Earlier today I posted an angry email from Alan Schwarz of The New York Times. He was responding to the item here yesterday in which I expressed discomfort with the amount of space he and Chris Nowinski were taking up in the national concussion conversation (while also pointing out, as I do repeatedly, their deserved credit for raising that conversation to its present level).
At the bottom of Schwarz’s disagreement with me is a difference of opinion on the forward thrust of federal investigations of the National Football League. I will begin by explaining that disagreement from my perspective. If I may say so, the Schwarz account carefully adumbrates it. More on this fatal phrase as we move along.
“As far as I know,” Schwarz says, “your concern with the [Times] coverage stems only from your Maroon-connection-to-Riddell-study issue.”
Well, that’s one way to read it. Another way is to note that Maroon is a connection that could help push the current probes by executive agencies and members of Congress from their focus on football helmet safety to a wider scope of NFL accountability for a public health tab we are just beginning to tote up. Schwarz is entitled to the opinion – if his opinion it is – that scapegoating helmet manufacturers gets to the heart of the problem. And I am entitled to mine: that the investigations, plural, need to go much higher up the food chain.
I am not sure which dictionary Schwarz consulted for the definition of the word “adumbrate”; nor is it clear whether he ever got his nose out of the air long enough to look at one at all. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb means “to foreshadow vaguely: intimate”; “to suggest, disclose, or outline partially”; to “overshadow, obscure.”
Schwarz says my use of the word means that I think he has presented the story “somewhat incompletely in an effort to be vague or misleading.” I have never speculated as to his intentions. A less malignant interpretation of the phrase carefully adumbrated could also mean that a Times reporter, in contrast with an independent author, journalist, and blogger, lines up his work with certain calculations about the size of his news hole, the number and timing of his investigative angles, and – finally and critically – the internal political demands of the Times editing machine.
Again, it should be obvious that Schwarz’s resources and methods have distinct advantages over my own, as well as less obvious drawbacks. Having clarified as much, let me go on to say that if Schwarz’s interpretive shoe of having been accused of being willfully vague or misleading fits, then he should wear it. Schwarz asserts by fiat that the Maroon link to the Riddell issue is of little or no importance, “for reasons of which you are totally unaware.” I beg to differ, and I also beg Schwarz to enlighten us all on these alleged reasons instead of carefully adumbrating them.
My comparison of the Nowinski/Schwarz relationship to that of the co-authors of the book Freakonomics “is incorrect, misleading and borderline offensive,” Schwarz says. “… [T]hose two are collaborators and business partners, and make no bones about it. Your strong implication that Chris and I are either of those two things is something I recommend you correct.”
This is another great example of inflating a barb into a crime. The point of the Freakonomics analogy was and is not that Levitt and Dubner are ethically challenged. It is that they reside in an echo chamber. This puts their egos in the foreground and their insights in the background. With or without Schwarz’s permission, I will continue to worry publicly that he and Nowinski might be doing something similar.
Speaking of ego, all praise is due Schwarz for spurring the involvement of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. I rather doubt, however, that he’s “killing” himself in the effort. Evidently Times reporters, like the rest of us, employ the occasional figure of speech.
By the same token, your humble blogger is proud to be the named respondent of the landmark United States Supreme Court case Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick, the latest step in a 17-year-long public-interest fight. So there, and onward.