Q: How Many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Go fuck yourself, asshole!
With jokes like this long circulating to make New York City's prickly version of etiquette legendary, Reader's Digest knew that its startling press release would guarantee coverage, generating feature columns, instant on-line polls and a high slot on Keith Olberman's countdown. The venerable magazine announced that New Yorkers had aced its "Courtesy Test," making it the "World's Most Polite City." As "Man Bites Dog" stories go, this is right at the top of the list, in the same category as announcing that a panel educators have declared George W. Bush the world's most articulate head of state.
The headline was a lie. The Digest's survey measured only 36 cities, which would have made the "World's Most Polite City" title an outrageous overstatement under any circumstances; last time we checked with Al Gore, the rising ocean level hadn't swallowed yet swallowed enough metropolises to put the total into double figures. But it was even more misleading than that, because New York was the only U.S. city tested. The unsurprising fact that even New Yorkers are more polite than the residents of many world cities was not going to get Reader's Digest the buzz and free publicity the survey courtesy gimmick was created to create. "New York City Found To Be More Courteous Than Berlin"? Dog Bites Man. "New York City Found To Be More Courteous Than Paris"? Dog Chases Ball. So the PR guys came up with a headline that was eye-catching, startling, and 100% false.
For the record, this is how New York earned the title of "Most Courteous City Among the Thirty-Six World Cities Reader's Digest Selected for its Silly Survey." Two reporters -- one woman and one man -- traversed each city, concentrating on areas with a lively street life and retail activity. They performed three experiments: a door test, which measured the percentage of residents who would hold one open for them; "document drops," designed to determine who would help them retrieve a pile of "accidentally" dropped papers, and a service tests, looking for "thank-yous" from salespersons following a purchase. In New York, all the tests were conducted at Starbucks, pushing the study beyond "unscientific" to "rigged." Starbucks employees are famously well-trained and courteous by policy, and its clientele is well-educated and affluent. Imagine if all of New York City's tests had been only held in McDonald's restaurants? "New Yorkers Can't Understand English, Study Shows" might have been the result.
"Well," the Digest staff might argue, "its not as if our description of the survey didn't make it clear that New York was the only U. S. city represented." But the media attention came from the dishonest headline, which was exactly what Reader's Digest intended. It knew that other media outlets would pass on its deception through teasers and headlines of their own. "New York City Named "Most Polite" in Survey!" "And when we come back: a recent survey has determined the most polite city in the world, and you'll never guess the winner! New York City! More, after this." What a deal: a lie that keeps on giving! Of course, the ethical way for print and electronic media to have handled this phony story would be to avoid using it as a deceptive tease, and accurately state what the survey actually showed: "New York Named Most Polite of Thirty-Six World Cities Studied." But the truth is boring, not to mention pointless. So, journalistic ethics being what they are, most piggy-backed on Reader's Digest's deception.
This is a trivial lie, but not an inconsequential one. The Digest's intentional misrepresentation of its findings is exactly how false information works its way into our consciousness, news stories, classrooms and public policy. "Half of All Marriages End in Divorce!" "Women Earn Less Than Three-Quarters the Salaries of Male Workers!" "Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains!" These and dozens of other imaginary facts are routinely cited in casual arguments, student lessons, media stories and even scholarly works every day, and nearly every one of them began with an intentional misstatement of data to get attention for a particular cause, organization or product. Years from now, some New Yorker who is losing an argument with a Seattle resident about whose city has better manners will say, "Oh yeah? Well. A couple of years ago they did a survey and New York was found to be the most polite city in the world!"
"So go fuck yourself, asshole!"