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Coming clean

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I do a little outside work in the wine industry for which I get paid, and in this age of transparency, it’s important for me to let readers know that, and to explain my ethical guidelines.

This work consists of public speaking, doing tastings and similar engagements. It can be for wineries or for winery associations. I don’t do it a lot — maybe 4 or 5 times in the last year. I’m always amazed and flattered when someone invites me. Of course, in the case of getting paid by a winery, this raises the question, am I able to be objective in reviewing their wines? With a winery association, I think this issue is less relevant, because the associations have so many members.

For example, a year or so ago I conducted a tasting at Fess Parker winery for their club members. For doing this, the winery paid me some money. Now, have I ever skewed a Fess Parker rating because of that? No. Never did, never will, and wouldn’t. The winery people understood that at the time we made the deal, and in fact I’d given them some low scores. Nobody pays me for a score. There is no quid pro quo. That would be as distasteful and sleazy on the part of the winery as it would be for me.

I should mention that I also do this type of function as an official representative for Wine Enthusiast. But in that capacity, I don’t get paid. It’s a pleasurable part of my job. I say “pleasurable” because I love talking to audiences. We have the performing gene in my family, and I love talking about wine and answering questions that make me and, hopefully others, think. The dialog between me and people who are interested in what I do is a critical part of our relationship.

If you believe me about my ethics, and I hope you do, I’m grateful. If you don’t, there’s no way I can convince you. It’s like this crazy “birther” movement of people who refuse to believe that Pres. Obama is an American citizen. No matter what you tell them or show them — even Obama’s birth certificate — they have their minds made up.

I’m hardly the only wine critic who does outside speaking. Everybody does — I could name names — and while I’m not privy to the details, it seems to me that no wine writer is going to travel someplace to give a speech or a tasting and not get an honorarium. It would be nice if all the wine writers of the world were upfront about their private, for-profit activities.

It’s a brand new world out there. We need sunlight to pour in and illuminate things that formerly had been done privately, one might even say clandestinely. I don’t think I need to make a list of everything I’ve ever done or will do in the way of private engagements. But I do want to put my cards on the table, so no one will be able to say they didn’t know. Now you do. I invite comments.

  1. Steve, I applaud you writing this and, for what it’s worth, I believe you. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that your policy (and apparently the Wine Enthusiast’s) represents a profound departure from modern journalistic ethics. You write that accepting payment from wineries “raises the question, am I able to be objective in reviewing their wines?” Well, no; the question it raises is: Can your readers trust, a priori, that your allegiance is to them given that you accept payment from wineries?” When a newspaper has a policy—as in the case of The New York Times and almost all major newspapers, magazines and television news organizations—that forbids accepting fees from companies or industry groups that their journalists cover, it’s not because they don’t trust their journalists. It’s because they believe that in order for readers to trust their journalists, the institution must eliminate the appearance of conflicts of interest. Your ethical policy is quite different. It says: “Yes, there might appear to be conflicts here, but if you look closely at how I cover the parties that provide benefits to me, you’ll see that my allegiance is to you and the truth.” Your policy puts the onus on readers to track and investigate your work. Fine. But in doing so it does in fact invite readers to ask for far more information about the benefits (payments and otherwise) that you receive from the industry you cover than you have provided here. Otherwise, your ethics policy amounts to, “Trust me.”

    Pete Danko

  2. “Trust me.” Well Steve, I do. The onus is on all your readers to draw their own conclusions from, first, your writings, and a distant second, on whatever you choose to disclose about your ethics “policy.” I’m old and cynical enough to believe that there are other writers out there who will give specifics of a policy and then just ignore it in practice – though one expects it might catch up with them.

    There is no such thing as “trust, but verify.” Verify how? No matter how much information you supply, the haters will never think it is enough. As a reader, I etiher trust – or I don’t.

    Allegiance to your readers? What a naive view! Who are these readers, your friends? No, they are consumers who will or won’t pay for your writing. Psst – Steve accept payment from readers. How can he possibly be objective when it comes to them?

    Appearance of conflict of interest in journalism? Pah. Welcome to the 21st century. The Chinese wall never existed. Sure traditional news (news, not entertainment) journalists were forbidden from accepting quid pro quo, but the organizations they work for do accept money, and anybody who thinks this does not affect broader editorial concerns is willfully keeping their head in the sand.

    As a reader you trust, or you don’t – it’s your choice.

  3. I trust you too, never given me pause or reason not to. Yours in one of the blogs I read daily and your passion for wine and honesty is what keeps bringing me back.

  4. I see no issues with this at all. Alan Meadows (Burghound) does similar type events and no one has ever accused him of favoritism towards and wine he reviews. Alan has also been candid about some personal relationships he has build in Burgundy. But again, no one has ever accused him of anything but being a professional.

  5. John M. Kelly wrote: “No matter how much information you supply, the haters will never think it is enough.”

    True that. But what about those readers—comprising the majority, I would hazard—who aren’t haters but simply want to make an informed assessment? “I either trust—or I don’t.” Well, yes, obviously. As do I. As does everyone. The question is what the decision is based upon. All I’m suggesting is that if a critic wishes to maintain his readers’ trust while working for the industry he critiques, it might not be unreasonable to expect him to reveal who is writing him checks.

  6. It’s really quite simple. If one chooses to be a journalist then one must turn down other forms of compensation that involve a conflict of interest whether or not one does actually compromise one’s ethics. We have conflict of interest measures to prevent situations where readers in this case have to determine the personal integrity of the journalist. One workaround, I suppose, would be to refuse to review any releases from wineries which has paid you for services.

  7. Interesting take, Pete. I’m inclined to agree that this type of policy – which I happen to share, for the most part – implies a heightened level of transparency (which I like to think I supply, as does Steve).

  8. Morton Leslie says:

    The best solution is abstinence, but given the current difficulty in trying to make a living as a wine journalist, that is as realistic depending on abstinence for birth control. Some workaround would be in order.

    Since the journalist should always be aware of where the potential conflict arose, why not inform the reader of that potential conflict each time it arises with a direct statement that the writer has accepted compensation from that specific source. News organizations do this before or after reporting on news about their parent company or any situation that a conflict might arise.

    Though forthright, problem is too many of these statements would raise permanent questions in the minds of the reader about an individual journalist’s independence from the industry.

  9. A conflict of interest, once disclosed, ceases to become a conflict of interest.

    Once people are aware, they can calibrate their own BS detectors. End of story.

    Thanks for sharing. :-)

  10. Here’s my best story about Journalistic integrity 101.

    An editor, for whom I queried about a potential story:

    Jo to Ed: “Hi, Ed, I was just wondering if you’d like to write a story about _’s tenth anniversary. Big things happening, and all very exciting!”

    Ed to Jo: “What have you ever done for me?”

    So, we took out a weekly ad for the next 10 years (520 ads) – I kid you not.

    Did he EVER write about my client? Only when the client had a bit of egg on its face, 10 years later.

    Yes, we pulled the ad at point. Ed bit the hand that fed him, at that point… and that’s a bad point.

    Every body’s got to eat. Some are straight up, like my Mr. Ed, and others dance the light fandango. I’m just not fooled about the process anymore, because I went to the Journalist School of Ed, when it comes to these things.

    It’s made my life a lot less stressful.

  11. And on the flip side of that:

    I used to produce a radio segment about health. I was told that I couldn’t run that particular segment, because one of the major sponsors for the radio was one of the Cola companies.

    What I wanted to disclose? Each ounce of soda contains approximately one teaspoon of sugar. A 12 ounce soda = 12 teaspoons of sugar. That puts about 10-15 pounds of weight onto one’s body a year. Wonder where childhood obesity gets it’s start… as part of super-size me?

    That got canned… What an interesting lesson that one was.

  12. When I was a young reporter in Southern California, I reported a piece about football players from the high school in an overwhelmingly white town hurling racist insults at the players from the high school in largely black town, and how that was what led to an ugly brawl in their annual game. The story was highly sensitive as my larger, countywide paper was in heated competition with the local daily in the largely white town. We knew it would upset the apple cart and result in the loss of advertisers and subscribers in the largely white town. We ran the story. Good editors, of whom there are many, often make such principled decisions and good publishers often back them up.

  13. I guess there are ways of getting paid and ways of getting paid. I once showed up at Fess Parker as well. I got a dinner at the winery with a hundred other folks and a night in the a cabin on the property.

    Nice weekend in Santa Barbara. Enjoyed meeting Fess and some of his Hollywood cronies. Got paid nothing in cash. Got a nice weekend away for the cost of gas to get there.

    Steve must be a bigger draw than me. They never offered to pay me.

    But, I would not have accepted it anyhow. And, while we can all argue the merits of this bit of payola and that bit of payola, I feel that for me, accepting cash or cases of wine (even offered after the fact for good reviews) breaks the arms-length relationship that I would prefer to see exist between reviewers and wineries.

    Being paid to talk at a winery, however, pales by comparison to tasting wines with the labels showign at the winery and then reviewing those wines as if they were somehow the result of unbiased assessment. Have a look at Dr. Vino for yet another tale of wines reviewed in less than ethically pristine fashion.

  14. Steve, you do have a very pleasurable life. For some it might be hard to discern whether you were making a confession toward transparency or just rubbing in how good things are for you. I only jest, of course. Thanks for being so open with your policies.

  15. Dylan, things don’t always feel that good in my life. So I’m not in a position to rub anything in to anyone.

  16. Steve

    Do you taste wines blind for review? IE, wines like Fess Parker. I would think that if you tasted these wines blind for review, then no one would care if you took money for a seminar.

  17. Daniel, I don’t know what wine I’m tasting when I evaluate it. But I doubt if that would satisfy critics.

  18. Thanks Steve, good to know. As for satisfying critics…people are always going to complain. In this instance, they probably have less to complain about since you are tasting blind.

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