Earlier this week Eater published a letter by restaurateur Keith McNally that impugned the integrity of Frank Bruni, the New York Times, and me. In the post McNally called into question the propriety of New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni mentioning the book I wrote with Esca chef and partner Dave Pasternack in Bruni's review of Esca a few weeks ago.
According to McNally, Bruni and I are friends and therefore it was inappropriate for Bruni to mention the book in his review.
I have held my fire until now, when I feel compelled to set the record straight about McNally, about Bruni, and about Eater.
McNally's charges are completely baseless. Bruni and I have had dinner once and lunch once since he began his tenure as the Times restaurant critic three years ago. Before that, I had never met the man. As Bruni said in his response, we like and respect one another, but other than those meals, a brief conversation at Johnny Apple's memorial service, and a few professional email exchanges, we have never hung out together. McNally is obviously still smarting from what he perceived to be Bruni's unfair reviews of his Italian restaurant Morandi and of Balthazar in the paper and online. His ravings about Bruni and the Times are silly, undignified, and small-minded, not to mention completely without merit.
Now let's talk about Eater's role in this contretemps. Like many other people I know in the food world, I read Eater with a combination of fear and pleasure. It is a well-executed restaurant gossip blog with a finely honed voice. Eater co-founder Ben Leventhal and I are friendly colleagues, and we have in fact broken bread together many more times than Bruni and I have. I greatly respect his take on the issues facing web publishers like Eater and Serious Eats, but that doesn't mean I agree with his interpretation of journalistic integrity. Eater often deals in rumor and innuendo. Its stock in trade is stirring up the pot and generating as much controversy as possible. The pot-stirring can be amusing when it's not about you or someone you know.
Was it responsible for Leventhal to publish McNally's missives complete with editorial comments like "There are two sides to this, so do read through to the end"? I don't think so.
In fact, there are not two sides to this story, and it is completely disingenuous for Leventhal to say so. He knows as well as I do that McNally's words are the ravings of an out-of-control restaurateur smarting from a couple of reviews he didn't like, that McNally's words have absolutely no basis in fact. Yes, the internet gives everyone a voice in the media, but don't internet publishers still have some responsibility to place a premium on the truth and do some reporting before they publish something? Leventhal's feeling about this issue is that people can always reach him by email or cell phone with their side of the story. But once he has published the story so much damage has already been done that all the truthful rebuttals in the world can't overcome the power of the original post.
In internet journalism, the first salvo fired has the power and commands the attention of the intended audience in a way the responses never can. That means that often on the Eaters of the world, the truth gets lost in the sea of controversy. The truth is not necessarily what Eater is after. The controversy and attendant attention are.
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