The latest New York Times bogus trend: Everybody is wearing contacts to make them look like Lady Gaga.

Media criticism.
July 7 2010 5:45 PM

The New York Times'Bogus Trend Factory

Now the newspaper is prattling on about the "circle lenses" rage.

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What makes the New York Times the font of bogus trend stories? Is it overstaffed with blockheads, or, as the nation's finest newspaper, is it simply subject to greater scrutiny than other news outlets?

Whatever the reason, the Times continues to reward me and my loyal trend spotters, who scan its pages for examples of bogusity masquerading as news.

Since I began dinging the press in 2003 for producing bogus trend stories, I've filed almost 40 pieces calling out examples. The New York Times has contributed a bogus trend story to almost 30 of them. The paper has asserted a link between pot smoking and restaurant creativity, claimed that more expats were giving up U.S. citizenship, asserted that more evangelical churches were winning souls for Christ with mixed martial arts, maintained that potbellies were now hip, attempted to prove that girls' sports were boosting local economies, tried to connect the ailing economy with a rise in shoplifting, declared a rise in evangelical church attendance, found increasing numbers of dudes digging cats, alleged that many Ivy chicks were spurning careers for motherhood, discovered online sales losing "steam," and contended, most spuriously, that video conferencing was replacing travel.

Last week, the paper found a new trend. It declared that "circle lenses," special contact lenses that give wearers the big-eyed look—like the one Lady Gaga achieves with computer-generated effects in her "Bad Romance" video—have caught "fire" in the United States.  (The story is "What Big Eyes You Have, Dear, but Are Those Contacts Risky?" from July 4.)

Oh, really? Interviews that the Times conducted with four U.S. wearers, an Asian Web site operator who runs a circle-lenses forum, a makeup artist who has posted her circle-lenses tutorial on YouTube, and an entrepreneur who sells the lenses from his Malaysia-based Web site produce scant, mostly anecdotal evidence that the lenses are really the rage here. The paper reports that "young women and teenage girls" in the United States use message boards to spread the word on where to buy the lenses. A wearer calls herself "a circle lens addict" and talks about all of her fellow Rutgers students who also own them. Itinterviews a second-generation Nigerian in Texas to illustrate the idea that "girls of many races are embracing the look."

What the Times doesn't do is cite sales figures to substantiate any trend. To be fair to the newspaper, the quasi-legality of the circle-lens market probably makes it impossible to assemble statistics to prove much of anything about the product. The Times calls the lenses "contraband," imported from Asia (where they're undeniably popular) and sold online to U.S. customers. The article seems to imply that the circle-lenses trade is illegal because sellers don't require a prescription, although the story doesn't actually put it that way. Here's the Times' fudgy wording:

These lenses might be just another beauty fad if not for the facts that they are contraband and that eye doctors express grave concern over them. It is illegal in the United States to sell any contact lenses—corrective or cosmetic—without a prescription, and no major maker of contact lenses in the United States currently sells circle lenses.

If a buyer presented a valid prescription to an online purveyor of the Asian lenses, would that sale be legal? The paper doesn't say. (Is it worse to call a story bogus or uninformative?)

The Times' interview with the Food and Drug Administration takes additional gas out of the trend balloon. The agency's spokesman was so out-of-the-loop about the lenses when the paper first contacted her that she had to confess that she had never heard of them. Once she got her bearings, she gave the paper the obvious advice that one should never buy lenses without a prescription, blah, blah, blah.

The Times also spoke to a contact-lens and cornea expert from the American Optometric Association, and he, too, sensibly warned Times readers against wearing lenses purchased outside of a professional's care, blah, blah, blah. But the Times doesn't mention a single specific case in which a wearers' eyes have actually been harmed by circle lenses, which is something you would expect if loads of naive people had been buying the goofy lenses without prescriptions over the Internet and wearing them.

Are the lenses inherently unsafe? According to a Korea Herald business story from 2008, they make up "30 percent of the nation`s contact lens market" in Korea, and the Korean unit of Bausch & Lomb was thinking about introducing its own line. Another safety data point—one that I wouldn't rely on—comes from this windy first-person content-farm piece about a negative reaction to the lenses.

I wait with saucer-size eyes for the Times to resolve the question with a nonbogus trend piece. Maybe in the health pages of the Science Times section?

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Thanks to bogus-trend spotter Jess Davis and others for poking me in the eye with the Times piece. It was enough to make me want to watch Un Chien Andalouagain. Send film suggestions and bogus-trend candidates to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. For ocular irritation, see my Twitter. (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.)

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