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Jun 30, 2010

A Free Meal for Time Writer Shows Flaws in FTC Rules

The New York Times has an interesting story on a Time.com food columnist who wrote about the food at his wedding from some of the leading chefs and restaurants in New York: without disclosing that all the food, as well as the venue atop the Empire Hotel, had been donated as "wedding gifts."

Josh Ozersky defended the catering arrangements, which was first questioned by a blogger for the Village Voice, in a clarification appended to his original article.

Some of my closest friends are chefs, and when they asked me what I wanted for a wedding present, instead of a crystal decanter that I would never look at, I told them to just cook some lasagna or bake a few loaves of bread that I could share with other friends. ...[I]t was dumb of me not to be more explicit about the fact that I did not pay for any of their delicious contributions, and I was wrong not to make this clear to my editor beforehand. I am not an anonymous critic and I don't review restaurants for TIME (or anyone else). I comment and enlarge on trends on gastronomy, which I stay aware of by being close to chefs. I love my chef friends, and wanted to share their food with my other friends.

As an online columnist for a major, "mainstream" media organization, Ozersky's problem is primarily an ethical one between him and his employer, and between him and his readers, who may discount his praise of certain chefs or restaurants, based on his relationships with them.

But if Ozersky was a blogger, he may have faced penalties under the FTC's endorsement guidelines, which require bloggers and other social media posters who receive a free or discounted product or service to disclose the freebie in their reviews or commentary about the product or service, or face the possibility of an FTC enforcement action.

As I've noted before, the FTC rules explicitly state that ""bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in the traditional media."  The FTC's justifications for this distinction are not entirely clear, but they appear to rely on assumptions that traditional media exercises "independent editorial responsibility" in writing reviews and that bloggers and social media users may not; and that freebies for traditional news reporters are "reasonably expected by the audience," whereas freebies for bloggers and influential Twitterers are not.

But would it be reasonable to expect that the food and venue at Ozersky's wedding would be "gifts?"  And even if the chefs and restaurateurs didn't expect Ozersky to write about his wedding, was there any expectation that he'd write favorably about him in the future?  Plus there's Ozersky's failure to disclose all this to his editors, or his readers.

The point is that questionable "material connections" between commercial interests and journalists and writers can exist both online and off.  And the FTC rules -- if they should exist at all -- should apply equally to both.

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