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One critic's plea: Stop piling on the often-quoted Prof. Robert Thompson



bob-thompson3.jpgI've been covering TV for more than a dozen years, and it's a story I see every couple of years or so.

Sooner or later, some enterprising soul will look up, see all the national television and pop culture stories quoting Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson and say "Hey -- Why is everybody talking to the same guy?" A quick trip to Lexis/Nexis and, voila!  A story about lazy journalists quoting the same source too much.

The most recent version is, I admit, an unusually entertaining take: the NYTPicker blog found that 78 New York Times reporters interviewed Thompson for 150 different stories over a span of 20 years. (I don't even want to think about how much work it took to provide that statistic).

But I gotta call a technical foul here because, as someone who has spoken to Robert enough that I consider him a professional pal, I think these stories are unfair to him and the reporters who use his ideas.

Because they ignore a simple truth. The professor knows his stuff, especially when it comes to television.

As the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular culture at Syracuse University, Thompson is one of the few academics who keeps track of a wide range of TV and pop culture trends on a regular basis. I can tell you from experience, he knows as much about programming trends and TV history as many professional critics, and he was invaluable in helping me understand how the industry worked when I started in the beat many years ago.

I have shied away from using him in my stories in recent years, because I don't like to see the same name pop up too often in my own work. But I still occasionally call him up to talk through a column idea I'm shaping, just to hone my ideas against a mind who understands this stuff really well. And I have occasionally popped a quote from him into a story I had planned to keep Thompson-free because his ideas were that good.

Here's why people use Thompson, despite all the snickering about how much he's quoted:

He's good -- Academics who understand a wide range of pop culture issues and can deliver cogent thoughts about them are rare.

He's accessible -- Ask any TV booker; one of the prime distinctions of their most-used guests is that they are easy to reach and usually agree to talk. Thompson fits both those characteristics well.

He's quotable -- Thompson has a knack for expressing himself in easily quotable lines that can help make a story more readable.

He's a teacher -- if you're a reporter who doesn't understand TV well, he'll help you grasp what's going on. If you already get it, together you can piece together ideas that are pretty compelling. I always leave a conversation with Thompson feeling as if I learned something or discovered how to see something in a new way. Can't say that about many sources.

I'm sure it's true that some writers use him too much, and it is odd to see one guy take up so much landscape in prominent pop culture stories.

But the bash Bob Thompson story also feels a little easy to me at this point. So I wanted to offer a contrary view about why people might use him so much -- though this issue probably doesn't matter to anyone who doesn't write pop culture stories for a living.

Bottom line: He's a good source. So take that into account while accusing the rest of us of being too lazy to pass up a good thing.

[Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 7:31am]


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