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Letter From the Editor: Two ‘Thumbsuckers’ Worth Reading

Opinion

Journalists have long used the term “thumbsucker” to describe a piece that was usually fairly long and obvious yet still pulled together some story that was worth telling but didn’t have to be told today.

“Schedule that thumbsucker from Davis to top the B section on Sunday,” I was ordered by my first managing editor. I was the copy editor for the Sunday edition, and it was the first time I had heard the term. I didn’t ask what it meant. I just put it together.

Davis was writing about woodstove pollution during the winter when extreme cold temperatures would produce inversions that hold air near ground level. In those days, telling all that took space only available on Sundays.

That had to be the “thumbsucker!” Whew! I did not have to ask!

Since those days, “thumbsucker” has taken on meanings from literature and movies that I won’t bother going into, but those would not preclude journalists continuing to use it. The term has fallen out of grade, and I think I know why, but since anyone can go find out why if they are so inclined, I won’t go there.

But “thumbsucker” fits, and I still use it. Let me give you a couple of examples from the past week or so.

The first is from our former colleague here at Food Safety News, Helena Bottemiller Evich. She works at POLITICO.com now and wrote, “The plot to make Big Food pay,” published Feb. 12.

This is a great “thumbsucker” because it is totally speculative. Whether something called “Big Food” is ripe for a “takedown,” as occurred with “Big Tobacco,” is mostly a parlor game for lawyers and journalists.

To a certain extent, you have to suspend belief to play along. Fox News played, turning Helena’s “Big Food” first into “Fast Food” so they could go live from the big McDonald’s in downtown Chicago. Then they brought on a Chicago attorney named McDonald, who wants to do all the suing for all those apparently inept state attorneys general. And then they had a good laugh.

Get it? McDonald will be suing McDonald’s. Ha ha. End of on-air report.

The second “thumbsucker” was by Eric Lipton at The New York Times.

Rival Industries Sweet-Talk the Public” is an important story about the public policy combat that’s been going on for the past decade between those who make sugar the old-fashioned way from cane and beets and those who make high-fructose corn syrup.

Here they are talking about two sides with big money – big public relations and big lawyers fighting one another to expand their respective market shares – while the best public health advice to all the rest of us is pretty simple: we should eat less of it and far less for most of us.

Or, as NYU’s best-known nutrition expert, Professor Marion Nestle, said: “It is a plague on both their houses,” referring to both the corn refinery and sugar industries. Nestle, who is described in the Lipton “thumbsucker” as “someone whom corn industry executives sought to influence,” agreed to a meeting after the refinery guys made a $1,500 contribution to the NYU library’s food studies collection for cataloguing expenses.

They then used selective quotes from her and said she’d have to sue them before they’d stop using them. She offers her own explanation of this experience, which is also well worth reading.

When print was king, they used to say it did not make any difference if you dropped a “thumbsucker” on the floor because the reader could never tell if you published the pages in the wrong order.

I am not saying that about either the POLITICO.com or New York Times stories. They are both well-written by excellent writers sharing information we should all know. That I like.

And, six months or a year down the road, somebody can do these “thumbsuckers” again.

© Food Safety News