Yesterday New York Times reporter Pete Wells published a review of the Manhattan French restaurant Daniel, removing one of its four stars in part because of the unequal treatment he received as a recognized journalist. He and a lesser-known colleague ordered the same meal, but had totally different experiences, with Wells receiving additional items, extra wine pours, and more doting service. While the other reporter still felt well taken care of, Wells wondered if “regular” guests could benefit as much from a little coddling as the critics.
Slate’s “Brow Beat” culture blog compared Wells’ experience to former Times critic Ruth Reichl, who once visited Le Cirque both as her famous self and in disguise. She surmised that the “favored patron” treatment was actually part of the draw of the restaurant: the hope that one could be given the VIP service. The blog suggests reviewers dispense with the pretense of being anonymous reviewers and go public, perhaps balancing reviews with intel from the non-famous.In the travel media world, the problem of anonymity and freebies has long been an ethical debate. “Conde Nast Traveler” magazine adheres to a “truth in travel” policy, stipulating that its writers never accept freebies and travel unannounced to try to ensure honest and equal opinions. Some guidebooks such as Fodor’s allow some comps for reviewers, but insist they will not guarantee a good review or even inclusion in a guide. Writer Chuck Thompson exposed some of the industry secrets in his book “Smile While You’re Lying,” noting that much mainstream travel writing is just PR copy, and how many reviews are simply tit for tat.
In the age of tweeting, checking in, and Instagramming our meals and trips, is anonymity even possible? More importantly, do we care? While a famous reviewer might have a richer experience than your average Joe, he can also get deeper access and a wider variety of offerings, combined with a professional’s expertise. Do you want to read a hotel review from a guy on his first trip to London, or someone who has stayed in dozens? Perhaps user-generated content such as Trip Advisor and Yelp can balance the VIP reviews, and give us a broader spectrum.
Do you care about anonymous reviews? Can freebies stay free from bias?