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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

AJC dining critic flouts a conflict of interest

Posted By on Wed, Oct 8, 2008 at 8:02 PM

Shaun Doty, owner-chef of Shaun’s in Inman Park, has enjoyed loads of favorable reviews from local critics.

Creative Loafing’s Besha Rodell gave the restaurant four stars after it opened in 2007 and Cliff Bostock writes glowingly of Doty’s cooking in this week’s CL. Similar kind words came from Atlanta Magazine.

But the AJC’s Meridith Ford (now Meridith Ford Goldman) may have been the most effusive of all. She declared in her January 2007 review that “there is no other restaurant of this caliber in Atlanta.” And it seems, at least, that a week has seldom gone by since without Goldman offering the restaurant plaudits in a blog post, a “best” this-or-that listing or even in reviews for other restaurants.

That’s why a few eyebrows were raised last month when foodies started hearing that Doty would cater at the AJC critic’s wedding party. Then, on Sept. 25, I practically choked on my chicken livers when the daily ran Goldman’s article gushing about the chefs at her reception, held at South Fulton’s elegant Serenbe community. Ice cream, she said, was provided by Doty, “who was nice enough to make my favorite appetizer from his menu, Sardinian flatbread, as well.”

In the same article, entitled “Feast fit for a bride,” Goldman offered kind words (read: favorable, free publicity) for three other chefs with whom the wedding couple did business.

“Jonathan St. Hilaire and Angie Mosier's three-tiered cheesecake in lieu of a wedding cake (a tall order) was devoured. My mother is still asking about it.” Hilaire is the executive pastry chef for Bob Amick’s Concentrics restaurant group, which also got a favorable mention in the article.

In a separate July 4 review of Concentric’s Parish in Inman Park — two months before the wedding — Goldman wrote: “St. Hilaire has always proven his mettle as a gifted dessert chef, from his early days at Woodfire Grill to his role as executive pastry chef for Amick, overseeing all Concentrics' properties.” Mosier, who used to work at Serenbe’s Farmhouse restaurant, has also been lauded by the critic.

The post-wedding article goes on to mention Hilary White’s The Hil restaurant at Serenbe, which was the subject of Goldman’s three-star review in December. She lauds “two towers of the Hil's pretty cupcakes” at the wedding, and writes that she and her betrothed “spent a few lovely weekends munching our way through Hilary White's pork shoulder and farm-fresh vegetables at the Hil.”

Ethical purists might disagree, but one could argue that after a decent interval, it’s fair for a critic to engage in personal business with a chef or restaurant she or he reviewed or has written about in another context.

In the case of Doty, there was no such interval. The very first item in a restaurant news section just below the wedding story announced that Shaun’s — of all places — had a new sous chef. The story itself was sandwiched between an April piece in which Goldman named Shaun’s one of the 15 best restaurants in town and an Oct. 2 review of Dogwood, in which she couldn’t help but offer a digression into the “sex appeal” of Doty’s cooking.

At the end of her wedding piece, Goldman offers what she calls a “full disclosure.” “We paid full price,” she writes, “for our wedding and every delicious morsel our guests enjoyed.”

As anyone who’s been through the ritual knows, however, wedding catering jobs — particularly complex ones with multiple chefs — aren’t easily attached to a simple price list. But Goldman expresses little curiosity about whether she got favorable treatment.

“All I know [is that] I was handed a bill, and I paid,” she told me in a brief interview. “As far as I know, I have paid full price.”

The situation brings up so many conflict-of-interest issues that it’s hard to imagine how they could have been overlooked by Goldman or, just as importantly, by her editors.

Imagine if you were asked by the most powerful tastemaker in your industry — someone who truly could make or break your business — to perform a special, personal service for her? You might jump at the opportunity, in hopes that you'd give her the most favorable impression possible. You might also feel like you’re being offered a deal you couldn’t refuse. Did Goldman have any concerns that she, even inadvertently, might have strong-armed chefs to cook for her?

“If I did, I’m certainly sorry to hear that,” she said. Still, no doubts. The “full disclosure,” she insists, inoculates her of any ethical breeches.

“I handled the conflict of interest in the best way we could,” Goldman said. “I’m not holding anything back.” And, she pointed out: “My editors are fully aware of it.”

But there were plenty of other ways Goldman and her editors could have handled the conflict. One would have been to require her to hire only caterers who didn’t employ chefs whose restaurants she’d reviewed or might review in the future — there are plenty of good caterers in Atlanta — and then to bar her from writing about those people.

“So in other words, I don’t get to choose who I want?” Goldman asked. “For the most important day in my life, I don’t get to make a choice?”

If it creates a conflict of interest, of course not! Every profession has its standards, and one standard for journalism is that such conflicts should be mitigated to every reasonable extent possible. The privilege of wielding influence over others’ reputations occasionally does carry with it some personal inconveniences. And all that’s particularly true for a purportedly impartial dining critic, who exercises immense power and must overcome a public already skeptical over whether her judgments may be influenced by such hidden agendas as advertising dollars or friendships.

This isn’t just my idealistic concept. The Association of Food Journalists Code of Ethics states: “food journalists should not use their positions to win favors for themselves or for others.” Doesn’t it violate that code to hire the people you write about (and continue to write about), and then to give them free publicity in an article?

Goldman responded to my questions by casting out a red herring. “If you want to make a big fuss about it, you can start with the fact that your dining critic is married to a local chef,” she harrumphed.

CL Food Editor Besha Rodell is married to local chef Ryan Stewart — a fact we’ve disclosed at every opportunity (most recently here). But there are two fundamental differences in the way Goldman and the AJC handled their conflict and the way Besha and CL addressed ours. And Goldman I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I defense begs for a comparison:

* While Goldman could have taken pretty painless steps to avoid the conflict of interest (I mentioned one option above), it’s not reasonable to expect Rodell to divorce her husband or to, say, bar her husband from working. Still, she doesn't need to write about him, and she hasn't.

* And unlike Goldman, Rodell took every step to mitigate the conflict rather than to exacerbate it. For example, when Bostock, a freelancer for CL, told Rodell last year that he planned to write in his Grazing column for the first time about a restaurant where Stewart worked, Rodell withheld from Bostock that Stewart was her husband and went so far as to concoct a reason that another editor would edit his column that week. That way we could be sure that the edited version of Bostock's story hadn’t been influenced by Rodell’s connection.

This is pretty basic stuff for journalists who take their credibility seriously. And the example Goldman raised does show that editors and critics sometimes do have to navigate difficult ethical waters, but can do so with a little creativity and by sticking to their principles.

I couldn’t get AJC editors to discuss why they allowed their dining critic to do business with and offer free publicity to chefs she regularly covers — or even to defend the decisions. Goldman’s usual supervisor, Managing Editor for News & Information Michael Lupo, was out of town. His voicemail referred me to Associate Managing Editor Shawn McIntosh, who said in an e-mail exchange that she was reviewing the situation. But, she added, “since it's a personnel matter, I won't have any comment.”

It doesn't seem unfair to dismiss this as a personnel matter, however. Yes, Goldman’s choices can be questioned. But it shouldn't be pawned off entirely on the writer. As she said: The editors had to know about the multiple conflicts of interest when they allowed her article publicizing her wedding caterers to be published. Wasn’t it the paper’s responsibility to mitigate that conflict rather than to abet it?

On the other hand, there's no reason to question actions of the chefs and restaurants Goldman wrote about. After all, they’re not obligated to ensure that the AJC follows professional standards. Their job is to do what’s right for their businesses, part of which involves cultivating a good relationship with the daily’s dining critic.

Indeed, the chefs and restaurateurs are, along with the AJC’s readers, the people who lose out when the most important media outlet in town fails to manage such a conflict of interest. At least some of the food-industry people involved weren’t particularly eager to talk to me about this issue. That's understandable when you figure that no chef in town wants to be quoted criticizing Goldman.

But a little story about a wedding I attended last weekend at Serenbe sheds light on how Goldman’s actions really can affect the restaurant community. The groom — CL’s Andisheh Nouraee — became concerned before the wedding because he’d heard through the grapevine that Goldman was getting special treatment. It turned out that she wasn’t getting special treatment in the way he’d thought.

While trying to find out more, however, he was told by a member of the Serenbe staff that she wasn’t surprised by the high level of talent falling all over itself to help with Goldman’s wedding.

"It's Meredith Ford, the food critic from the AJC,” she told Andy. “Shaun is doing some of the appetizers and The Inn [at Serenbe] is doing some of the entrees. Everybody wants a good write-up.”

Editor's note: A comment has been removed from this post because the editors found it to be an invasion of privacy.

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