On the Jan. 31, 2011 broadcast of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” the titular host highlighted the reaction of seasoned journalists—such as NBC’s Richard Engel—to the Egyptian uprisings against its former president Hosni Mubarak. Stewart then contrasted Engel with a clip of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman filing a reaction story from the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, at what Stewart called “a comfortable distance … among billionaires.” Stewart paid particular attention to Friedman’s choice of ensemble from the clip and stated, “It looks like your leather jacket went and bought itself a leather jacket.” The comment also seems to be aimed at common criticisms of Friedman’s style in general—superfluous, heavy-handed, and reductionist.
Stewart’s treatment of Friedman seems gentle compared to what he receives in “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” a new book by Belen Fernandez, CC ’03, journalist and editor at Pulse Media.
The book, which Fernandez described as “one extended existential crisis” and wrote in a little over a year, attacks Friedman’s “sloppy mistakes, inconsistencies, willful ignoring of contradictory evidence, and sheer illogic.” Fernandez focuses mainly on Friedman’s post-1995 work as a New York Times foreign affairs columnist and his five books, including international bestseller “The World is Flat.”
Fernandez divides her book into three sections: Friedman’s view of the global role of the United States, his “commitment to Orientalist traditions” and post-9/11 views of the “Arab/Muslim world,” and the double standards in America’s relationship with Israel. Throughout the book, Fernandez allows the author’s work to speak for itself, providing context for the cited quotes with almost 60 pages of endnotes.
If at any point the book seems confusing or dense, it is because Fernandez features quotes and excerpts from Friedman that contradict themselves to various degrees. But Fernandez balances these awkward and cluttered moments with sharp wit, peppered with healthy amounts of sarcasm.
In the section titled “The Arab/Muslim World,” for example, Fernandez offers Friedman’s defense of athletes’ unethical overreactions to first downs and similar victories: “For the smallest, most routine bit of success in my sport, I want to be able to get in your face—I want to know who’s your daddy, I want to be able to high-five, low-five, thump my chest, and dance on your grave. You talkin’ to me?”
Fernandez also achieves a fair bit of humorous momentum imagining Friedman as “the prototypical athletic grave-dancer”—in light of his 2003 guest appearance on “Charlie Rose,” where Friedman advised the Arab world to “Suck. On. This.”
At times, Fernandez achieves an academic tone that any Columbia student will instantly recognize. Particularly biting and memorable is Fernandez’s analysis of Friedman’s attitude toward women—one that Fernandez said “has largely gone unnoticed.” In one instance, she juxtaposes Friedman’s criticism of the treatment of Arab women with his own tendency to ethnically stereotype them as “buxom, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese girls.” Even Freidman’s most devoted readers would be hard-pressed to defend these passages, which again feature mostly the man’s own words.
Ultimately, “The Imperial Messenger” proves to be a sustained criticism that highlights not only many of the shortcomings of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, but also the state of American journalism in which a figure like Friedman can rise to prominence. For longtime readers of Friedman, most of the revelations in the book will be nothing new, but for those critical of or undecided about Friedman, “The Imperial Messenger” is required reading.