Sun 7 Oct 2007
Yesterday — Oct. 6 — The New York Times ran this “Editor’s Note” in its Corrections area on page A2:
An article in the Dining section on Sept. 26 by Eric Asimov reported on the restaurant scene in Portland, Ore., and one of the establishments mentioned was Paley’s Place, owned by Vitaly and Kimberly Paley. Mr. Asimov said that it had “a warm and intimate dining room” and that Paley’s Place “is recognized as one of the top restaurants in the Northwest, if not the country.” He also wrote that Paley’s Place was one of several restaurants that had “served as an incubator for much of the talent that is making its mark today.”
Mr. Asimov is a friend of the Paleys, and while doing reporting for the article in Portland, he selected wines for a dinner he attended at Paley’s Place, which reported his presence in advance.
Even though Mr. Asimov was not reviewing or assessing the restaurant, he should have disclosed in the article his friendship with the owners, and he should have not created the appearance of favoritism toward them by participating in the wine dinner, for which he accepted no compensation.
This brouhaha started when journalist and blogger Kevin Allman posted to his blog Oct 1 questioning the ethics of Asimov’s favorable mentions of Paley’s Place, in the article in the Times and earlier this summer on his official blog The Pour, in light of the fact that at a wine dinner at Paley’s Place, Asimov was a featured guest and selected the wines for the event. The restaurant promoted the dinner using Asimov’s name; in the press release, the wine writer was called “our dear friend.” (In its food events listings for that week, The Portland Mercury stated: “Fancy pants New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov makes an appearance at Paley’s informal Wednesday wine tasting.”)
So it looks as if Asimov participated in a special event at a restaurant owned by his friends and then wrote favorably (extremely favorably on the blog) about the restaurant.
But are Asimov and the Paleys friends? Allman uncovered the fact that Vitaly Paley’s mother, a piano instructor at the Mannes School of Music in New York, has taught Asimov’s younger son Peter since 2000. In an email message, Asimov responded to Allman by saying that that relationship was “irrelevant” to the article, and I agree with Asimov. If the brother of my daughter’s dentist made wine in California and sent me some bottles to review, I would not recuse myself from the task, though if I wrote a negative review I would recommend that my daughter find a new dentist. Perhaps the Paleys like to think that Asimov is their good friend, or perhaps (more likely) the phrase was a touch of hyperbole, not an uncommon factor of press releases.
Nor do I agree with the “Editor’s Note” that Asimov should not have participated in the event. Critics, reviewers and commentators of all sorts are constantly asked to make presentations, serve on panel discussions, act as judges in contests and perform in other ways befitting their status as voices of opinion and authority. Would the Times require Michiko Kakutani not to speak at a convention of writers, publishers and editors or A.O. Scott not to be a juror at a competitive film festival? I imagine that diners at Paley’s Place that night in July were thrilled to meet Eric Asimov and taste wines that he selected for the dinner.
But conflict of interest is not merely about facts and real relationships but about appearance. While an aside on his blog and in the article in the Times about his son’s piano teacher being the chef’s mother would have been interesting and amusing, the necessary point that needed mentioning was Asimov’s involvement in the dinner. Chances are that the event where he was featured (“our good friend”) had nothing to do with the praise that he lavished on Paley’s Place; the fact that the event and his advertised participation were mentioned neither on his blog nor in the article is a serious lapse in judgment.
Having said that, I’ll mention that many of the responses to Allman’s blog and others that picked up the subject exude an unseemly air of schadenfreude, as if the “fancy pants” wine critic is getting his due, as if because Asimov writes for the Times and a national audience he’s automatically too big for his britches and deserves to be taken down.
Sorry, but Asimov is not being outed as a corrupt journalist; what he did is called in civilized circles “a mistake.” He got enthusiastic about a restaurant; perhaps he was swayed slightly by that peripheral relationship to his son; maybe he just had a lot of fun and thought the place was great. Is he human? Guilty as charged. Should the Times have taken note of this lapse and explained its position in the “Editor’s Note” yesterday? Of course, but pardon me if i say that this episode does not represent the downfall of journalist ethics.
By the way, Asimov lists this blog and my website, KoeppelOnWine, on the blog roll of The Pour. Gotta problem with that?
Photo credit: Brent Murray/NYTimes.com.