Ethics in Reporting & Reviewing


There are two problems with the new guidelines issued this week by the Federal Trade Commission that stipulate that bloggers and other new media writers disclose the sources of the products they review, i.e. if they were free samples. And no, that particular rule isn’t one of the problems. Many wine bloggers already post disclaimers so that readers know that wines being reviewed were sent from wineries or importers or their representatives in hopes of a mention of some kind, preferably positive. And many wine bloggers make it clear that wineries from which they receive samples should have no expectation as to whether a review will be positive or negative or even if the wine will be reviewed at all; that’s exactly as it should be.

No, the first problem, as Tom Wark pointed out eloquently on his blog Fermentation yesterday, is that the FTC’s new disclosure rules do not apply to “traditional” print media because they, presumably, exercise more editorial control over their material and coverage than the rank amateurs of the blogosphere. So publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, which receive untold thousands of bottles of wine free every year, do not need to disclose that fact to their readers, while a first-time wine blogger, who might feel grateful for a few review samples, must do so. This is a situation for which the phrase “The Double Standard Stinks” was invented.

The second problem is that the drafters of the new FTC guidelines don’t seem to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to the difference between a review and an endorsement. The report expresses the principle this way:

“For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements,’ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.”

Obviously the FTC equates positive reviews with “endorsements,” as if bloggers were celebrity basketball players on billboards being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to put the force of their internationally known, outsize personalities at the service of athletic shoes and energy drinks. (If only, right?)

A review or critique of anything — book, musical recording, an art exhibition or theatrical performance, a product such as an automobile or a dishwasher, or a bottle of wine — is (or should be) an assessment and evaluation based on knowledge, experience and judgment. For the reader, the benefit lies in the information and analysis upon which to base a decision, to go see that play, to read that book, to purchase that bottle of wine. This result is not the same as an endorsement, in which a celebrity is paid to mouth words conceived by a copy-writer from a marketing or public relations firm. A review is not an advertisement or press release for the object or performance or entity in question.

Yet, annoyingly, the new FTC guidelines refer, again and again, to reviews on blogs as endorsements and to companies that supply products to bloggers for review as advertisers. The case seems devastatingly clear: If I were sent a review copy of a book by a publisher and wrote a review that was published in a print journal or newspaper, the FTC would regard it as a review; if I wrote that review, however, and placed it on my blog, it would be regarded by the FTC as an endorsement for the book, going on the supposition that my blog lacks traditional “editorial responsibility.” And notice, in the quotation from the guidelines above, that the bigger the audience for the blog, the more likely that a review will be considered an endorsement. This is the sort of obtuse reasoning from which Circles of Hell are fashioned.

It’s possible that these guidelines — only a small portion of the 81-page document that focuses primarily on television and magazine advertising — were deemed necessary by the FTC because of the bloggers who review a variety of mainly household products only in a positive manner. Well-known examples of these are the “mommy bloggers” Katja Presnal at skimbacolifestyle.com and Christine Young of FromDatestoDiapers.com. As Tim Arango wrote yesterday in The New York Times about Christine Young, “If she doesn’t like a product, she simply won’t write about it.”

Now I’m not telling my Fellow Wine-Bloggers to pick out a bottle of wine and kick it in the teeth just for fun, but I will say that giving only positive reviews does not build credibility or a reputation for objectivity. In fact, writing only positive reviews creates the impression that all you’re doing is, yes, endorsing products without engaging a balancing critical sensibility. And providing negative or even not wholly positive reviews is a boon for your readers; doesn’t it make as much sense to warn them away from mediocrity as to extol what is superior?

The FTC guidelines for bloggers take effect on Dec. 1, though the enterprise is fraught with ambiguity. If I write a post in which I review 12 wines, must I include a disclaimer for each wine or a blanket disclaimer for the post? Or is it all right to include a permanent disclaimer for the blog that covers all posts and all wines? The FTC hasn’t made that clear. What is clear is that in the next few months the sort of confusion and consternation that leads to lawsuits will reign.

Pim Techamuanvivit, producer and writer of the popular food blog Chez Pim, startled the blogging world last week by announcing that she was “partnering” with Rachel’s to promote or endorse a new line of cottage cheese and yogurt. Pim told Kim Severson (for whom she declined to name the amount of money involved), on The New York Times food blog: “It’s a great relationship between blogging and branding … This is a business now.”

Comments from Pim’s readers are overwhelmingly positive, of the “You go, girl!” and “Can’t wait to try the honey-plum-lavender!” type. Response on The New York Times blog is more measured, with some readers saying that Pim is (as she says herself) a brand so why shouldn’t she endorse a product “she believes in” the way athletes endorse shoes, to others who assert that she is a complete sell-out to capitalism and can never be trusted again.

If you read back through the archives of Chez Pim, you will realize that Pim’s appeal is to other foodies or wannabe foodies who are mainly (the responses seem to indicate) young and female. She is an entrepreneur whose product is herself, and her readers not only like her but are devoted to her.

One should not be alarmed that by endorsing Rachel’s yogurt and cottage cheese Pim is violating any code of journalist ethics because she isn’t a journalist; she’s a personality who writes about food and restaurants, that is to say, the food she eats and the restaurants to which she goes, from a stance that is completely uncritical and unskeptical. She does not review food products from a critical distance, and she does not review restaurants. As she notes, in a post on July 21, 2006, when she and her boyfriend trek to Etxebarri, a famous all-grill restaurant in the Basque village of Axpe, “As is our custom, instead of ordering from the menu, we asked the kitchen to do a tasting menu for us.” That may be their custom, but it is not the practice of a journalist or reviewer. (For objective reviews of the Rachel’s “Exotic” and “Essence” yogurts, see this page at nibble.com.)

Were it not for the fact that Pim is a roaring success — she has a book coming out too — she would be very difficult to take seriously. Pim writes in an annoyingly breathless and gaga style, including using words like “bestest,” and her posts are filled with misspellings and typographical slips. (Everybody needs an editor, Pim, even you and me.) She blithely skates across the surface of food and restaurant issues and concerns while providing her readers with recipes for chocolate chip cookies and dark chocolate hazelnut bites. On the other hand, as one comment on The New York Times blog points out, Pim never said that she was doing Consumer Reports.

Rachel’s, by the way, is a product line of White Wave Foods, a division of international diary megalith Dean Foods.

If Pim’s readers clearly don’t give a damn that she endorses a product, makes some moolah and increases her visibility, I don’t think that we shouldn’t either. As I said, she’s not a journalist or a critic; she’s a personality. Would we care if Perez Hilton endorsed Rachel’s cottage cheese or, say, a line of mascara? Of course not, but we wouldn’t want Matt Drudge doing it — well, maybe the mascara — because he is a journalist, or bears some resemblance to one. The Drudge Report does carry advertising, but that’s not the same thing as an endorsement. A Walmart banner ad at the top of TDR’s home page is a sign of an equation: “I give you money = You give me space.” It doesn’t mean that Matt Drudge is standing up and saying, “Personally I shop at Walmart because I love the prices and the pathetic old geezers who greet you at the door!”

The Chez Pim brouhaha in a demitasse serves a purpose, though, and that is bringing to the tea-table the issue that gives many involved in (to be specific) wine-blogging the heebie-jeebies, and that’s The Whole Ethics Thing. Indeed, the conjunction of those loaded “B” words — blogging, branding and business — tends to sow dragon’s teeth into a fertile field where the giants called Conflicts of Interest spring forth, or may be perceived to do so.

Obviously, wine-bloggers who engage in serious critical reviews of wine and commentary about the wine industry should never endorse a product. Giving a wine a good review, incidentally, is not the same as an endorsement of the wine, just as a rave review of a book is not an endorsement of the book. One may receive bottles of wine as samples but without the obligation to write about the wine and with no guarantee about the outcome if you do; those conditions need to be made clear to producers and importers who send wine to bloggers, either by practice or in a statement on the blog’s home page.

Recently, for example, a publicist sent me an email saying that he or she wanted to send me two limited edition wines on the condition that I would include, in whatever I wrote, the high score one of the wines had recently received in The Wine Enthusiast. I said that no, I would not accept wines that came with any conditions whatsoever, and that if I reviewed the wines it would only be on my terms. And of course they apologized and said that no, of course, they had not intended such a condition and so on. Bloggers, you must not allow your skepticism and objectivity to drop for one moment.

Even the notion of receiving samples of wine makes some bloggers nervous, but I think the uneasiness is misplaced. With the exceptions of The Wine Advocate, whose well-known publisher and chief writer Robert M. Parker Jr. has managed from the beginning to fund his wine-tasting, and Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine blog, The Pour, most publications, web-sites and blogs that review wine would not exist without samples, just as newspapers and other journals and blogs that review books (to extend the analogy) would not get the job done without the review copies that publishers sent out by the box-load. I promise that the book reviewers for the nation’s Sunday book sections spend not a single sleepless night worrying that the novel they reviewed that day came as a free copy from Doubleday. It’s part of the process, not a quid pro quo balancing act.

And bloggers, you’re not special, so don’t act so damned grateful, when you do get samples; the cost of sending wine to writers is written into the budget of every producer and importer. Acting as if you’ve had a gift bestowed upon you — yes, I’ve seen you do this — only contributes to the amateurism of the wine-blogging sphere.

Let’s face it, most blogs (of any kind) are neither businesses nor brands, the exceptions, in the wine area, possibly being the highly visible and always active Dr. Vino, Vinography, Good Wine Under $20 and The Pour. The rest of us labor on, sans real advertising or book deals, wishing we had the numbers and the clout to draw advertising inquiries. Of course lines have to be drawn here too. Wine blogs should not carry ads from wineries, producers, importers or distributors, that is, from entities that deal with specific wines. Alternatives would be advertising from retail stores, Internet wine sellers or wine events; restaurants, hotels and the hospitality business in general; or any enterprise that seems reasonable and would not present a conflict of interest, though the entire issue may be merely of academic interest until wine blogs find more of a national presence.

So, fellow wine-bloggers, don’t be jealous of Pim Techamuanvivit because her blog is immensely more popular than yours and she makes a hell of a lot more money by blogging than you do. You and she exist in parallel universes, and while she inhabits the glamorous food circles of New York and goes to parties all the time and hobnobs with celebrities and travels all over the place, thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to do that.

O.K., be a little jealous.

Top image from chezpim.com.
Second image from nibble.com.
My linkedin profile.

Things are getting nasty over at Tom Wark’s blog Fermentation. Frankly, this week, the shit hit the fan.

Wark closely follows the wine industry, marketing, politics and wine blogs on his entity, and he posts frequently on these matters. He has worked in wine marketing for years and knows the business thoroughly.

On August 27, in a post titled “On Press Sampling — Giving and Taking and Ethics,” Wark sharply denounced a program in which a small group of wine bloggers was given bottles of a new wine from Rodney Strong Vineyards, the limited edition Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, suggested price, $75. The stipulation given to these bloggers was that if they took the sample they had to write about the wine, whether in a review or in a story, within a time-frame of four days. The samples came to the bloggers before they went to mainstream wine publications like the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast, meaning that the notices or reviews from the bloggers would be published before the Big Guns even got the wine.

The idea did not originate at Rockaway or Rodney Strong Vineyards or with Rodney Strong’s public relations director Robert Larsen. Instead, the experiment was organized by Jeff Lefevere at Good Grape as an exercise in blogger power, to see, that is, if the simultaneous, or closely simultaneous, publication of these reviews or notices would have any sort of effect. Obviously the winery cooperated by supplying the wine.

Wark’s denunciation of one part of this experiment, that is the aspect that the bloggers were required to produce copy at a certain time, can be summed up in this sentence from his post, and I suspect this is what hurt people’s feelings:

I’m not sure bloggers shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to these terms — assuming they want to be seen as part of the long tradition of independent journalism and professional criticism that strives to maintain a measured and necessary distance from their subject that allows them to entertain and inform their readers through the appearance (and reality) of not being unduly influenced by their subject.

The result was (at this time: 2:32 p.m., C.T., on Saturday) 110 increasingly vituperative responses and 45 fairly snarky responses to a follow-up post, “On the Wane,” that Tom put the blog on Aug. 28. (I am generally in agreement with Tom, and I admit to having been fairly snarky myself over there.)

There seems to be a crisis of confidence in the world of wine bloggerdom, and the crisis revolves around these issues:

1. Is it all right to accept samples of wines from producers and imports?

2. As wine blogging becomes better-known and (perhaps) more influential, is there a danger that wine blogs will lose their independence and personality?

3. What sort of ethics should be applied to wine blogging?

My perspective on these issues derives from having written a weekly print wine column for 20 years (for 15 of those years as a nationally distributed column) and as 22 years as a full-time journalist at a daily newspaper. I have been writing for the Internet since December 2004, first on my old website and now on this blog.

Samples

Nobody picks up The New York Times Book Review on Sunday and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of books that the Times got for free from the publishers, how can I trust them?.” No one picks up Fanfare or Downbeat and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of CDs that the magazines got free from the recording companies, how can I trust them?” And yet there’s all this anxiety among wine bloggers that they will be tainted if they accept samples of wine.

Calm down, friends. A sample bottle of wine is not a bribe.

Sending wine samples is written into the cost of doing business for wineries and importers. In the 24 years that I have been writing about wine, no representative from a winery or importer, no marketing or PR person, has tried to establish a quid pro quo understanding about how I would review a wine or even if I would review it or not, though of course they would like some sort of notice in timely fashion. And even after negative reviews of some wines, most producers have continued to send samples, because that’s part of the procedure.

An excellent example of this aspect, as a matter of fact, is the winery in question; over the years, I have been hard on Rick Sayer, the longtime winemaker at Rodney Strong, because I think he has too free a hand with oak. When I can recommend a wine from Rodney Strong, I do; when I can’t, I say so. I continue to receive samples from the winery, and I hope it’s because they trust me to be objective and straightforward. (Rather than that they just forgot that I was on the mailing list.)

The understanding has to be perfectly clear: Writers receive samples from wineries. They will write about those wines if and when they can, and they will write about those wines with a sense of complete freedom and independence. If that concept makes you nervous, don’t review wine. And if bloggers feel that they can only write about wines that they purchase, that they have to take this stance to reinforce their integrity, that’s fine, but I would say that it’s a stance that’s impractical for most of us.

Keeping Blogs Independent, or “How Can We Get Respect But Not Turn into the Wine Spectator”?

So, what kind of respect do wine bloggers want, anyway?

One aspect of the Rodney Strong experiment — or “RodneyStrongGate” as Terry Hughes at mondosapore dubbed the brouhaha — that surfaced repeatedly was that it served as a signal to the mainstream publications that wine blogging had to be taken seriously. Remember, however, that the experiment was organized by a blogger and carried out by other bloggers; there’s little evidence that it advanced the recognition of wine blogging other than the fact that Rodney Strong agreed to participate. The whole affair hardly seems to live up to the “innovation” it was touted to be.

The real question is, from whom do wine bloggers want recognition? Do we really care if the mainstream publications like Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast acknowledge our existence or feel a sense of competition? I would say not. While a few wine blogs carry real advertising, most of us (envious, to be sure) have to be content with Google Adsense; not much recognition (or livelihood) that way. Would stories about wine blogging in food magazines and the popular press satisfy our need for recognition?

Give it up. The recognition comes from the readers of our blogs, the consumers who are looking for alternatives to the mainstream journals, which are increasingly “lifestyle” oriented, the readers who enjoy a little quirkiness, a little personality, a little attitude. It worries me to read that wine bloggers seek “legitimacy,” another word that came up in the posts surrounding this mess. Do a good job and satisfy the needs of your audience; there’s your legitimacy.

Wine Blogging Ethics, or Just, You Know, Ethics?

One response to Tom Wark’s posts on Fermentation suggested that a code of ethics for wine bloggers needs to be formulated.

Sorry, that notion suggests committees and subcommittees, months of endless emailing, divisions into factions, official positions.

Let me save everyone the trouble:

*Be Honest.
*Be Fair.
*Don’t Be an Asshole.

In other words, yes, of course wine bloggers need to have a sense of ethics, for crying out loud, but it doesn’t have to be some special agenda. It’s a matter of common sense. Transparency, for example, begins at the beginning of a process, not at the end. Independence from the sources of your wine is always necessary; if you feel compelled to disclose to your readers that wines you review are samples, by all means do so. I mean, I just assume that’s the case anyway. Even if you go to a trade tasting and work through 100 wines in four hours (or whatever), the wine still came free from somewhere. That’s the nature of the business, and it’s your job to stay objective and enlightened.

To the person who says, “But it’s my blog, and I’ll be dishonest, unfair and an asshole if I want to be,” I say, Go for it, but I won’t be one of your readers and I bet that people who care about wine won’t be either.

One More Thing

What bothered me about l’affair Rodney Strong was the tone adopted by some of the bloggers who reviewed Rockaway 2005. What they wrote sounded like press releases for a winery’s new product; there was a notable lack of the distance and detachment necessary to true balance and objectivity.

Here are some lines from some of the reviews:

“These small areas of the vineyard are where the viticultural and winemaking teams have found the best fruit that expresses the terroir there.”

“To maximize the expression of the Rockaway vineyard …”

“Please join me in congratulating Rockaway on the pending release of their new wine …”

“To craft these wines, grapes from only the best (meaning most tasty) vines/rows are selected …”

“In a final feat of expressing the best of the land …”

“Rockaway is completely made from free-run juice from the best rows and vines in the vineyard. Their goal is for it to be the ultimate expression of terroir …”

These (somewhat similar) lines convey all the enthusiasm of writers who got so carried away with a project that they forgot to be objective and detached. If I had written like this when I was doing a print column, my editor would have throw the copy back at me and said, “Stop with the press release bullshit and write something real.”

So, here’s my final point:

You bloggers want recognition? You want legitimacy? You want to be taken seriously?

Then love wine in general, but be very skeptical about wines individually.

Delight in the process of wine-making, but be very skeptical about wineries.

Admire the people who make the wine, but always watch your back.

An issue that animates the world of wine blogging revolves around accepting samples of wine from producers and importers or On, no, it must be a bribe! their public relations representatives. Some bloggers state unequivocally on their home pages that they never accept samples, therefore ensuring the high-minded quality of their integrity. Others mention in every review where the bottle came from or was encountered, that is, if the blogger bought it or had it at a restaurant, tried it at a trade tasting, sipped it at a friend’s house. The implication of both of these positions is clear: Accepting a free bottle of wine is tantamount to open bribery and public corruption.

That’s sheer hooey.

I mention these matters because Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog — and, bless his heart, Tom really does keep us all on the crackling edge of the wine industry’s most important concerns — had a post (Oct. 25, “For Immediate Release”) about the supposed or potential effects of press releases on wine writers and the characteristics of a good press releases, about which he knows more than anyone. In the midst of a typically provocative column, Tom quoted from an essay written on Thomas Pellechia the previous day on his blog VinoFictions. Let me also quote from that essay:

“When I stopped posting tasting notes my original intent was that since I get paid to write articles and books about wine I did not want ever to be accused of shilling for one or more wine producer.”

And:

“I cannot imagine how to explain having written a tasting note that agrees with a press release concerning a free bottle that I had received, even if I knew that I hadn’t cheated — to me, the perception of a conflict of interest is damning enough.”

Now Pellechia is a thoughtful and sincere writer (whom I have never met), so I don’t mean what I’m about to say personally, but I believe that these sentiments are off kilter, or, let me put it this way, so punctilious that they are self-defeating.

When Michiko Kakutani, chief book reviewer for The New York Times, and Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist for The Washington Post, give positive reviews to books, they are not shilling for the author or the publisher. They’re doing their jobs, as they are when they write negative reviews. I reviewed books for the newspaper where I work for 20 years, and I was book page editor for 15 of those years. We received in the mail an ungodly amount of books, thousands of books, piles of books a year. So when we reviewed books, we were writing about books we received free. This is the practice at every newspaper, magazine and online media outlet in the world that reviews books. Nobody worries about conflict of interest because there is none. The book is not a bribe; it’s a copy to be read, used, written about for good or ill, that is, if the book is chosen for review.

Over 20 years, I wrote many negative reviews of books, ranging from mild objections to outright scorn. Guess what? The publishers didn’t stop sending books, and they made no attempt to adjust my attitude toward them as publishers or the authors whose work I criticized. It’s the nature of the reviewing business, and when it comes to reviewing anything of cultural or monetary worth that reviewers have access to for free — books, movies, music, wine (restaurants are different because the presence of the establishment and the experience are immediate and very close to home) — the coins of the realm are not chiming shekels and crisp currency but honesty and respect.

I’ve been reviewing wine since 1984, in a nationally distributed weekly print column for 20 years and on the Internet thereafter. As is the case with every wine reviewer, I have written about wonderful, legendary wines; nice little quaffing wines; real dogs of wines. Many of these wines were sample bottles, and when I have felt obliged to point out that a wine is as worthless as rust in a drainpipe, then I have done so, neither with exhilaration nor with heavy heart but simply as part of what I do. People — producers, publicists, the public — need to know these things. Everyone is harmed when mediocrity is not exposed. In fact, it’s by exposing mediocrity, as well as passing out praise when it is due, that we earn reputations for honesty, objectivity and fairness. That’s all part of being professional.

So when Pellechia says that he originally stopped posting tasting notes because he gets paid to write articles and books about wine, I think he’s on the wrong track. Tasting wines — whether sample bottles or not — and posting informative notes seem to me an inextricable part of experiencing and thinking about wine and providing opinion, information and education to readers, whether on a restricted level of friends and colleagues, or to the public. And let’s face it: Americans, even those who drink wine, don’t know a lot about it, where it comes from, how it’s made, how it gets to their tables; opinion (that is, opinion based on knowledge and experience), information and education are exactly what they need.

Pellechia goes on to say, in his essay, that he also decided that he didn’t want to post tasting notes because (1) he wouldn’t base his own wine buying on someone else’s opinion and (2) he didn’t think that anyone else should buy wine based on his opinion, and I have to respect that personal point of view.

On the other hand, if I’m out and about and someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, I bought that Wine of the Week from your website and it was terrific” or “I got a case of that wine you recommended for a party and everyone enjoyed it,” then I feel as if I’ve provided a public service, made some consumers happy and perhaps imparted some knowledge and awareness about wine, and I don’t give a damn if the bottle I tasted and recommended was free or not.

Image credit: Productdose.com.

Yesterday — Oct. 6 — The New York Times ran this “Editor’s Note” in its Corrections area on page A2: eric-asimov2184.jpg

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.

Well.

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.