Last week, Eric Asimov, the wine critic of The New York Times, published a glowing report of the Portland restaurant scene titled "In Portland, a Golden Age of Dining." It was an incredibly flattering picture -- not about the wine scene, but about Portland's still-evolving food culture, and Asimov heaped praise on several local eateries, including Pok Pok, Le Pigeon, and Paley's Place. Of Paley's Place, Asimov wrote:
Costs were a major concern to Vitaly and Kimberly Paley, who arrived with an earlier wave of restaurant immigrants in 1994. Eager for a fresh start after working in some of Manhattan’s most illustrious restaurants, they toured the West Coast, finally settling on Portland.
“We sold our 500-square-foot New York apartment, and with the money, we bought a house with a swimming pool, two cars, and had enough left to open a restaurant,” Mr. Paley said.
Today, Paley’s Place, a warm and intimate dining room on the first floor of a Victorian house in northwest Portland, is 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. Just as important, Paley’s Place, along with other seminal restaurants like Zefiro, Wildwood, Higgins and Genoa, has served as an incubator for much of the talent that is making its mark today.
Few in Portland would likely dispute Asimov's characterization of Paley's Place. It shows up regularly on many best-of-Portland lists; the Oregonian named it "Restaurant of the Year" in 1999, and it's the highest-rated Portland eatery in the Zagat Survey of America's Top Restaurants.
Still, the article carried no mention of the close relationship between the Asimov and the Paley families:
- Restaurateur Vitaly Paley's mother, Genya Paley, is an instructor at the Mannes College of Music, where she instructs Asimov's 15-year-old son Peter Asimov, an honors student at the school. As the younger Asimov's official biography states, "He has been a private piano pupil of Genya Paley since 2000."
- When Eric Asimov was in Portland researching his article, the Paleys made him the centerpiece of one of their popular "Wine Wednesdays" dinners, sending out a press release titled "NEW YORK TIMES WINE CRITIC ERIC ASIMOV JOINS WINE WEDNESDAY AT PALEY'S PLACE" and inviting the public to meet "their good friend, Eric Asimov."
...I had another, better week, careering around the Northwest with my two teen-age sons, Jack and Peter. What a blast! We began in Portland, with a fabulous meal at Paley’s Place, which fits my definition of a restaurant gem — visionary yet soulful, with a fervent commitment to sustainable agriculture and local ingredients yet never preachy, and a great small wine list to boot. Seriously, how many restaurants do you know that claim to dry-age their own steaks? Paley’s Place actually does it, for 30 days, and you can taste the difference. And while the steaks take care of the bluff, hearty appetites, the menu offers complex, creative dishes as well, like scallops in sweet, creamed corn flavored with just a touch of orange and vanilla (and pork belly, of course). I’m salivating just thinking about the food.
I have no doubt that Asimov enjoyed his meal. But it brings up a larger question about the slippery nature of food journalism in general. 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 New York Times' own "Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism" offers some guidelines:
24. Relationships with sources require sound judgment and self-awareness to prevent the fact or appearance of partiality. Cultivating sources is an essential skill, often practiced most effectively in informal settings outside of normal business hours. Yet staff members, especially those assigned to beats, must be aware that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance. Editors, who normally have a wide range of relationships, must be especially wary of showing partiality. Where friends and neighbors are also newsmakers, journalists must guard against giving them extra access or a more sympathetic ear. When practical, the best solution is to have someone else deal with them.
25. Though this topic defies firm rules, it is essential that we preserve professional detachment, free of any hint of bias. Staff members may see sources informally over a meal or drinks, but they must keep in mind the difference between legitimate business and personal friendship. A city editor who enjoys a weekly round of golf with a city council member, for example, risks creating an appearance of coziness. So does a television news producer who spends weekends in the company of people we cover.
An even more blunt admonition:
68. No journalist may report for us about any travel service or product offered by a family member or close friend.
I wondered: Does Asimov think his coverage of Paley's Place violates these rules, and did he provide full disclosure to his editor? Is the fact that he's the paper's wine critic, not its food critic, germane at all in this case?
Asimov is traveling in Europe, so I contacted him via email and received this response:
Am in France on assignment. Will repspond when I have a free few minutes in the next couple of days.
Best wishes, Eric Asimov
I'll update this when I hear from him. In the meantime, I'm curious to hear your thoughts.
Edited Oct. 6: This morning, the Times published an Editor's Note on the matter; you can read it here.