knack for expressing himself in easily quotable lines that can help make a story more readable,” Deggans wrote.  “If you're a reporter who doesn't understand TV well, he'll help you grasp what's going on. If you already get it, together you can piece together ideas that are pretty compelling.”

“I'm sure it's true that some writers use him too much, and it is odd to see one guy take up so much landscape in prominent pop culture stories,” Deggans conceded. “But the bash Bob Thompson story also feels a little easy to me at this point.”