When A Food Critic Goes Bad

By | June 9, 2004

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?”