When A Food Critic Goes Bad

Forget Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and Stephen Glass. What happens when you can’t even trust the words of a food critic?

Bart Ripp, restaurant critic of the Tacoma News Tribune, has quit ”after 32 years in the newspaper business, 15 of them here as a features writer, historian, postcard savant and restaurant critic.” Now, according to Komo TV and other sites, his former bosses accuse him of taking food for free and making up at least 25 interviews. He resigned early this year and, according to Komo News, is now a sales representative for an advertising firm.

What’s interesting about this, from a tech and journalism point of view, is how long it took the News Trib to find him. Indeed, it seems to be the same problem of giving a journalist the benefit of the doubt: According to the American Journalism Review, editor David Zeeck has had his suspicions since November 2002, but only earlier this year did the editorial team start to dig deeper.  

Apparently, Ripp’s transgressions were easier to spot with the help of a database called Accurint, a tool for finding people and information about them, which the paper had bought since the 2002 incident. Accurint  offers customers to “use the world’s most comprehensive and accurate locate and research tool to achieve better results at a lower cost. Find people, businesses and their assets. Obtain deep background information. Uncover bankruptcies and criminal histories.” Using that it was pretty easy to see whether the people Ripp was quoting existed. Apart from the awful name, Accurint sounds like a good service, and one that every newsroom should have. Just knowing it — or the many services like it — is there should make wayward hacks think twice before making stuff — and people — up.

One of the things that depresses me about all this is that why would someone fake interviews for a food column? I can understand — though not condone — the pressures that may have pushed the likes of Blair and Kelley to make up stuff, but a food critic? What kind of pressure is a food critic under, exactly? I’m not dissing the hard work columnists have to do, as I’m one, but I just can’t see why someone would not go out and find real people to talk about food. It’s not the kind of thing people will only discuss on deep background in darkened parking garages. As Zeeck is quoted as saying:  “These are the easiest interviews in the world. Why would you make these things up?”

The Digital Fallout Of Journalistic Plagiarism and Fakery

How do you correct the Internet?

All these reports of plagiarism and fakery in U.S. journalism — at least 10, according to the New York Times — raise a question I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere. What should newspapers and other publications which have carried the reports do about setting the record straight?

A USA Today report says of disgraced reporter Jack Kelley that it has “found strong evidence that Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories, lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications, lied in speeches he gave for the newspaper and conspired to mislead those investigating his work.”

Here’s a taster: ”An extensive examination of about 100 of the 720 stories uncovered evidence that found Kelley’s journalistic sins were sweeping and substantial. The evidence strongly contradicted Kelley’s published accounts that he spent a night with Egyptian terrorists in 1997; met a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001; watched a Pakistani student unfold a picture of the Sears Tower and say, “This one is mine,” in 2001; visited a suspected terrorist crossing point on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2002; interviewed the daughter of an Iraqi general in 2003; or went on a high-speed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2003.”

That’s quite a lot of correcting to do. USA Today says it will withdraw all prize entries it made on Kelley’s behalf (including five Pulitzer nominations) and “will flag stories of concern in its online archive”.

But is that enough? Correcting the “online archive” would have to include all secondary databases such as Factiva (part-owned by Dow Jones, publisher of the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Wall Street Journal, and my employer; There are 1,495 USA Today stories with Jack Kelley’s name either on them or in them prior to this year). Strictly speaking, it should also include all Internet copies of those stories on the Internet (a Google search of [“Jack Kelly” and “USA Today”] threw up 3,470 matches; while many of those are accounts of the plagiarism charge, many precede that). And what about blog references to Kelley’s stories?

I’ll take an example. In 2001 Jack Kelley wrote about a vigilante Jewish settler named Avi Shapiro in 2001. According to USA Today, this was one of the stories where “the evidence strongly contradicted Kelley’s published accounts”. That story has been posted on dozens of websites (I counted 60). Who’s going to correct, or raise flags on all those?

Then there’s the doubt. With Kelley claiming, according to the USA Today report, that he was “being set up”, there’s no way that even a serious investigation by the paper (which included a eight-person team, a 20-hour interview with Kelly by three veteran journalists from outside the company and extensive use of plagiarism-detection software) is going to confirm with any sense of certainty what was faked or plagiarised. So what, exactly, do you correct? Do you delete his whole oeuvre?

It’s a tough one, and perhaps a sober reminder for journalists (and bloggers) using the Internet as a source that it’s not just emails that appear to come from our bank that we need to double check. Is there a technological solution to this? A digital watermark or trace that can allow someone to instantly correct a story, or at least notify those hosting the material that there’s a problem?