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Josh Ozersky's wedding food


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Much ado online about the food at Josh Ozersky's wedding -- more precisely, who paid for it. Ozersky, formerly of the blog Grub Street, now writes an online column for Time.com. His column of June 15, entitled Great Wedding Food: Tips from a newly married critic, drew a questioning and uncomplimentary letter from Robert Sietsema in his blog on The Village Voice, in which Robert asked Josh who paid for all that great food.

Certainly Ozersky didn't mention that in the article (although he did in an addendum addressing Sietsema's letter). And it's certainly not the first time Ozersky has failed to disclose pertinent information -- for instance, in his rave review of Anthony Bourdain's newest book (also on Time.com), he didn't mention the fact that he'd been featured on Bourdain's TV show.

Now The NY Times Diner's Journal has taken up the story:

In the column, published, June 15, Mr. Ozersky extolled the virtues of using restaurant chefs rather than caterers. He mentioned that Michael White of Marea, Michael Psilakis of Kefi, and Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, among others, helped feed the 100 guests at his wedding.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Ozersky described the contributions as “wedding gifts” from close friends. He said he requested food rather than crystal or china when chef friends inquired about gifts to the couple.

“Bob makes it sound like a sinister plot to extort lasagna,” he said of Mr. Sietsema.

I met Josh a couple of years ago after a seminar he participated in and I personally doubt that his intentions were dishonest; that is, I don't think he intended his column as a review of these chefs and their restaurants. But it seems clear that he should have disclosed that the food was provided free of charge. Mostly, I think the original column was disingenuous -- an opportunity to brag about all the chefs he knew, not an effort to actually provide useful information about wedding food. Along the way, he managed to insult caterers with ill-advised blanket statements about their cooking skills. I found the column distasteful, regardless of who paid for the food.

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The issue is not whether Mr. Ozersky should have mentioned in his column that the food was free. The issue is whether he should have accepted the free food and venue in the first place. He should not have.

Also from today's NY Times piece on Ozersky's wedding:

Jennifer Baum, a publicist who represents Mr. White, Mr. Chodorow and other prominent New York restaurateurs, said the number of requests she gets for free meals has soared in the last few years.

I hope these requests are from professional freeloaders and not professed journalists, assuming a line can be drawn. Brings to mind the musical "Oliver" and the critical point of view expressed by the beggars in a verse from "Food, Glorious Food"

Food, glorious food!

Don't care what it looks like --

Burned!

Underdone!

Crude!

Don't care what the cook's like.

Just thinking of growing fat --

Our senses go reeling

One moment of knowing that

Full-up feeling!

Claiming one could not afford to write about a place unless the meal is comped is totally lame. Such impoverished writers unable to expense their meals can always review Gray's Papaya if they can't afford Per Se.

Edited to ponder whether Mr. Ozersky will have to declare the "$200 to $800 per person" value of the meal as income? Wondering the same about food writers who gobble down comps.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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The issue is not whether Mr. Ozersky should have mentioned in his column that the food was free. The issue is whether he should have accepted the free food and venue in the first place. He should not have.

So even if he didn't write anything at all about his experience, he shouldn't have accepted the gifts from the chefs?

I think the worst part of his article was the sentiment that "you shouldn't hire caterers, you should hire big name chefs, like I did".

That just shows pure condescension towards every reader.

I agree -- that's part of what I meant when I said his column was disingenuous. He has to realize that most readers would not have that kind of access to restaurants and chefs. Not acknowledging that his situation is unique was a major lapse.

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The issue is not whether Mr. Ozersky should have mentioned in his column that the food was free. The issue is whether he should have accepted the free food and venue in the first place. He should not have.

So even if he didn't write anything at all about his experience, he shouldn't have accepted the gifts from the chefs?

I'm not sure I would have had the same reaction if Mr. Ozersky were simply an author and not also writing a column, albeit on-line, for Time. I believe the chefs did not expect a quid pro quo and I believe nothing was offered to them by Mr Ozersky. But accepting the free food and free venue ranges somewhere between unethical and questionable ethics. Writing about it in his Time on-line column made it worse.

It damages not only his credibility but the credibility of all food journalists.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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Edited to ponder whether Mr. Ozersky will have to declare the "$200 to $800 per person" value of the meal as income? Wondering the same about food writers who gobble down comps.

Gifts are not income. Neither are business-related comps like theater tickets for theater critics, sports tickets for sports writers, hotel stays for travel writers, etc. But ultimately this particular episode isn't really about comps. Josh is legitimately friends with a lot of chefs. I remember when my wife Ellen was working on the Michael Psilakis book, she told me he was always going out to eat with Josh. I know just from being out and seeing who he's hanging out with that he's close personal friends with a lot of chefs. The guy from La Freida was his best man -- that's not something you just pick a random media contact for. The two main issues, as I see it, are 1-disclosure, and 2-relationships with sources.

No question, Josh should have disclosed more details about the circumstances of the event. And the whole thrust of the article was ill-conceived, especially when placed under a boneheaded headline that Josh probably didn't have anything to do with. I think he'd be the first to agree with all that.

So I think the second issue is more interesting in this case. It has actually caused me to do some introspection, because I like the overwhelming majority of food writers I know (pretty much everybody except a few people at the New York Times) have over the years become friendly with plenty of people in the industry. I don't imagine that all the people I'm friendly with are my close personal friends, but a few are. And like many people in the modern media world I have to play many roles in order to generate different revenue streams not to mention keep myself interested: I have my eGullet position, I write freelance, I write books, I teach, I do speaking engagements, I occasionally participate in broadcast media, I consult.

At first when I heard about Josh's wedding I thought maybe it was unusual. But then I started thinking about the last ten book-release parties I've been to for food books. Generally there's a restaurant hosting the event for free, and one or more chefs providing food. I've had two such book-launch parties, and I'm a minor player in the book world. And I started thinking about all sorts of hybrid situations, like when Waldy Malouf let me use Beacon one afternoon for a video shoot or when Gita McCutcheon (a food publicist who has become almost like family to me over the years) offers me career advice (and I was at her wedding etc.). I think there's a lot of pressure to keep that stuff secret, because in terms of public perception the tail of the New York Times ethical standards wags the dog of the food-journalism business even though most food writers don't have full-time jobs at companies that can afford to reimburse for everything and that impose the kinds of ethical standards (anonymity, etc.) that a lot of people mistakenly associate with all culinary journalism.

The cloistered approach of the Times may have its place as a tool of consumer advocacy, but most of the food journalists out there -- especially in contemporary mixed-media environments -- are at least partially embedded with their sources both professionally and socially. No amount of railing against that will change it. The only workable response is a disclosure requirement, which allows readers to judge for themselves whether they should discount a report based on an underlying comp or relationship.

This whole episode, however, makes me feel a little sad. Josh got married. It's a beautiful thing for him, and for his bride. It's unfortunate that such a wonderful day has to be associated with the sort of negativity that is going to persist around this issue for some time. At the very least, I hope as this discussion goes on we can all treat the issue respectfully as the complex issue that it is.

In the wider world of journalism, there have of late been two things that might bear on this discussion. David Brooks offered a good summaryin the Opinionator blog today:

Over the last few days there have been a pair of incidents that have sparked another round in the endless debate between the new and old media. The first was the Rolling Stone exposé on McChrystal. Some people took this as evidence that establishment Washington journalists are stuck in such incestuous cozy relationships with their sources that it takes an outsider from Rolling Stone to break news.

....

The second event was the firing of a Washington Post blogger named David Weigel, for saying offensive things about the people he covered. (He was instantly scooped up by MSNBC.) This was taken as evidence that old media have stodgy old standards that impinge on the freewheeling exchange of ideas that mark this new age.

Food for thought.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'd not heard of Josh Ozersky before this thread. I thought the piece was a little show-offy in the sense that he is bashing caterers as a whole and crowing about how wonderful the food was at his wedding because it was prepared by restaurant chefs. He could have taken the approach that he and his bride were very lucky to have such loving and generous friends who made their wedding day that much more special but the article doesn't come off that way at all. That was his choice when he wrote it. He didn't anticipate the flames that the article has generated, or maybe he would have clarified the point that his wedding was a lot cheaper than most because of the gifts provided. I thought the same thing - that his wedding day is a little sullied from the backlash of the article but he chose the topic and how to write it; he put it out there so it's fair game. From what I've read, he doesn't strike me as the kind of person who is going to let this bother him the future, though.

Having said that, it was a pretty eclectic menu. Lasagne at a wedding is a first for me :) but then again, I've never had *that* lasagne!

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I think that Josh’s friendships with these chefs are genuine, and therefore, so were the gifts. Both the chefs and Josh say that the idea of writing the article was an afterthought.

The problem with the article is not a mere lack of disclosure. Once you know that both the food and the venue were comped, the entire premise falls to pieces. The article is couched as "my advice" about how to do a wedding. Clearly, there is hardly anyone who could actually act upon that advice.

Had his editors had known the circumstances, I suspect they would have rejected the article as complete nonsense: the fact that it was all comped changes everything. In that sense, it's not like recommending a burger that someone gave you for free. The comp might undermine your objectivity, but anyone can go out and buy that burger.

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I'm sorry, i don't feel sorry for him in the least. As JeanneCake said if he has written something along the lines "we were lucky enough to have chef friends who cooked for us...." instead he chose to brag about it, and tell people that everyone should do it, knowing full well that it's basically impossible for any normal person to do.

He just comes off as an ass.

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A few random thoughts -

It is curious that a major media organization as Time Inc. refused to state its ethical polices regarding comps.

One problem I have with the wedding comp is the scale - thousands and possibly tens of thousands of dollars, depending on attendance and retail value. Yet a comp is a comp, no matter its value.

If the NY Times is the tail now wagging the dog, can professional ethics become dated? Attorneys can now advertise. Physicians can filter their advice based on agreements with health insurers. Investment bankers can put their interests ahead of their clients. Yet I am sure that within each of these professions there are those who still consider such practices as unethical.

Has the proliferation of bloggers, Yelpers and such diluted the professionalism of the food journalist to the point that ethics no longer constrain behavior? Twenty years ago a city might have had no more than five or ten food writers with significant audiences. Now that same city may have twenty, fifty or more.

In the early 80s, when I had my restaurant, writers who requested comps were scorned but welcomed. We didn't respect them as journalists but we valued the free editorial ink. It was an unspoken and sometimes spoken agreement that reviews resulting from a comp would be glowingly favorable. Do restaurateurs and chefs today have the same attitude today towards writers requesting that their meal be comped? If it is unethical for a food writer to accept a comp is it similarly unethical for a restaurant to tempt a writer with a comp?

If a restaurant refuses to comp a writer, is that a valid reason for a writer to not write about that restaurant?

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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It is curious that a major media organization as Time Inc. refused to state its ethical polices regarding comps.

I am not sure what precisely Time refused to state. It DID issue a statement that the circumstances of Ozersky's wedding should have been disclosed. Time doesn't publish restaurant reviews, but I have to imagine it has SOME kind of policies around writers accepting freebies from sources whom they purport to cover objectively.

One problem I have with the wedding comp is the scale - thousands and possibly tens of thousands of dollars, depending on attendance and retail value. Yet a comp is a comp, no matter its value.

The difference here, if we take Josh at his word (as I do), is that he never intended his wedding to be fodder for a story; that idea came later. By the way, there is no question that the value of his wedding was in the tens of thousands. The NY Times estimated such a wedding to cost $200 to $800 per guest, but that's without celebrity chefs preparing the food. Even at the low end, that's $20,000 to $80,000 if he had 100 guests.

It's also worth bearing in mind that most catered weddings don't have a separate chef preparing each dish. I don't think Michael White is in the catered lasagna business, but if he is, I have to imagine he would charge an astronomical sum to bring ONLY the lasagna to a party where someone else is catering the rest of the event.

If the NY Times is the tail now wagging the dog, can professional ethics become dated?

With due respect, I somewhat disagree with Fat Guy. I think there are very few "serious news" organizations that would have considered the Ozersky story acceptable.

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The article is couched as "my advice" about how to do a wedding. Clearly, there is hardly anyone who could actually act upon that advice

Two thoughts here:

First, there's a distinction between an ethical lapse and an indefensible position. Half of what I read in mainstream opinion journalism is chock full of positions I think are outright wrong, but that's not unethical. So for me the disclosure issue is the only one that rises to the level of non-standard.

Second, I'm not fully convinced that the whole thing wasn't tongue-in-cheek. I mean, if you look at the language:

So here's my advice to anyone who is starting to plan a wedding: Forget the caterer! Plug directly into the source of your hometown's culinary delights, and happiness, enduring and radiant, will immediately follow.

You have to at least hope he's just ranting and not purporting to give real, service-oriented advice.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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a comp is a comp, no matter its value.

I think there are a lot of meaningful distinctions to draw among free things. In international diplomacy, for example, where gift-giving is part of some cultures, the typical approach is to put a cap on the size of the gift that a diplomat is allowed to accept. In politics, there are limits on the amount of money that can be spent on a free meal by a lobbyist. Someone out there thinks there are distinctions to be drawn. I certainly think there's a difference between a free glass of wine and a free bottle of Petrus. But also I think there's a difference between comps and gifts. It's just that when you give a gift to someone who's normally the recipient of comps, things get blurry.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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With due respect, I somewhat disagree with Fat Guy. I think there are very few "serious news" organizations that would have considered the Ozersky story acceptable.

Even non-serious, non-news organizations are likely to find the story problematic, not least on account of the lack of disclosure. Beyond that failing, though, one has to bear in mind that it's a blog. It's a Time.com blog, but still fundamentally a blog and not a magazine column (throughout the discussion here and elsewhere I think there has been some confusion on this point). Blogs by their nature tend to have heavy doses of autobiography. I think the supervisor of blogs at most publications would say yes, go ahead and blog about the food at your wedding. It's just that this particular approach was quite flawed.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It is curious that a major media organization as Time Inc. refused to state its ethical polices regarding comps.

I am not sure what precisely Time refused to state. It DID issue a statement that the circumstances of Ozersky's wedding should have been disclosed. Time doesn't publish restaurant reviews, but I have to imagine it has SOME kind of policies around writers accepting freebies from sources whom they purport to cover objectively.

From the article in yesterdays NY Times:

Time did not respond to further questions about its policies on contributors’ taking gifts from sources.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I am not sure what precisely Time refused to state.

From the article in yesterdays NY Times:

Time did not respond to further questions about its policies on contributors’ taking gifts from sources.

There's a big difference between "refused to state" and "did not respond". Often times, the latter simply means that the writer did not get a response in time to file the story. It does not mean that Time is actively refusing to disclose the information.

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With due respect, I somewhat disagree with Fat Guy. I think there are very few "serious news" organizations that would have considered the Ozersky story acceptable.

Even non-serious, non-news organizations are likely to find the story problematic, not least on account of the lack of disclosure. Beyond that failing, though, one has to bear in mind that it's a blog. It's a Time.com blog, but still fundamentally a blog and not a magazine column...

These days, most old-line print media have a web presence, too. Whatever their ethical rules may be, I don't think they change online. What does change is: A) The quality of the material that is deemed to be worth publishing; B) The speed of publication; and therefore, C) The care taken in ensuring their standards are met.

I suspect that if the Ozersky piece had appeared in the print magazine, a more senior editor would have smelled a rat, and asked, "Hey, wait a second? Did he actually pay for all of this?" According to Ozersky, his web editor never asked.

I suspect that even the jolly old New York Times publishes corrections for web stories a lot more often than they do for print stories. But they wouldn't let Sam Sifton accept comps, just because a particular story was going to be published on the web, rather than in the newspaper.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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I am not sure what precisely Time refused to state.

From the article in yesterdays NY Times:

Time did not respond to further questions about its policies on contributors’ taking gifts from sources.

There's a big difference between "refused to state" and "did not respond". Often times, the latter simply means that the writer did not get a response in time to file the story. It does not mean that Time is actively refusing to disclose the information.

I may have erred semantically, but... Ask any NY Times writer or editorial type the Times policy on freebies and they would know or could immediately ask someone who knows. I expect that is the case with Time Inc. - especially since the question was asked to the same person who supplied Time's official comment concerning the web column.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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I'm surprised that, as far as I can tell, Time doesn't have a code of ethics published online. Has anyone else had success finding one?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think I've posted a couple of threads about this dude's musings before. I can't say I've been impressed with either his writing or his knowledge of the matters he writes about.

I don't buy the blogger/journalist distinction made in this thread either. If a news organization publishes an editorial, blog opinion piece or whatever, they have an obligation to publish a disclaimer with any potential conflict of interest along with it, or it goes against the whole organization's credibility. Like this:

"The opinions published on this page are the opinions of the author and not the opinions of TIME, our editorial staff or sane people anywhere. As far as we know, President Obama is not a communist Muslim illegal alien, there is no lieberal (sic) conspiracy to promote the climate change "hoax," and there are no plans to resettle 50,000 Palestinian terrorists along the supposed NAFTA Superhighway. The author is currently a Republican candidate for Congress, owns a great deal of stock in British Petroleum, and has been seen nodding in agreement while listening to Glenn Beck's show."

as far as I can tell, Time doesn't have a code of ethics

That's pretty much it.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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I personally was astonished that any food writer would so casually dismiss the possibility that it is possible to find a decent caterer who provides interesting and delicious food.

I'm sure Ozersky didn't bother to find any such caterers, since they probably would have charged him a pretty penny for the type of food he wanted at his wedding.

But maybe I'm just experiencing sour grapes because I am a caterer. (And a food writer.)

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It seems to me, for what it's worth, that the offense here is bad writing on Ozersky's part, not lack of ethics. From what else I've read from him or seen of him on TV, this piece seems in keeping with his usual blustery but ultimately pointless and at times uninformed writing and what seems to me to be an almost comical myopia when it comes to his relationship with his audience. Maybe the audience of Times buys what he's selling, but to me it's silly. Anyway, I don't think he willingly set out to be deceptive or trade favors, and I don't think this is an issue of him being unethical, just dumb as he himself says in his clarification to the original piece. Really, its Time who should be embarrassed. If the excuse is that it's just a blog, that's mighty weak and spells doom for journalistic ethics since this kind of material is going to be distributed online more and more. Does that mean that most anything goes in a blog? I hope not, especially if it has a major organization's name on it like Time. Their name should mean something, even if Ozersky's doesn't have to.

nunc est bibendum...

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With due respect, I somewhat disagree with Fat Guy. I think there are very few "serious news" organizations that would have considered the Ozersky story acceptable.

Even non-serious, non-news organizations are likely to find the story problematic, not least on account of the lack of disclosure. Beyond that failing, though, one has to bear in mind that it's a blog. It's a Time.com blog, but still fundamentally a blog and not a magazine column (throughout the discussion here and elsewhere I think there has been some confusion on this point). Blogs by their nature tend to have heavy doses of autobiography. I think the supervisor of blogs at most publications would say yes, go ahead and blog about the food at your wedding. It's just that this particular approach was quite flawed.

I've had some comments before regarding Ozersky and I'll refrain from making more here. However, regarding the blogging issue, shouldn't there be some kind of difference between the blogs that appear on the Times web site and something that would appear on Josh Ozersky's Livejournal(or whatever personal blogging platform) page? I think that using the fact that it is a blog as a defense for this, is a slippery slope as more and more content is pushed through the medium.

Edited by Ochowie (log)
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Two points of clarification, because there seems to be some repetition on these points and they're not correct:

1. The Ozersky column appeared on the website of Time magazine (Time.com) not the Times (as in New York Times). Discussion of the Times on this topic is occurring for two reasons: the Times published a print article and blog entries on this issue, and the Times has a very stringent ethics policy that's published for all to see.

2. I'm not aware of anybody "using the fact that it is a blog as a defense." In my own post above, I did point out that blogs tend to be more autobiographical than traditional print journalism. I'm not sure anyone would argue otherwise.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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