October 4, 2007

Just Friends?

Asimov.jpg Paleys.jpg
NYTimes writer Eric Asimov, Portland restaurateurs Vitaly & Kimberly Paley

It's a big, bad world out there, and there are plenty of reasons to be mad as hell. An undisclosed conflict of interest? Well, depends on the circumstances: whose conflict, whose interest?

Used to be, reporters of all stripes were treated to trips, tickets, meals, drinks. Then came a wave of holier-than-thou moralizing and publishers began to insist on paying reporters expenses. Granted, Cornichon gets an occasional free beer, but big whoop. More of an issue: should a salaried journalist at a major publication disclose personal relationships with the subject of a review?

Case in point: the New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, whose byline appeared on a popular survey last week of the restaurant scene in Portland. Turns out he's good buds with one of the chefs, though this is nowhere mentioned in Asimov's 1,900 words of adulation. The chef in question, Vitaly Paley, moved to Portland in 1994 and opened Paley's Place [website has a long flash intro], which Asimov describes as "a warm and intimate dining room on the first floor of a Victorian house in northwest Portland ... recognized as one of the top restaurants in the Northwest, if not the country, and Mr. Paley has been celebrated for applying French techniques to the Northwestern palette of ingredients."

Enter Portland blogger Kevin Allman, who wonders why Asimov allowed himself to be welcomed so warmly at Paley's Place.

It's not uncommon for food and wine writers to be chummy with restaurateurs, sommeliers, chefs, farmers, etc. -- just as it's not uncommon for political reporters to socialize with politicos. But when a restaurateur describes a wine critic as a "good friend," and the critic then goes on to praise the restaurant twice in two months in the pages of the newspaper and online -- where should the line be drawn?
The problem is that the Times has an explicit ethics code, and Asimov seems to have crossed the line. Allman asked Asimov to comment, and posted the reply, but he's still not satisfied. Indeed. Here's just one of the Times caveats: "No journalist may report for us about any travel service or product offered by a family member or close friend."

Asimov, meantime, is in France, conducting interviews on the new crop of Beaujolais and blogging about his his lunch in Fleurie. And, like many a traveling shlub, he can't get his international cellphone to work. Would this be a good time to mention that his uncle was Mr. Science himself, Isaac Asimov?

We sit here in Seattle, proudly watching baby brother Portland get all that attention (while noting smugly that Seattle's housing market is named the nation's "most stable" by Forbes). Should we wonder, wistfully, how much of that attention comes from the fact that Paley's mother gives Asimov's son piano lessons? Should we even care? Should the Noo Yawk Times be held to a higher standard than, say, Cornichon?

Posted by Ronald Holden at October 4, 2007 11:11 AM

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