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American Journalism Review
Phoenix Food Fight  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 2001

Phoenix Food Fight   

The alt-weekly Phoenix New Times chastises Arizona Republic food critic Howard Seftel for recycling his columns--and publishes his picture in the process.

By Lonnie Shekhtman

In early October the alt-weekly newspaper Phoenix New Times "busted" Howard Seftel, a restaurant critic at the Arizona Republic who formerly wrote for New Times, for recycling his puns, quips and in some cases whole leads.

In her column, New Times Editor Kristi H. Dempsey wrote that Seftel had been cutting and pasting parts of archived reviews he'd written for New Times during his eight years there and using them for his Republic columns. New Times went so far as to publish Seftel's picture, with an accompanying cutline advising restaurant owners to be on the lookout for the critic.

Dempsey's major concern is that parts of the Republic's "The Rep's Best" annual review of area restaurants, written by Seftel, tend to resemble a little too closely "Best of Phoenix" citations he had written at New Times. For example, she points out that in 1998 Seftel named Havana Patio Café as the winner of "Best Appetizers," writing that "you'll be Havana good time." For "The Rep's Best Appetizers," 2001, Seftel selected the same restaurant, quipping in the Republic, "Either way, you'll be Havana good time."

The decision to run Seftel's photo, however, risks destroying an essential part of a food critic's job--anonymity. In defense of the photo, Dempsey says that her food critic had discussed the Seftel situation with area restaurant owners and that "people know who [Seftel] is.... Why should he have any more right to privacy than any other person we write about?"

Because, Seftel counters, "You can't do a fair and accurate review if restaurant owners know who you are.... The picture and the caption was unconscionable. It has nothing to do with the substance or quality of my review."

Seftel suggests that Dempsey's column "is a hook to publish my picture." He says that the puns and quips he often uses distinguish him as a writer. "I wrote about a million words for the New Times. Does anyone seriously think that I'm combing through my old columns looking for a quip?"

Dempsey says the Republic has threatened to file a lawsuit about the picture issue, but Seftel wouldn't confirm that.

According to Dempsey's column, New Times simply wanted to point out that the Republic has "a lazy restaurant reviewer." (In New Times, Seftel wrote about Razz's restaurant: "Razz'll Dazzle." Two years later for the Republic, he wrote: "But you can be sure Razz'll Dazzle.")

Dempsey wrote in a follow-up column that "Howie should be embarrassed that he can't seem to think of anything new to say about the many new places he reviews."

The Republic's features editor, Kate Nolan, thinks that Dempsey is being too hard on Seftel. Besides being known as an excellent restaurant critic, "he's known for his dumb jokes," Nolan says. "He wasn't copying anything. This is how the man talks."

Edited by Lori Robertson



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