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Monocles, beer bellies and kale: The seven trolliest New York Times trend stories ever

The Times isn't tired of trolling us -- and we're never tired of reading



Daniel D'Addario
March 6, 2014 11:56PM (UTC)

Let's get this out of the way first -- the Times Styles section has a lot of interesting stuff in it, week after week.

Whew! Now that we've established that, let's also note that the section, and the paper as a whole, has a robust recent history of trolling. That's the practice by which a publication earns clicks by playing to a reader's baser instincts: insecurity, befuddlement, or simple derision. This isn't the phenomenon the execrable Twitter feed "The Times Is On It" attempts to diagnose in mocking the Times for covering news that seems obvious -- it's a manner of coverage that conflates casual observation, cherry-picked examples and a strong premonition of reader disgruntlement.

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Styles reporting -- and other sections, too, like arts and dining -- have long histories of subsidizing the more expensive-to-report sections of the paper. So, too, do the angry or annoyed or simply dumbfounded clicks by newspaper readers exist to subsidize the rest of the content in the section. In this week's Thursday Styles, for instance, an article on the rise of the monocle as fashion accessory -- a self-consciously absurd notion that supports itself with anecdotes -- sits alongside deep and interesting coverage from Paris Fashion Week.

That's what makes the trolling the Times does so unnecessary: These pieces spring up like toxic mushrooms in an otherwise well-groomed field, reflecting either editors' lack of understanding of the world in which their readers live or, more likely, precisely the slurry of resentments (of the wealthy, of the young, of the hippest 1 percent of Americans) that their readers bring to bear upon their reading. Herewith, the seven most egregious faux-trend stories in recent memory.

"One Part Mr. Peanut, One Part Hipster," March 2014 (Styles)

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The monocle is back! Where's the proof? "The trendy enclaves of Berlin cafes and Manhattan restaurants" have witnessed a one-eyed glassy gaze, as well as have, reports a "British trend forecaster," "parts of South Dublin." Also, in the piece's only quantitative data, a San Francisco-based monocle retailer saw its sales nearly triple last year, to $66,000! The piece magically makes, at once, the hazy claim that young hipsters are taking on the monocle along with "sharply tucked plaid shirts," then the data-driven insight that most of the people who buy monocles online are older men losing their vision. The piece won't even keep up the ruse that it's about that dreaded thing, hipsters -- it just drops a mention at the top and in the headline, then runs away.

"Below the Bikini Line, a Growing Trend," January 2014 (Styles)

A series of celebrities made allusions to their pubic hair -- and so the bikini wax is DEAD for all of you ladies! (My colleague Katie McDonough dealt with this limited-evidence "trend" in January.)

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"The Nanny Recipes: Skip the Microwave," November 2013 (Styles)

This introduced to Styles -- and not for the first time -- a phenomenon slightly more commonly found in Real Estate. It was explicitly designed to engineer wealth envy, presenting wealthy folks as monstrous gorgons relying on food consultants to place new demands on their already overworked nannies. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. But consider: "Erela’s favorite (despite its speckled green color) was from the snack section of the recipe book: a lacinato kale chip." Kale is a bit too easy a punch line -- the seams in the trolling are showing, here.

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"Ladies Who Power Lunch," September 2013 (Dining) 

Is there anything newsworthy -- even when viewing news value through the fragmented lens of the lifestyle beat -- about the notion that people like to eat lunch at restaurants? "There’s a new generation of power-lunch spots in downtown Manhattan," the piece instructs us about a scene it had previously compared to the novels of Tom Wolfe, "and women are the most devoted regulars." There is no proof that women eat at these particular restaurants more than do men -- just the author's word, and a hazy penumbra of buzzwords around sisterhood and leaning in that adds up to nothing. Eating lunch is no trend.

"Chopped Salad Has Become the Lunch of Choice in the Northeast," July 2013 (Dining)

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Another lunch-related piece! This piece got a lot of flak when it came out, but the striking thing, in retrospect, is that it says absolutely nothing. It's a piece remarking upon the idea that chopped salad is widely available; much of the piece is consumed with lists of potential toppings, or the sort of salads that random bystanders personally prefer. Chopped salads are popular status signifiers -- a power-lunch of one, perhaps! -- and the Times produced a piece that performed well online not so much to remark upon that (there's little analysis, here), but to capitalize upon it.

"How I Became a Hipster," May 2013 (Styles)

Barely a trend piece because the "trend," here, is the Times' idea of "hipsterism." They dressed up a writer in someone's idea of what a hipster might wear -- this was before the ascendancy of the monocle -- and sent him to expensive north Brooklyn haunts. The piece was an evidently rushed attempt to cash in on non-Brooklynites' confusion over what's happening down there and actual Brooklynites' annoyance at just how wrong were the stereotypes in which the Times freely indulged. This one got the Times a bit caught up, though; you don't have to file a factual correction if you're playing fast and loose with anecdotal data, but you do if you get a metric ton of actual facts about Brooklyn wrong. (Check the bottom of the article!)

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"It's Hip to Be Round," August 2009 (Styles)

The ne plus ultra of fake trend stories, this classic illustrates the growing (literally, ha-ha) trend of chubby people. Across America, waistlines have been expanding for years, but these tubby types are Brooklyn hipsters! Yes, in 2009, wider tummies had been spotted "in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear." Marrying a quotidian element of human experience (weight gain, eating lunch, fading eyesight) with the signifiers of a specific social class (hipsters, an idea of powerful ladies, hipsters in Brooklyn) -- it's the oldest trick out there.


Daniel D'Addario

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