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bloviatrix

Food Critics

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i think that one issue that may be getting danced around here and which, to me, is more insidious than a critic not wearing a fake nose is the tendency of many in restaurant criticism to overly identify themselves with the industry they are covering rather than the readers who are employing them. it is, in part, understandable: we have elevated restaurants to rock shows and made chefs into lead guitarists (who hasn't thought of bourdain as keith richards with a whisk and a laptop? [well, maybe a different kind of laptop]). i do think there is a tendency among people who want to be restaurant critics to do so because they want to "hang with the band." no amount of disguise can make up for that.

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Quite true, Russ.

Also, it's not illegal to get a card with a fake name. I simply called American Express, explained my position, paid the extra $35 for the card. Of course, they go along with this because I made it quite clear that the card was for business and would be paid promptly. And it has been.


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Russ, although I haven't seen that tendency among restaurant reviewers at any serious level of competence (my observation is that they tend to be more anti-industry than pro-, for the most part), I think fundamentally critics shouldn't identify with "the readers who are employing them" any more than they should be identifying with or pandering to the industry or anyone else. (For the purposes of argument, we can bracket the fact that many readers are in the restaurant industry -- the number two employer in the United States after the government.) Critics' sole identification should be with the cause of excellence in cuisine. Sometimes that means telling the industry or its representatives that they're wrong. Other times that means telling consumers they're wrong. The best reviewers strike a healthy balance and serve no one set of commercial or consumer interests.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm sorry, but no.

To forget your reader is to end up unemployed, no matter how talented a reviewer.

That doesn't mean pandering, or talking down to the reader, but knowing their needs and wants and making sure you deliver.

Russ, although I haven't seen that tendency among restaurant reviewers at any serious level of competence (my observation is that they tend to be more anti-industry than pro-, for the most part), I think fundamentally critics shouldn't identify with "the readers who are employing them" any more than they should be identifying with or pandering to the industry or anyone else. (For the purposes of argument, we can bracket the fact that many readers are in the restaurant industry -- the number two employer in the United States after the government.) Critics' sole identification should be with the cause of excellence in cuisine. Sometimes that means telling the industry or its representatives that they're wrong. Other times that means telling consumers they're wrong. The best reviewers strike a healthy balance and serve no one set of commercial or consumer interests.


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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I definitely think there should be an investigative reporting seminar at my journalism school about all this. "Wigs and Forks: The Ethics of Food Journalism." I can see it now.

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I'm sorry, but no.

To forget your reader is to end up unemployed, no matter how talented a reviewer.

That doesn't mean pandering, or talking down to the reader, but knowing their needs and wants and making sure you deliver.

Bill, I think you're lumping together two types of recognition. A good writer of course writes for an audience and must always remember that audience. But a journalist's job sometimes requires that he or she tell that audience things it doesn't want to hear. (Not that the audience is monolithic, but let's skip that for now.) I believe the critic has an ethical obligation to write what he or she believes, even if 100% of the readers disagree. The needs, if not necessarily always the wants, of the readers demand nothing less. And you can disagree with your readers without forgetting them -- it's called education.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm sorry, but no.

A good writer of course writes for an audience and must always remember that audience. But a journalist's job sometimes requires that he or she tell that audience things it doesn't want to hear. (Not that the audience is monolithic, but let's skip that for now.) I believe the critic has an ethical obligation to write what he or she believes, even if 100% of the readers disagree. The needs, if not necessarily always the wants, of the readers demand nothing less. And you can disagree with your readers without forgetting them -- it's called education.

of course, but it is always in terms of addressing your audience (the subscribers, not the restaurateurs). and it should always be in terms of educating them. not lecturing them. if you can't teach by bringing people along with you, you're just ... well, onanistic comes to mind.

i see both of these as serious and common failings of restaurant critics.

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Critics should speak to the publication's subscribers, without pandering to them. Critics should teach without lecturing or engaging in solipsism, but should not compromise their beliefs.

Now what's this about not addressing restaurateurs? Critics speak to multiple segments of the audience. In any form of criticism -- film, art, literature, drama, music, dining -- it is entirely normal for a critic to address some comments to the industry, or to make comments calculated to be read a certain way by industry people. It's part of the project, part of a critic's body of work, to try to push the industry -- whether that industry is Hollywood or Broadway or the restaurant industry -- towards doing better, to try to push the non-industry readers to greater knowledge and appreciation, and also of course to provide practical information and entertainment.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Sure you can speak to the restaurateur and the industry but you can't forget the "regular" readers in the process.

I also think you've misunderstood some of my earlier posts, Steven, or perhaps this thread is going in directions I don't quite understand.....

On one hand you're saying critics should address their subscriber base - sound, given you wouldn't necessarily to deliver a "trade" perspective in a general interest puib, yet earlier on you were saying that critics shouldn't identify with their readership.

I'm starting to suspect the only critic who can do it 100 percent right in your book is you.

As for onanism - such a Bibilcal term for these heady times, Russ! - I think you get off onto masturbatory prose whenever you consciously think of teaching or lecturing or otherwise acting the expert. Far better, I think to tell a story that amuses, explains and, perhaps, enlightiens naturally without anything heavy-handed


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Well. I know you guys are all serious about this, and rightly so.

But it has been greatly entertaining to read, nonetheless. Maybe in unanticipated ways, but nevertheless...

Mebutter....you just took the prize for the most entertaining post ever. A "10" on the Laughter Scale.

And that...is what I look for in a critic. Mostly...an entertaining read.

Everything else is so terribly subjective with food and with the people that eat it that.... honestly...how can one say what another will like or dislike...particularly given possible daily inconsistencies of BOH or FOH....and then of course the inconsistency of human beings which even depending on the particular "mood" they are in at the moment of dining, can affect the flavor of the food and the experience of the meal.

A really good read and a hopefully good lead.

What more could one ask?

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I'm starting to suspect the only critic who can do it 100 percent right in your book is you.

I hope I didn't say anything like that, since it's not what I believe. I don't consider myself to be a restaurant reviewer, no less one who gets it right any percentage of the time. Colloquially, I sometimes call myself a food critic or reviewer because it's easier than explaining the taxonomy of different kinds of culinary journalism, but like Holly Moore I'm much more interested in general food writing that may include some dining crticism as a component than I am in restaurant reviewing as such. Indeed, most of my restaurant reviews from the 1990s possess many of the (I contend) flaws I've been pointing to here. I still have my "Ed Shapiro" credit card and I still get mailings sent to Ed Shaprio by Ducasse, Union Square Cafe, and others. I dutifully wrote about food, decor, and service in the standard fashion. My perspective on restaurant reviewing was more free to develop after I stopped doing it, and I wouldn't likely go back unless some sort of amazing opportunity presented itself, and perhaps not even then. In terms of reviewers who I think have done a great job in the recent past, I've been naming names all along: David Rosengarten, Thomas Matthews, and I'll trade any recent Times critic for Michael Bauer, warts and all.

Bill, maybe I don't know what is meant here by "indentifying" with the readership, and I know it wasn't you who used the word. When I said "Critics' sole identification should be with the cause of excellence in cuisine," what I meant is not that a critic should ignore the audience or do anything less than try to write excellent, entertaining reviews that the audience will connect with but, rather, that serving the audience demands independence not only from the industry but also from the whole audience.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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"Ed Shapiro"?? Oy! That's such a sad, sad nom de plum. :biggrin:

And I"m so pleased I'm keeping Carrot Top entertained. That's 1 out of millions. I'm on my way......

The nice thing about become a "person" to readers rather than just being the critic is that they get to know your likes and dislikes. My most cherished e-mails were from those readers who trashed my opinions and said that they knew if I liked a place they'd hate it. That was so fine with me, meant I had created a profile with readers - they knew where I stood and could draw their own conclusions.


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Your post did seriously entertain me, mebutter. Lovely, testy, point-on post there that has brought chortles of laughter from me in memory all this morning.

Here is something that I must say. It is possible that nobody at all will agree with me on this...and it is also possible that nobody will even deign to answer the idea. :biggrin:

So what. I am feeling mildly pugilistic as usual.

It does not seem to me....that the ultimate way of 'education' in terms of food, of dining in restaurants...can be or should be made by 'critics'.

The education about food...the gainsaying of knowledge that would allow for fine discriminations....the experience of food which is visceral and subjective...which can only be made objective by so many qualifications and delineations within each dining experience....is to my mind best made by the individual restauranteurs, by the chefs, by the tastes and experiences of the diners. The food is the education itself and the diner is best, self-educated.

As when looking at a painting...a work of art.

Do I want to be informed by a critic of its greater or lesser importance first, its place in the Grand Scheme of things, everything surrounding the making of it and the artist that created it, the influences, the differences from its influences, whether it is 'pure' in its way or not and whether the critic approves of it or not?

Uh...not really.

I want to see that painting as it stands with no forethought or analysis in my mind at all.

I want to taste it and experience it unfettered. As unfettered as is humanly possible.

To feel....that one needs to read and be 'educated' by critical reviews seems rather sad to me...and rather wrong if most people are doing it and following along...allowing their own perceptions to be shaped by someone else's.

Knowledgeable guides to food and restaurants are good and valuable things for those that wish to have a 'lead' into where it is they want to go.

But I say, let each person taste....for themselves.

For greater knowledge of food, there are cookbooks. There are books written about the history of food...providing the way of education in what might be considered 'authentic' or not authentic...if that matters to the reader/eater.

I would not ever really wish to argue...a review with a critic that he/she wrote. They have their taste, I have mine, and to each their own.

But I really have no wish to be 'educated' by the subjective tastes of someone elses palate....it feels sort of pushy to me.

That's just me.

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As when looking at a painting...a work of art.

Do I want to be informed by a critic of its greater or lesser importance first, its place in the Grand Scheme of things, everything surrounding the making of it and the artist that created it, the influences, the differences from its influences, whether it is 'pure' in its way or not and whether the critic approves of it or not?

Uh...not really.

I want to see that painting as it stands with no forethought or analysis in my mind at all.

I want to taste it and experience it unfettered. As unfettered as is humanly possible.

I think that's too bad. If you had instruction on how to read space in paintings and how they fit into a history of previous artworks, etc., you could understand the painting on many deeper levels than just an image you can see without any art education.

And I suppose there's an analogy with food, in that some understanding of what chefs intend through their methods (the theoretical level) and what the history of different aspects of cuisine have been (the historical level) may help diners to instruct themselves. The fact that I'm less convinced such a culinary education is necessary for the knowledgeable appreciation of food than a good art education is for the knowledgeable appreciation of art may well just be a reflection of my relative lack of knowledge in various matters of cuisine. After all, it's hard for people to know what they're missing by virtue of not knowing things and, therefore, easy to think that ignorance is bliss or some such.

Now, if you'd rather not have any of that context and would rather simply use your unaided eye to look at paintings, etc., that's your choice, but I won't pretend that I don't consider it an inferior choice.

Whether paying attention to art critics will teach you much that's worth knowing and whether food critics are the best placed to educate the public about matters culinary are separate questions. And I suspect that the public is probably a bit better placed to judge the latter than the former, but that opinion might again be an indication of my relative lack of knowledge about the culinary arts as opposed to the fine arts.


Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan

 

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In a perfect world I think Carrot Top's idea works. Let everyone approach the table and make up his or her mind about what is presented there.

But it ain't a perfect world...and not everyone has the same food background or culinary context to appreciate the food as fully "unaided." So, I think Pan is right in that sometimes a little help is necessary.

That said, there's the opposite track - the herd instinct - where people squash or diminish their own thoughts about a dish (or a restaurant or a painting) because an "expert" says you need to think this way or that.

I see it with blind wine tasting all the time. People are surprised a "name" wine didn't rank as highly as they thought it was. Instead of thinking the wine isn't cracked up to what it is supposed to be, or that some "lesser" wine truly stole the show, they think something is wrong with their tongue. And that's a shame.

Bill Daley


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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As when looking at a painting...a work of art.

Do I want to be informed by a critic of its greater or lesser importance first, its place in the Grand Scheme of things, everything surrounding the making of it and the artist that created it, the influences, the differences from its influences, whether it is 'pure' in its way or not and whether the critic approves of it or not?

Uh...not really.

I want to see that painting as it stands with no forethought or analysis in my mind at all.

I want to taste it and experience it unfettered. As unfettered as is humanly possible.

I think that's too bad. If you had instruction on how to read space in paintings and how they fit into a history of previous artworks, etc., you could understand the painting on many deeper levels than just an image you can see without any art education.

And I suppose there's an analogy with food, in that some understanding of what chefs intend through their methods (the theoretical level) and what the history of different aspects of cuisine have been (the historical level) may help diners to instruct themselves. The fact that I'm less convinced such a culinary education is necessary for the knowledgeable appreciation of food than a good art education is for the knowledgeable appreciation of art may well just be a reflection of my relative lack of knowledge in various matters of cuisine. After all, it's hard for people to know what they're missing by virtue of not knowing things and, therefore, easy to think that ignorance is bliss or some such.

Now, if you'd rather not have any of that context and would rather simply use your unaided eye to look at paintings, etc., that's your choice, but I won't pretend that I don't consider it an inferior choice.

Whether paying attention to art critics will teach you much that's worth knowing and whether food critics are the best placed to educate the public about matters culinary are separate questions. And I suspect that the public is probably a bit better placed to judge the latter than the former, but that opinion might again be an indication of my relative lack of knowledge about the culinary arts as opposed to the fine arts.

I have had education in how to read space and other things in art, Michael. And have lived with a gallery-represented artist in Soho in a time when there were only three places to eat in the entire neighborhood...Spring Street Bar, Broome Street Bar, and EAT. And have met and dined and conversed about art at length with the gallery owners who were first to move downtown into that neighborhood in a time of festering magnificent renewal and growth.

I do know the difference between an unfettered experience and a possibly over-educated one (if there can be such a thing? that depends on how the person who receives the education swallows it, digests it...whole in a piece as a truth or...as a subjective, again...part of the entire experience).

I have seen too many people mouthing the opinions of others without using their own brain cells, their own senses, their own common sense....and standing behind the fine title of 'education' (or in this case, of critical opinion)as they mouth other's opinions as their own.

Education to me is a process that starts from within and takes from many places that exist ...outside. Education...often to me as it is used today seems a dry old duck that does not do a lot to encourage creativity.

I like to have had access to the more formal facets of education. But the ultimate experience must still come from within.

And that, is paradoxical as so many things are.

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Assuming, for the sake of argument, that all of that is true, does it justify undercover reporting?

I happen to think the anonymity argument is so full of holes that it doesn't justify anything, but my point here is a different one: even if it's true, does some marginal increase in this notion of "accuracy" in restaurant reviewing represent a compelling public interest such that cloak-and-dagger methods (fake identities, disguises) are warranted?

Doing it now full-time, I'm in agreement with Steven; I'm just not into being a spy; I'd rather eat dinner or lunch or whatever, and take notes if I have to, scrounge a menu if I have to, or read from the detailed receipt if I have to; the skullduggery of some food critics just seems silly, as are the bounties supposedly put up for pics of food critics.


Rich Pawlak

 

Reporter, The Trentonian

Feature Writer, INSIDE Magazine
Food Writer At Large

MY BLOG: THE OMNIVORE

"In Cerveza et Pizza Veritas"

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Interesting thing to compare food to art...and I do consider cooking a form of art. But I'm sure we've all, at one point or another, scratched our heads at some of the art at galleries that go for obscene amounts of money. Does this originate from the the artist, the piece, or the various art critics that say "This is what it's worth!!"?

Of course food is different because we're talking about potentially a major difference in the raw materials. But if we're saying that the "taste is in the mouth of the diner" and we shouldn't need an education to figure out what SHOULD please us, why couldn't a McDonald's hamburger be priced as high as a meal at ADNY if my daughter thinks it's just the most amazing food?

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If there are any food writers listening :rolleyes: , I would like to put in my two cents. I believe I am not alone. Well, maybe.

I only enjoy food "journalism" and not food or restaurant "review." Reviews are boring, boring, boring. And generally untrustworthy, whether or not the review-er was made. There's the whole perception issue, the mutual level of existential backslapping, the creative posturing. Blech.

I separate writers into food reporters and social scene reviewers. I'm sorry, maybe that's harsh, but that's always been my reaction. I know that people look to reviewers for guidance to great eating experiences, but that's where I would prefer journalism to review. After all, you can eat the most fabulous five-inch-high prosciutto gelato in a melon coulee with a mint/fig leaf balanced on a wire, but if you're getting divorced, it will all taste like sauerkraut.

Give me a snappy insight into the background and wherefores of a restaurant, the creative urge, and the challenges, and I am much more likely to visit the restaurant and see for myself what's going on. If a short review of a meal is included, all to the good, but make it short! for me. I want action. I want telltale gestures that convey personality far more than words. (Chews on pencils, taps fingers impatiently, runsover/bumps into coworkers while spazzing around the kitchen) I want to feel like I've stepped into the restaurant, not into someone's intellectualization of the mastication process.

Thank you very much for listening. ::smack smack:: ::cheek cheek:: ::love ya::


_____________________

Mary Baker

Solid Communications

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I have seen too many people mouthing the opinions of others without using their own brain cells, their own senses, their own common sense....and standing behind the fine title of 'education' (or in this case, of critical opinion)as they mouth other's opinions as their own.

Objecting to that is quite different from saying it's best to approach art without analysis or education. Is it that you regret your art education? You might or might not have had good teachers. There's no doubt that a good teacher helps show his/her students how to best teach themselves. But that's quite different from saying it's best for people to remain uneducated blind slates (I meant "blank slates," but I like what I wrote, so I'll leave it), or that it's better not to have an education. Or did you mean something else? I'm probably coming across pretty combative. I teach Music Appreciation every semester and fully believe that I'm helping many people to listen actively and appreciate music on levels they were unaware of before they took my class. Music is not just sound, and art is not just images. And I suppose it's fair to say that cuisine is not just the tastes of the final product but the ingredients, processes, and history that went into the composition. In spite of that, I feel like I can judge food on taste (again, that view may show ignorance on my part) but cannot judge a painting based solely on what the image is, nor music only based on how consonant or dissonant it is or the mere shape of a melody.

I guess part of my reaction is that I'm shocked someone with an education would seem to speak out in favor of ignorance. That's how your remark struck me. What did you really mean?


Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan

 

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Rebel Rose's comment are, well, I just don't know where to start..... So, let me just say that I respect her thinking and agree that a good story is always compelling especially when told with brio.

And Rich Pawlak don't worry, you can still scrounge that menu. I'd always ask for a take-out menu and, failing that, would sometimes slip the scrap of paper out of the menu folder into my lap on a final visit. the best menu caper was the night a woman 9-months pregnant stuffed a 16-inch-long stiff cardboard-backed menu into her shirt for me. I was so appalled I backed out into the parking lot as she triumphantly left the building.

If there are any food writers listening  :rolleyes: , I would like to put in my two cents.  I believe I am not alone.  Well, maybe. 

I only enjoy food "journalism" and not food or restaurant "review."  Reviews are boring, boring, boring.  And generally untrustworthy, whether or not the review-er was made.  There's the whole perception issue, the mutual level of existential backslapping, the creative posturing.  Blech.

I separate writers into food reporters and social scene reviewers.  I'm sorry, maybe that's harsh, but that's always been my reaction.  I know that people look to reviewers for guidance to great eating experiences, but that's where I would prefer journalism to review.  After all, you can eat the most fabulous five-inch-high prosciutto gelato in a melon coulee with a mint/fig leaf balanced on a wire, but if you're getting divorced, it will all taste like sauerkraut. 

Give me a snappy insight into the background and wherefores of a restaurant, the creative urge, and the challenges, and I am much more likely to visit the restaurant and see for myself what's going on.  If a short review of a meal is included, all to the good, but make it short! for me.  I want action.  I want telltale gestures that convey personality far more than words.  (Chews on pencils, taps fingers impatiently, runsover/bumps into coworkers while spazzing around the kitchen)  I want to feel like I've stepped into the restaurant, not into someone's intellectualization of the mastication process.

Thank you very much for listening.  ::smack smack::  ::cheek cheek::  ::love ya::


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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And I suppose it's fair to say that cuisine is not just the tastes of the final product but the ingredients, processes, and history that went into the composition.

Yes. And that is not about opinion..which is what many reviews offer.

Ingredients, processes, history. And cooking. Should be learned if one wants to have a good understanding and sense of food.

Reading someone's opinion of a meal does not do this.

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So you don't believe it's best for people to be ignorant, only that a review of a meal doesn't educate anyone. Could it, though, if a critic gave a good analysis of the thinking behind the meal?


Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan

 

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I guess part of my reaction is that I'm shocked someone with an education would seem to speak out in favor of ignorance. That's how your remark struck me. What did you really mean?

No of course I am not in favor of ignorance. The more one can learn about anything, the better. BUT there is a difference between choosing one's own hopefully intelligent and useful pattern of learning and that of blindly following what someone else may say is the best pattern of learning.

Obviously there are some classic things in every metier that require understanding for full understanding of the metier.

But two things strike me.

One. That a person will not get a full rich education from reading and swallowing another person's opinions which have been displayed as facts.

If you think I am overstating the case for gullibility of the public...well...you may think I am overstating the case. Que sera. It may also perhaps not be placed under the heading of 'gullibility' but perhaps a confusion of what is factual journalism and what is op-ed sort of writing. But "Follow-the-Leader" is a popular game not only with children.

Two. Too often...again...in my own personal opinion...I see people who are so busy being analytical about things, so busy showing how much they 'know' in an intellectual, tearing-apart-of-subject sort of way....that they are writing scenarios in their heads about what is going on in the moment rather than just experiencing it. Everything they see, feel, hear, taste, is instantly reflected into the pool of intellectual knowledge to be matched or mirrored. They are so busy thinking that they don't even really lose themselves in the fact of tasting something without superimposed this and that.

I hope that explains what I said better. If you add in the idea that I love to throw out bold blanket statements just for the purpose of getting a good discussion going, maybe that will help too. :wink:

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a person will not get a full rich education from reading and swallowing another person's opinions which have been displayed as facts.

If you think I am overstating the case for gullibility of the public...well...you may think I am overstating the case.

No, I don't. Lots and lots of people are that gullible. But talking about that will start to pull us (or at least me) toward dangerous territory that we must avoid on eGullet. :hmmm:

In terms of your second point, it's possible to be analytical and for that to add to one's visceral enjoyment, but I'm sure that doesn't always happen to everyone doing the analysis.

So I'm understanding your points now.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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