An interesting controversy erupted late last week after DMN restaurant critic, Leslie Brenner, released her Best in DFW: Barbecue list. In case you have been leading a normal life and missed the brouhaha, you can catch up by reading the recap post published last Friday on SideDish.
First, I would like to talk about print publications and “best” lists. I have been generating them for 14 years and I know how hard they are to put together. Or rather, how hard they can be if you actually do the legwork. As the food editor of a major city magazine, I’ve learned a few of the dirty secrets in the publishing business. Especially when it comes to lists relating to “bests” and food.
Here is a big one: Most print publications do not spend the time or money necessary to create genuine, editorial “best” lists. The task of compiling them is usually doled out to staffers and underlings to do the research before the “editors” take over. (In some–too many–cases, that never happens.) It is an accepted practice for national food publications to call local food publications for input when they are working on their best lists. Do you really think Esquire eats at all of those burger joints before they declare the best in America?
I have no idea how the Dallas Morning News researches their Best in DFW: Whatever lists. I can only give you my opinion of those they have printed over the last couple of years. They are lazy, weightless amalgamations. None of them include a description of the methods used in quantifying the “winners.” The paper promotes them as “Leslie Brenner’s” but, in small print, claim: “How we choose. The Best in DFW series presents critics’ and staff picks and asks readers to chime in with their favorites. Critics’ picks are presented without ranking.”
If that is the way you conduct your research, put it in your first paragraph. And add authority by ranking the picks.
I hired Daniel Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel BBQ to write the best barbecue story for D Magazine because he has a passion—no, an obsession–for barbecue. And he writes about it on a very sophisticated website. Is he a professional journalist? Who cares? He is an expert. Daniel has sampled barbecue at over 130 restaurants in NORTH Texas and journaled his experiences. He brought local independent barbecue joints to the pages of a glossy city magazine. Suddenly Off the Bone in Forest Hills, Meshack’s Bar-B-Que Shack, and Baby Back Shak were jammed with new customers.
Brenner’s best barbecue list included many of the obscure joints highlighted by Vaughn. After it hit the Internet, prominent local bloggers accused Brenner of lifting the list from Vaughn’s website or from his article in D. They demanded that Brenner apologize to Vaughn and criticized her for not attributing Vaughn’s (D’s!) list as, at the very least, part of her sourcing. In a post late Friday afternoon, Brenner addressed the throngs by writing:
“Perhaps you’re not familiar with accepted journalistic practices, but it is not customary for a reporter to acknowledge in a print story for a newspaper or magazine the sources that he or she used as a starting point for reporting a story. It is not the same as the blogosphere, in which a ‘shout-out’ to another blog is common practice.
It’s natural that there turns out to be a lot of overlap in our lists, as there are a limited number of barbecue places in the DF-W area that smoke their meats over wood. Of course I’m grateful for all your footwork — thank you for that.”
Pompous? Yes. Condescending? Yes. Right? Yes.
Brenner doesn’t owe Vaughn an apology. It may sound ruthless, but it is a common practice, especially in the food writing business, not to credit all of your sources. Once you “out” a barbecue joint, you don’t own that information. Obviously, in this case, I don’t agree with Brenner’s version of “accepted journalistic practices,” or the fact that she treats Vaughn as an inferior for being a blogger, but she has a point—she isn’t reporting hard news from Iraq, she is critiquing a barbecued rib in Fort Worth. One could even argue that technically Brenner is a critic and not a news reporter. According to her guidelines, she can use whatever information she wants. What she does with it or how she uses it is up to her. And it is up to you, dear reader, to accept it or reject it.
BUT, and this is a big but, she becomes suspect when she writes: “It’s natural that there turns out to be a lot of overlap in our lists, as there are a limited number of barbecue places in the DF-W area that smoke their meats over wood.” Methinks she doth protest too much. Originally, she didn’t declare her search to included only joints that “smoke their meats over wood.” However, Vaughn wrote in D that Dallas has a limited number of places that smoke meat over wood. Yes, it is natural that the lists are similar. Vaughn did the footwork.
Brenner could have saved herself a lot of grief if she’d included the methods she used for evaluating her list. She’d be off the hook if she had told us how she came up with the list, how many places she visited, why some didn’t make the list, why some did, and how many pounds she gained to find the final nine. Instead, her list reads like a breezy, unranked rip-off of Vaughn’s work in D Magazine. Especially when you consider she (re)reported that Bartley’s B-B-Q smokes their meat with oak wood, an error printed only in D Magazine. (Yeah, us!) I don’t know what disturbs me more—the thought that Brenner potentially lifted copy from D or the fact that our journalism student/fact checker didn’t catch the original error. Oh, but neither did the professional DMN fact checker, Leslie Brenner.
Here’s another odd fact: most of her picks have never been mentioned or reviewed in the DMN. Scott at Dallasfood.org has produced a chart to illustrate this fact. At the very least, she owes her readers an explanation of why many of her best barbecue places had never been reviewed in the Dallas Morning News.
I’m sure Vaughn feels like he’s been punched in the gut. It’s tough to put so much of your heart, money, and time into a passion and not be recognized for it. I know just how he feels and I’m sure Leslie does too. If you are looking for validation, do not choose to become a food writer. Or blogger.