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Published: 2/26/2012

COMMENTARY

No payola or free lunch for restaurant reviewers

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

"Do The Blade's restaurant reviewers get paid by the owners of the establishments they are reviewing?"

That was what a lady who signed her name only "Kaytee" asked in a long, handwritten letter. She had a number of questions, but the answer to this one is simple: No, they never get paid by the restaurants, not ever.

Nor do they get free food. The newspaper reimburses the reviewers for the cost of their meals. But she had another interesting question: Why does The Blade sometimes give good reviews to places that have been cited for health department violations?

That's something worth thinking about. Fortunately, The Blade -- unlike most big-city papers -- regularly runs Toledo-Lucas County restaurant inspection reports in detail so that readers can see what, if anything, establishments have been cited for.

In most cases, they are relatively minor; years ago, a restaurant inspector told me that virtually every restaurant is out of compliance in some way.

However, what matters is how serious it is. Hopefully, any restaurant that might present a serious health risk would be closed down by the health department. Reviewers historically are mainly concerned with the quality and appearance of the food, as well as the service and sensory appeal of the entire dining experience.

But your ombudsman agrees it might be a good idea for reviewers to check the latest inspection reports before heading out to review any restaurant, in case there's anything that needs to be addressed. This should soon become easier for both diners and reviewers; the health department hopes to have its inspection reports online for all to read within a year.

The department also intends to send letters to those restaurants which get good inspection reports, which can be framed for customers to see.

Michigan and China: One frequent critic of The Blade professed himself "perplexed" by two recent and apparently contradictory statements in The Blade.

Ignazio Messina's comprehensive report on the Chinese investors in Toledo quoted the consulting firm Rhodium Group, LLC, as showing Chinese investments after 2003 as amounting to $30 million in Ohio and $637 million in Michigan.

However, a Blade editorial earlier this month noted that the Chinese were now "pouring millions of dollars into Toledo, and virtually nothing into Michigan." That seems a big contradiction.

Understandably, the reader asked. "Can Blade editors not understand math?" Or, in other words, who is right?

Hard as it may seem to believe, both are. The editorial is misleading in a sense -- and this time it may ironically be your ombudsman's fault since it was based on something I had written.

The point of the editorial was that while Toledo leaders such as Mayor Mike Bell had assiduously cultivated relationships with China, for eight years former Gov. Jennifer Granholm did not do so, and never once visited China, which meant lost Michigan opportunities.

"That's correct," said Tom Watkins, who served during the Granholm administration as state superintendent of public instruction.

"Just imagine how much more we might have had if Governor Granholm hadn't played 'Peking Duck' for eight years," he said.

The Chinese did in fact invest hundreds of millions in Michigan during that time -- but the vast majority of that was for a single deal, the old Nexteer Automotive plant in Saginaw. This was sold off as part of the post-bankruptcy sale of portions of General Motors.

So both things were technically correct, though the editorial could have been more clearly focused.

Sharon Patterson is opposed to abortion, doesn't like the government funding Planned Parenthood, and thinks President Obama doesn't respect religious liberty. Earlier this month, she wrote a letter to the editor saying all those things.

Her letter was printed, essentially as written. But the editors left out a section where she also attacked Toledo Congressman Marcy Kaptur for her religious and political views. "Was this censored because The Blade supports Marcy Kaptur?" she asked me.

Not according to David Kushma, editor of The Blade. Actually, the newspaper editorially also disagrees with Ms. Patterson's positions in the part of the letter that was published.

But the editors want letters to keep focused on a single topic, both for clarity and so as many voices as possible can be heard.

That seems logical to this ombudsman.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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