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Brenner's Barbecue Borrowing Major or minor breach of journalistic ethics?

#1 User is offline   Scott 

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Posted 03 December 2010 - 02:57 PM

Yesterday, City of Ate's Hanna Raskin raised some serious questions about Leslie Brenner's unacknowledged reliance on the work of local barbecue journalist Daniel Vaughn (aka BBQ Snob of Full Custom Gospel BBQ) in her "Best Barbecue" list for the DMN. Today, Vaughn shares some additional interesting facts.

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.

Posted Image

  • 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.

Scott

#2 User is offline   Kirk 

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Posted 03 December 2010 - 03:55 PM

Amazing.

I used the link you provided to send the following to the DMN:

Quote

I would like to strongly encourage your editors to investigate an apparent lack of honesty and integrity in Leslie Brenner's recent ranking of barbecue restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. There is substantive evidence that she cribbed most of her list from another author on the subject, and that she failed to attribute (or even acknowledge) that author's original work.


#3 User is offline   kindofabigdeal 

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Posted 03 December 2010 - 04:31 PM

Apparently, Bill Addison wasn't 'familiar with accepted journalistic practices' either.

#4 User is offline   luniz 

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Posted 03 December 2010 - 04:45 PM

Yeah I find the whole thing a little bizarre and disappointing. Why not credit the guy? Almost anybody interested in local dining is going to be familiar with either FCBBQ or with Vaughn's D article. And then the dismissive response as if he hasn't done anything original? I just don't get it. But this can't go unremarked upon imo.

#5 User is offline   Worzel_Gummidge 

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Posted 04 December 2010 - 11:50 AM

View Postkindofabigdeal, on 03 December 2010 - 04:31 PM, said:

Apparently, Bill Addison wasn't 'familiar with accepted journalistic practices' either.

Please explain. He credits his blogger source in the first two lines doesn't he? Or was it something else.

#6 User is offline   Worzel_Gummidge 

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Posted 04 December 2010 - 12:18 PM

View PostWorzel_Gummidge, on 04 December 2010 - 11:50 AM, said:

Please explain. He credits his blogger source in the first two lines doesn't he? Or was it something else.

Ah, OK. You were referring to Brenner's claim that it is NOT widespread journalistic practise to credit original research. On that I disagree with Brenner. It is a scourge of journalism that too many stories do not credit earlier or original research. It is not acceptable.

In academic research, the best metric of how to set high standards for reporting, it is imperative to credit earlier work. An important omission would likely deny publication.

In the BBQ article case, the huge dependence on Vaughn's blog is clear. The 'oak' mistake is the (no pun intended) smoking gun.

#7 User is offline   donnaaries 

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Posted 04 December 2010 - 12:41 PM

I just read Leslie Brenner's response to the fiasco on Eats, wow.

Quote

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.

If the "official" food media actually follows this practice, then I'm sorry to say that food blogs will (or maybe in certain places already have) taken over as the authorities. I like reading about a place on one blog/newsite and following the links in the post/story to get others' perspectives. All of our taste preferences are different, just because Leslie Brenner gets paid for her words doesn't grant her tastebuds better judgement than those who do it on their own dime. Not crediting her sources simply robs readers of other persepectives, as if Brenner has the final word on the issue. In that case, I can see that people who really care about what they're putting in their mouths going elsewhere to find the "best".

#8 User is offline   Kirk 

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Posted 05 December 2010 - 11:35 AM

Quote

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.


I agree with what you say, Donna. But in a bizarre -- and probably unintended -- sense, Leslie Brenner's comment above is absolutely correct.

A surprisingly large percentage of the stories that appear in the media each day are ones that start out as publicists' "pitches" to reporters or their editors, come from press releases, or are suggested by others with a vested interest in "generating ink" on a topic. Those sources are rarely, if ever, identified as the genesis of a story, even though they or their clients are often quoted or paraphrased in the piece.

A 2008 piece by the New York Times' Public Editor took a look at how stories originate at that publication. Even the Gray Lady runs front page stories that started out as pitches from public relations people. While the editor couches it as "only two" or 23 articles on the front page of one Sunday edition, that's still 8.7 percent of the Times' front page coverage that came from "flacks." At other media outlets (including the Wall Street Journal), the percentage of "gimme" (PR-generated) vs. "enterprise" (reporter-generated) stories is much higher.

That said, there is a difference between a reporter pursuing pitched story ideas, and what apparently happened with Brenner's use of Vaughn's work. Even at PR-content-rich media, the stories aren't based largely or almost entirely on another recognized writer's published ideas or work. And it most definitely is NOT "accepted journalistic practice" to lift large portions of another writer's work and use it as the basis of one's own article, unless full credit is given to the source.

To be fair, other food writers in Dallas and elsewhere get many of their ideas from these same types of sources. (You don't think Tom Spicer's eccentric quotes spontaneously spring from a reporter's mind, do you?) But Teresa Gubbins, Nancy Nichols and Hanna Raskin usually do identify where stories come from; whether they are lifted directly from news releases, backgrounders, or websites; and especially if they come from another person's published piece. Pegasus News (Gubbins' primary home) gives bylines to sources when it runs lightly rewritten news releases; D's SideDish blog (Nichols) often identifies pieces as coming directly from news releases; and the Observer (Raskin, at least) usually calls a source to get a real quote before writing a piece from a release. This practice is about much more than just "giving a shout-out" to a blogger; it's about intellectual honesty.

Since Brenner arrived in Dallas without an established network of local sources, it's a good bet she has relied heavily on "gimme" sources and their materials. (Her EATS pieces frequently reference books and articles written by her friends in other cities.) Yet, Raskin arrived from another city as well, and she seems to have actively sought out people and places that could yield "enterprise" stories based on original ideas and almost always laced with original thought.

It might be interesting for a journalism class to do a quantitative analysis of the origin of Brenner's DMN and Eats pieces, along with those of other food beat reporters in the area. Somehow, I don't think it will be Mark Vamos' class that does the research.

[Disclosure: Early in my career, I worked as a business/financial news reporter and editor at a daily newspaper, and since then I have worked in one of the specialized areas of the public relations field. So I know that this topic generates a lot of debate, outrage and cynicism among reporters, PR people and their clients. Honesty and candor about the reporter-source relationship always yields better results than any attempt to hide it, because cribbing or lifting of ideas is easily exposed.]

#9 User is offline   Kirk 

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Posted 05 December 2010 - 11:44 AM

View PostKirk, on 05 December 2010 - 11:35 AM, said:


A 2008 piece by the New York Times' Public Editor took a look at how stories originate at that publication. Even the Gray Lady runs front page stories that started out as pitches from public relations people. While the editor couches it as "only two" or 23 articles on the front page of one Sunday edition, that's still 8.7 percent of the Times' front page coverage that came from "flacks." At other media outlets (including the Wall Street Journal), the percentage of "gimme" (PR-generated) vs. "enterprise" (reporter-generated) stories is much higher.



I misread the date of the article. It was published in 2006.

#10 User is offline   ExtraMSG 

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Posted 07 December 2010 - 04:31 PM

I don't think "getting ideas" from other sources is a big deal. I think it would be nice and polite to give a shout-out to someone who does the leg work and truly gets finds, especially when you haven't interviewed them as a source. I've been a source for many food articles, TV shows, etc, without expecting to be named. The bigger deal here seems to be that it's moving from "getting ideas" or being let-in on a food find, to flat-out theft. It's like a 5th grader doing a book report and changing only 30% of the wikipedia article and substituting your own words here and there. At that point, you're rapidly approaching plagiarism.

#11 User is offline   Scott 

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 04:37 PM

Prompted by a blog post by Anthony Bourdain, Raskin returns to the topic.

Scott

#12 User is offline   Scott 

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Posted 13 January 2011 - 05:43 PM

On Chowhound, the_sneeb links to an Eater post of a lengthy video interview with Anthony Bourdain, in which Bourdain considers "BBQ-gate" a "telling incident about who's doing the lion's share of the important work, particularly in the coverage of food and restaurants." Bourdain clearly has no respect for Leslie Brenner. Judging from Brenner's occasional comments, the feeling may be mutual.

The relevant section begins at the 28:10 mark.

Scott

#13 User is offline   the_sneeb 

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Posted 14 January 2011 - 11:23 AM

Also, here's the review of the Les Halles cookbook Bourdain was referencing.
http://articles.lati...food/fo-watch20

#14 User is offline   Scott 

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Posted 14 January 2011 - 01:02 PM

And here's an eGullet thread with scattered, brief comments from Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman, following Brenner's review of that book, including:

Bourdain said:

The results of the Brenner-inspired bearnaise re-test are in: Test Subject took exact recipe from the book, and made it "cowboy style"--meaning over direct flame, not even using the safer and more gentle double-boiler. Test Subject used recipe proportions and directions exactly--except with added hazard of direct heat. Result was deemed "fine--in fact, really good". Conclusion? Reviewer Brenner did not pay attention to early suggestion that a "good heart" is a basic requirement for good cooking. Author has hard time believing Brenner is so lousy a cook that she could not make bearnaise sauce if genuinely motivated.

(Careful observers may recall Brenner's review of Saint-Emilion, in which she described a traditional béarnaise as "a thick emulsion flavored with shallots and thyme." Kirk corrected her on the Eats Blog. The review text was subsequently revised, without noting the change.)

Scott

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