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Friedman’s French Friend Stages Intervention

Thomas L. Friedman's go-to reporting move (quote-the-cabbie) is stymied. Could it be the end of an "era?"
November 1, 2006

Thomas L. Friedman is frustrated. And Friedman’s frustration festers throughout his New York Times column today — titled, we kid you not, “The Taxi Driver.”

Who can blame him? There he was, doing his usual thing, having just landed in Paris, sitting “in the back seat [of a taxi] trying to finish a column on my laptop” (this very column, no doubt, given its Paris dateline) and the cab driver — “a young, French-speaking African,” (just think of the quoting potential! Zut alors!) — wasn’t talking. At least not to Friedman. Instead, the driver had “one of those Bluetooth wireless phones clipped to his ear and was deep in conversation.” Plus, Friedman writes, he had a “movie playing on the screen in the dashboard.”

What was Friedman to do, his go-to reporting move (quote the cabbie) stymied? How does one fill column space when The Taxi Driver won’t cooperate?

Here is what Friedman did:

Briefly lament the missed opportunity — the “pity” of the phone-talking, movie-watching Taxi Driver who “probably had a lot to tell me” since “for all I know my driver was talking to his parents in Africa. How wonderful!” — and then fill the looming column inches with an Andy Rooney-esque rant about technology prompted by his reporting frustration (“I’m finding this age of interruption overwhelming. I was much smarter when I could do only one thing at a time)” complete with a claim to have recently “witnessed the first postmodern local news story,” a cell-phone-talking driver nearly hitting an iPod-listening jogger — the sort of scene that has been available for “witnessing” in most any urban environment since, say, 2002.

But back to the cabbie bit. When Friedman “related” the details of his maddening cab ride to his Parisian friend, Friedman reports that the friend “quipped: ‘I guess the era of foreign correspondents quoting taxi drivers is over. The taxi driver is now too busy to give you a quote!'”

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Wait a second, we thought. Could this be the same “French friend” Friedman references in the first sentence of his column — the one who “sent” the Multitasking Taxi Driver to meet Friedman at the airport? Was this, perhaps, a set-up, an intervention of sorts? A friend’s effort to wean a certain “foreign correspondent” from his taxi driver-quoting dependency?

If so, it may actually have worked (for the moment), as Friedman continues, “[My friend] is right. You know the old story, ‘As my Parisian taxi driver said to me about the French elections … ‘ Well, you can forget about reading columns starting that way anymore. My driver was too busy to say hello, let alone opine on politics.”

Of course, it’s not clear that Friedman has actually acknowledged the problem as being, in part, his own (he didn’t, after all, write, “You can forget about reading columns starting that way anymore under my byline…”

Call it a first step.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.