Stupidity in USA Today, the Times, and your local newspaper.

Media criticism.
Nov. 8 2005 6:00 PM

Stupidity on Parade

USA Today. The Times editorial page. Your local newspaper.

The awesome stupidity of the common herd endures and multiplies, in part, because of the bogus trend stories that daily newspapers feed it. Bogus trend stories combine low-budget sociology, cheap thinking, sweeping generalizations, available anecdotes, and audience pandering to fatten readers with idiocy.

Everybody who read yesterday's (Nov. 7) USA Today story about Generation Y by Stephanie Armour greeted today with a few thousand fewer neurons onboard. The piece starts reaching for the inane with its headline, "Generation Y: They've Arrived at Work With a New Attitude," and doesn't let up for 1,700 words.

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Generation Y—for those mercifully not in the know—is the generation after the generation (Gen X) that came after the boomers. The story's lede alleges that Gen Yers are "young, smart, brash." Of course they're young, because by definition all were born after 1977. But to assert that all Gen Yers are "smart" and "brash" defies reason. If they're all smart and brash, they're the first generation in human history to defy the bell curve and realize such uniformity.

The piece rolls out one generational cliché after another. Scream if you've ever heard one of these gems applied to a previous generation:

[T]his generation—whose members have not yet hit 30—is different from any that have come before. …

This age group is moving into the labor force during a time of major demographic change. …

Unlike the generations that have gone before them, Gen Y has been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers, meaning they are both high-performance and high-maintenance. …

They have financial smarts. …

Work-life balance isn't just a buzz word. …

Generation Yers don't expect to stay in a job, or even a career, for too long. …

They don't like to stay too long on any one assignment. This is a generation of multitaskers. …

And they believe in their own self worth and value enough that they're not shy about trying to change the companies they work for.

And then there's Gen Y's total comfort with technology. …

[N]early half of employers say that younger employees are dismissive of the abilities of their older co-workers. …

What rising generation didn't hate the previous generation? The piece is so generic that USA Today could reuse it in 10 years, when Gen Z matures its way into the workplace, by changing only a few key words, and then re-reuse it in 2025 for the harvest of Gen AA and in 2035 for Gen BB.

Stupidity From a Higher Source. Bogus trend stories aren't the only source of stupidity. Consider the common editorial. Yesterday, the New York Times editorial board met to survey the European inferno, an oil portrait of Henry Raymond looking down on them. They stoked their wisdom pipe and passed it around the oblong table before issuing this courageous sentence in today's editorial:

There can be no condoning the rioting, which seems to have grown both in extent and violence since it erupted on Oct. 27.

Coming up tomorrow, a description of the sort of rioting the Times condones.

Don't These People Read Slate? After I went to all the trouble three months ago to document for my colleagues in the press that the syndrome know as "meth mouth" isn't caused by the "toxic chemicals" in methamphetamine, they insist on repeating the myth.

To review: Meth mouth describes the rampant tooth decay and loss observed in some users of methamphetamine. But as the Merck Manual of Medical Information explains, such tooth decay can result whenever the production of saliva is inhibited. Meth and other drugs—some blood-pressure medications, for example—can shut down the saliva glands. Denied the regular flush of saliva that keeps teeth cleansed of bacteria, the mouth becomes a dank decay factory. Many meth users turn to sugared sodas to alleviate "dry mouth," and the sugar only fuels the decay-causing bacteria. If the meth user neglects his dental hygiene, as many reportedly do, it's goodbye choppers, hello dentures.

Although no scientific study links any chemical found in street methamphetamine with tooth decay, dentists, dental technicians, editorialists, and well-meaning citizens continue to offer their awesome stupidity to the press, and the press publishes it as fact. Here's a recent sampling:

The drug is made with an acid, and can damage every tooth so bad that people need dentures because the damage is too extensive to fix, [Dr. Carter Wright] said. — Times-Standard(Eureka, Calif.), Nov. 4

"Those chemicals in there, they eat your teeth up, just burn them up," Dental Technician Zenobia Pope said. —KWCH 12 (Hutchinson-Wichita, Kans.), Nov. 7

Dr. Hugh Ogletree, a Phenix City dentist, frequently sees the drug's toxic fallout when he treats Russell County jail inmates who are addicts.

"I can look at their mouth and tell," Ogletree said. "The hydrochloric acid dissolves the minerals in the teeth. You pour hydrochloric acid on a car fender and it will eat a hole in it." — Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Oct. 26

Another effect is "meth mouth"—tooth decay that results from a poor diet, a lack of dental hygiene and the corrosive properties of the drug. — Laramie Boomerang(Wyo.), Oct. 26

Also, the majority of heavy users must seek medical care due to "meth mouth," which refers to the rotting of their teeth from smoking poisonous substances like drain cleaner. — Oscoda Press (Mich.), Oct. 26

Prisons are seeing higher dental expenditures because of "meth mouth," or tooth decay, due to constant exposure to caustic chemicals. — Metro Pulse (Knoxville, Tenn.), Sept. 21

Some of the worst cases involve patients who smoke methamphetamine, a drug made from hydrochloric acid, [Dr. Mark] Buckner said. The disease is commonly called, ''Meth mouth.''

''It totally eats away the enamel and causes severe decay, to the point that all they've got left are roots,'' Buckner said. — Birmingham News (Ala.), Sept. 2

But none of this misinformation approaches the advanced stupidity achieved by the editorial writers at the Calgary Herald for the newspaper's Aug. 15 edition. They write:

Just as kids were shown smoke-blackened, cancerous lungs, they should learn about such things as "meth mouth," caused by the body excreting the drug. For days after its use, the crystals ooze from the skin and literally rot the gums from accumulation.

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Thanks to my old friend Jeff Riggenbach, who I believe coined the phrase "the awesome stupidity of the common herd." Thanks also go out to Daniel Radosh for alerting me to the USA Today bogus trend story and to the unnamed editorial writer who spotted the Times' courageous stand against insurrection. Send your tips and your favorite turn of phrase to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.