Bogus trend of the week: The Times'Sunday Styles sectiondiscovers dudes loving cats.

Media criticism.
Oct. 7 2008 2:59 PM

Bogus Trend of the Week: Dudes With Cats

The New York Times' Sunday Styles sectiondetects a new craze.

Cat-loving guys: trend or twaddle?
Cat-loving guys: trend or twaddle?

If the New York Times' Sunday Styles were a hairdo, it would be a wig. If it were on the menu, it would be a meringue. If it were a retail outlet, it would be Spencer's Gifts. As a mélange of fashion notes, celebrity reporting, personal essays, and piffle, Sunday Styles resembles the old-fashioned supermarket tabloids in that it knows that it's a stinking pile of entertaining trash and makes no apologies for it.

So bestowing a "Bogus Trend of the Week" award upon Sunday Styles is a tad like berating Slobodan Milosevic for tracking mud across your nice, clean linoleum floor. The section exists to advance the bogus. Yet sometimes Sunday Styles promotes premises so flimsy that somebody must shout stop, if only to restore the section to its honest awfulness.

That moment arrived last Sunday (Oct. 5) in "Sorry, Fido, It's Just a Guy Thing,"in which writer Abby Ellin revealed that more and more guys—single, straight guys!—are digging pussycats. Here's the nut graf:

Mr. Fulrath is one of a growing number of single—and yes, heterosexual—men who seem to be coming out of the cat closet and unabashedly embracing their feline side.

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As trend stories go, this one starts out rocky, as Ellin tempers her "growing numbers" claim with a "seem." She repeats this maneuver in the next paragraph, writing:

Indeed, it seems that man's best friend is no longer a golden retriever, but a cuddly cat named Fluffy.

A few grafs later, she scuttles the logical foundations of her story by writing:

Although there are no hard (or soft) statistics (it is rare to find an owner, man or woman, walking a cat in public), it seems that single, heterosexual male cat owners are on the rise.

How can it be made to "seem" that the number of single, straight, male cat owners is increasing? By presenting the most anecdotal of evidence, which Ellin does. An executive at the Humane Society of New York alleges that "she had seen an increase in the number of single, straight men who are adopting cats." Does the Humane Society of New York really determine the marital status and sexual orientation of cat adopters? If it does, I demand that a picket line be formed around its office now. If it doesn't, I want the executive's finding stricken from the record.

Next anecdotal data point: A cat therapist alleges that her single, straight, male clientele has grown 25 percent during the last five years. Are cat therapists collecting marriage and sexual orientation information, too? Also, a rise of 25 percent might be meaningful if we knew how big the therapist's practice was in the baseline year, but we don't. Could it be that there is no trend toward single, straight, male ownership of cats but that insane felines have started to select them as masters? Let's assign Clark Hoyt to this one!

Ellin argues against her thesis—such as it is—when she catalogues a number of famous guys who have owned cats: Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, and Marlon Brando. But why stop there? The Ruling Cats and Dogs Web site alleges that Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Nostradamus, Edward Lear, Sir Walter Scott, Isaac Newton, and Michel de Montaigne loved cats. I cannot vouch for the scholarship behind CitizenLunchBox's list of celebrities-who-owned-cats, but more than half of them were males, and I'd guess that most were straight, if not single.

The article's silliest overreach comes when it extrapolates a cat-guy explosion from the observation that men are "posting photographs and videos of their little buddies on YouTube and on Web sites like menandcats.com, and Twittering about them to anyone who will listen." But guys are posting all kinds of stuff everywhere. Dudes digging cats is a trend only if everything on the Web is a trend.

Perhaps Ellin and Sunday Styles innocently perceive an increase in single, straight, male cat owners because the U.S. cat population is on the rise, as the pet-food industry reports. But if the percentage of single, straight, male cat owners isn't increasing significantly, there's no trend and therefore no story.

Gutted of its dubious facts and thrown bleeding onto a chain link fence, "Sorry, Fido, It's Just a Guy Thing" quickly evaporates. It's one of those works of journalism that leaves its readers dumber than it found them.

******

How to write a bogus trend story: Start with something you wish were on the rise. State that rise as a fact. Allow that there are no facts, surveys, or test results to support such a fact. Use and reuse the word seems. Collect anecdotes and sprinkle liberally. Drift from your original point as far as you can to collect other data points. Add liberally. Finish with an upbeat quotation like "My cat takes priority over the new relationship. Realistically, unless there's something absolutely amazing about [the woman I'm dating], he wins." Send bogus trend stories to  slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Cats in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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

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