Comped Reviews are Biased! Long Live the Comped Reviews!

Now comes a discussion on one of several topics that makes me all heeby-jeeby — ethics and food writing.

For those of you not prone to following the times and travails of food critics, there’s been a bit of a brou-ha-ha of late revolving around one John Mariani. Mr. Mariani is a food critic for Esquire Magazine and his word carries a fair amount of weight in the food industry.

He’s also been recently bitch-slapped by Chicago Chef Homaro Cantu, where Cantu accused Mariani of sending Cantu’s PR people “a four-page list of requests before dining at moto (Cantu’s restaurant) last year, asking the restaurant to pay for everything from cab fare to his hotel bill — requests the restaurant did not honor”.

Mr. Mariani and Esquire magazine have both denied these accusations, but Esquire hedged their bets by stating that Mariani is a freelance correspondent for the magazine, not a restaurant critic. Which would be all well and except for the recent column in Esquire where Mariani has penned an annual list of the nation’s “20 Best New Restaurants“. Pardon me for saying, but the title smells oddly like a backhanded compilations of reviews, unless the initial title of the piece was “20 Best New Restaurants that I, John Mariani, Have Eaten In and Have Not Compared Against Any Other Restaurant”.

Call me crazy, but when you say one restaurant deserves to be on a “Best of” list, and another doesn’t, that’s a review — an oversimplified and inferred review, but a review nonetheless. But I am picking at nits here.

The real issue comes down to what is the ethical standard when doing reviews? The Association of Food Journalists recommends reviewers dine anonymously when possible and not make reservations under their own names, and a list of several other behaviors to which critics should adhere. According to this piece in the LA Times, Mariani misses the mark on several of these activities.

But I don’t think that Mr. Mariani is at fault here. As I’ve started dabbling my toe or two into the Food Press, there’s an underworld at work that the general audience doesn’t get to see, that of the publicist and various PR firms. Their job is to get their clients — whether it’s a chef, restaurant or a product — noticed. They do this because a chef, restaurant or producer go out of their way to get those with a voice (like John Mariani, or on a much smaller scale, this site) to notice them.

Also, as Steven Shaw noted in an eGullet forum thread about Mariani:

Paying for a meal doesn’t necessarily make a writer unbiased. Accepting a comp doesn’t necessarily make a writer biased. Those who sell out deserve the disapprobation of all; those who write with integrity don’t deserve to be dismissed just because they accept a subsidy….

…the travel and food media would contract to a fraction of their current size if comps were eliminated, and what would remain would be the old money, unimaginative, increasingly-irrelevant-and-biased-despite-unlimited-budgets old media. Comps are the basis on which smaller, newer media outlets and freelancers exist.

To which I’ll add, sometimes getting comped products can be a good thing, especially when you get something great that you hadn’t expected. Not to bring it back to me, me, me, but I felt oddly good writing about Adagio Tea the other day. Not because it was a free product (which it was), but because it’s a damn fine product. Does the fact that it was given to me by the tea company change the quality of a product? Not at all. What is at stake here is how you, the reader, interpret a review and the perceived biases of the writer.

Granted, there’s a huge difference between restaurant review and product reviews. But the real issue is the matter of trust built amongst the readers of the reviewer. Mariani writes damn fine reviews, well thought out, and perceptive. That he has built a credit line of trust amongst his readers is undeniable. Whether his reputation will be tarnished by this incident remains to be seen. His biggest unproven crime, it seems, is not that he accepted comps, but that he started asking for them — and here’s the biggest point — got caught doing so. Do you believe that he’s the only food writer out there that asks for comps?

I’m not trying to deny that there’s a fine line here, as there most certainly is. The skill of a reviewer comes not only from their writing, but also from their ability to navigate what compromises their stated ethics and what doesn’t. Without the former ability, readers won’t come to the writer, without the latter, the readers won’t stay.

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