When Raskin asked Brenner about her use of Vaughn's excellent D Magazine feature article, Brenner downplayed her reliance on Vaughn's work, saying, "I consulted Daniel Vaughn's piece and blog, along with Texas Monthly's best barbecue lists from the last few years, our archives at The Dallas Morning News, stories in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, friends, acquaintances and several books, among other sources." Vaughn asked Brenner about her use of his work, and describes her response as follows: "I was told that my list, among many others, was just a starting point, and that since I am merely a blogger that I may not be 'familiar with accepted journalistic practices'." (This is rich, coming less than a week after Leslie Brenner distinguished herself, after a fashion, by being the only professional food writer in Texas to pass off the news of York Street's closing as her own work, without crediting Teresa Gubbins for the scoop.)
What's clear to Vaughn, as the author of the D Magazine article, may not be so obvious to casual readers--or to the editors at D Magazine or the Dallas Morning News. So let's visualize it. On the chart attached below, there are columns for Brenner's "Best in DFW" list, Vaughn's D Magazine list (in descending order, starting with the best), DMN reviews in GuideLive, FWST reviews listed on their site, and the DFW-area joints on the 2008 Texas Monthly list--the specific sources Brenner told Raskin she used as a jumping off point for her research. Look at it and let's assess Brenner's credibility based on the facts.
- Eight of Brenner's nine picks for the best barbecue in DFW just happen to be from Vaughn's list of 16 in the D Magazine article.
- Six of Brenner's nine picks for the best barbecue in DFW just happen to be the ones that Vaughn ranked #1, #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7 in his ranking for D Magazine.
- Brenner couldn't have been relying on the DMN archives, because none of Vaughn's list of sixteen joints--not a single one--has been reviewed by the paper in the past decade. Only one of Brenner's list has ever been reviewed by the DMN (i.e., Off the Bone Barbecue on Lamar, which got three stars from Kim Pierce).
- Brenner's reliance on the FWST archives couldn't have amounted to much, since only four of Vaughn's sixteen have been reviewed by the paper (though none of them recently, except for Off the Bone, which was only reviewed after Vaughn named it the best in DFW in D Magazine.
- Brenner's reliance on the Texas Monthly list couldn't have amounted to much, since it included only two DFW joints--Cousin's and Baker's Ribs. A third, Baby Back Shak, was given an honorable mention. All of those are, of course, also on Vaughn's list of 16. (Ahem.)
Brenner fastidiously tracked the list from Vaughn's D Magazine article. This is understandable, since the DMN has never demonstrated much interest in barbecue. Since Brenner began at the paper, there have been only five reviews of barbecue joints, most of them not by Brenner. (The exceptions were Smoke--deemed "important" because of its chef--and Cobb Switch BBQ, which provided an opportunity to draw blood on Dotty Griffith.) Curiously--and demonstrative of the DMN's lack of seriousness about the style--all but one of those five (i.e., Cobb Switch) were awarded three stars by the paper (which the paper describes as "Very good: A destination restaurant for this type of dining"). (The chef of one, Smoke's Tim Byres, also made Brenner's list of the Best Chefs in DFW.) Only one makes her list of nine (and not even the one with Tim Byres).
Brenner's lack of candor about her use of Vaughn's work--both in the initial article and when later confronted about it--is unsettling. This is exacerbated by the fact that, as Vaughn points out today, she even copies an error he made in the D Magazine article (i.e., describing the use of oak at Bartley's, instead of hickory), suggesting she did no independent fact-checking. Despite her lecturing Vaughn about "accepted journalistic practices," Brenner is violating at least two requirements of the SPJ Code of Ethics: "Identify sources whenever feasible" and "Admit mistakes and correct them promptly." At this point, it's clear that Brenner will not admit that she's done anything wrong. She feels entitled to stand on the shoulders of a giant of Texas barbecue journalism and pretend that she's tall. That is an affront to Vaughn, to D Magazine (which contracted with Vaughn for that content), to DMN readers, and to all independent food writers.
It now becomes a matter for Brenner's editors and (if the DMN has one) ombudsman. I would hope that, in order to establish the facts, they agree to look into this. Brenner told Hanna Raskin that she visited about 20 DFW joints in compiling "her" list. Her editors can review their records of reimbursements to see if that's true. If it's not, she should be disciplined for lying about the extent of her "research" in order to cover for her own uncredited use of Vaughn's D Magazine article. If it is true, but a substantial number of the 20 are from Vaughn's list, she should be disciplined for failing to acknowledge her source and for making misleading statements to Vaughn and Raskin to create a false impression about the extent of her reliance on the D Magazine article. (And if it turns out that she wrote about restaurants she didn't even eat at, her credibility will have been fatally compromised, justifying dismissal.)
I'm sending a copy of this, along with some additional notes to the paper's editor and publisher. While venting here, on FCGBBQ, or on City of Ate is fine, I would encourage anyone who feels strongly about this to also send a note expressing your concern to the Dallas Morning News at this link.