New York Times technology columnist David Pogue got engaged two weeks ago, to the sweetest, funniest, wisest woman he’s ever known. This is great news! Not everyone is lucky enough to meet someone they want to spend the rest of their life with, and when it happens, it’s cause for congratulations. Mazel tov to both.
You may be wondering how I know all this about the happy couple. Am I an acquaintance of Pogue or his fiancée, tech publicist Nicki Dugan? I am not. I know this because Pogue posted a seven-minute video of his proposal on YouTube and Vimeo, and because he then wrote a post for his New York Times blog called “How To Propose the Pogue Way,” which began, “Two weeks ago, I proposed. To the sweetest, funniest, wisest woman I’ve ever known.” The 1000-word post went on to detail Pogue’s “astonishment” that the video of his proposal went viral and then segued into a Q&A inspired by questions that Pogue had received about his proposal. (Sample hardball: “How could she not know she was being filmed?”)
In “How To Propose the Pogue Way,” we learn all the behind-the-scenes details of Pogue’s highly orchestrated proposal. In case you don’t have the inclination to watch the video: He produced a five-minute movie trailer for a fake romantic comedy based on his relationship with Dugan (starring two good-looking Broadway actors in the lead roles), which he convinced a movie theater to play for Dugan (and all of their families, plus some unwitting strangers) before a feature-length film. He hid three cameras around Dugan’s seat before she sat down so that he could record her reaction. At the end of the trailer, he led her to the front of the theater, gave a short speech about how wonderful she was, and asked her to marry him.
This is, depending on your level of cynicism, either highly romantic or deeply creepy. I, personally, would not want to be proposed to in front of an audience by someone who had lodged three hidden cameras in the vicinity to record my every movement for posterity. But my heart of stone is irrelevant here. If both Pogue and Dugan derive great meaning and satisfaction out of a calculated proposal, it would be silly for me to be bothered by it.
What I feel justified in being bothered by is the calculated publicity that Pogue has stirred up around his proposal. His claim that he’s astonished that the proposal video went viral is incredibly disingenuous: The man has 1.4 million Twitter followers, and any link that he tweets (in this case, accompanied by the words “Here's the video of my marriage proposal yesterday—including her reaction, courtesy of a spy cam in a ficus plant!”) gets thousands of clicks, instantly. Pogue would not have posted the video of his proposal if he hadn’t wanted it to garner attention, and he can’t be surprised that it did.
Pogue is not to blame for a culture that seems to have an endless appetite for gawking at heretofore private rites—as Slate’s Culture Gabfesters discussed this week, the public marriage proposal has become a YouTube mini-genre. But Pogue’s presumption that anyone outside of his family and circle of friends cares how he proposed to his girlfriend reveals a titanic ego. Add to this the fact that Pogue was in the news last year for getting into a physical altercation with his ex-wife, and the proposal video and follow-up blog post start to look like gambits in a PR campaign to bolster his good-guy credibility.
Unfortunately, they do no such thing. Pogue’s video and how-to guide rob Dugan of any agency. In Pogue’s telling, she becomes a prop in his grand geste, a puppet who must do one thing and one thing only: say yes. Pogue timed the filming of his faux trailer in such a way that Dugan had to say yes in the span of about two seconds, or else the trailer would stop making sense. (He’d humbly pre-recorded a jubilant celebration.) On his Times blog, Pogue reveals how worried he was that she’d depart from his script: “What if she made a joke (‘I’ll have to think about it!’)?” Yes, what if, God forbid, she reveal any hint of personality while announcing one of the most momentous decisions of her life.
I sense my stony heart emerging again; sorry about that. I have no reason to doubt that Pogue and Dugan are both very happy with their engagement. But Pogue’s proposal was in no way innocent of the charge that Double X editor Hanna Rosin made of public proposals a few months ago: “Always they seem pretty coercive.” And Pogue’s play-by-play on his blog further implies that a woman’s autonomy is irrelevant when it comes to proposing, reducing the decision to marry to a transaction: Put in one NYU film-school grad, two Broadway actors, one Canon SLR, one movie theater, one ficus cam, and two other hidden cameras; get back a fiancée! Pogue’s apparent failure to grasp that not everyone has the time or means to hire an NYU film-school grad and two Broadway actors to make a fake trailer is the coup de grâce of tone-deafness.
To be fair, Pogue doesn’t deserve all the credit for his ill-conceived personal PR campaign; nearly as much blame goes to his editor(s). Who gave “How To Propose the Pogue Way” the green light? Is the website of the newspaper of record really so eager for page views that they’ll publish 1,000 words of unfiltered self-admiration from one of their most famous columnists? Someone at nytimes.com should have done Pogue the favor of politely informing him that his proposal how-to might be fit for a mass email to loved ones but is definitely not fit to print.