Tom Friedman Needs A Factchecker

We’ve called out Tom Friedman in recent months for being “radically wrong” in the past. And then for being “still wrong.” No surprise then, that he’d be wrong and causing confusion yet again.

This episode stems from Friedman’s reporting of a statistic about the number of Chinese students applying to Grinnell, a small liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa.

As Steve Gravelle reports in the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

You may have heard Grinnell College’s enrollment patterns as an example of what’s wrong with American education and the nation’s future in the global market.

You heard wrong. Even if you heard it from Thomas Friedman.

“This is one of those things you can appreciate has gone viral, and we can’t stop,” said Cindy Deppe, director of media relations for the central Iowa college.

Friedman initially reported in his column in February 2011 that, at Grinnell, “nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered for the class of 2015 is from China.”

That was kind of right—Chinese applicants comprised 8.6 percent of the total pool of applicants for that class. But the claim has been twisted and inflated ever since—by Tom Friedman no less.

Gravelle again:

According to Tom Junod at, at a recent Atlanta speech Friedman “elicted murmuring from the audience when he reported that 10 percent of the incoming freshman class at Grinnell College in Iowa were from mainland China — and then audible gasps when he doubled down and said that half of that ten percent got perfect 800s on their math SATs.”

Actually, 11 of Grinnell’s 435 incoming freshmen are from China—2.5 percent. Deppe said she didn’t have access to those students’ math SAT scores.

“This is out there now thanks to the New York Times article, and it just keeps getting replicated,” said Deppe. “Even the U.S. Secretary of Education used it—when he was out here in July, he used it in his speech.”

Deppe said she’s fielded inquiries from the Chronicle of Higher Education and a few other journalists whose research skills are more developed than those of Friedman or U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.