Half-baked Howie

Arizona Republic restaurant critic Howard Seftel can dish it out but he can't take it, and neither can his newspaper.

Last week, I wrote about what I saw as extremely sloppy journalism -- Seftel's continued recycling of tired gags and one-liners. He wrote many of them for us, in the eight years he was New Times' food writer, but has taken to foisting them off as supposedly fresh copy on Republic readers.

I couldn't resist finally pointing this out when I saw this year's The Rep's Best, an obvious clone of New Times' long-standing and hugely popular Best of Phoenix issue. The Republic proudly asked its readers not to be fooled by other publications pretending to be the original.

Republic features editor Kate Nolan, who should be horrified that Seftel is cutting and pasting his way through work, defended this laziness as just a shtick, sort of like a comedian in the Catskills, even though she recognized the irony of her newspaper claiming The Rep's Best this year was no clone.

Casablanca, for instance, is a favorite setting used by Seftel. He used dialogue from the movie to award Best Seafood Restaurant to Restaurant Oceana for us; the same dialogue was used to award San Carlos Bay Best Mexican Seafood in The Rep. That's not just lazy, it's dishonest.

Seftel declined to comment, maybe thinking we would go away.

We didn't.

I wrote about it and, as we do with most columns and news stories, we ran a picture along with the piece. Only this was a picture of Seftel.

Now, Republic executives and a few readers, including one prominent restaurant owner, seem more upset about the fact that -- gasp -- we've blown his alleged anonymity than about Seftel's journalistic shortcomings.

Here's what's transpired since my little piece of media criticism hit the news racks:

A little before lunch the day we published the story, another Republic editor called.

I thought briefly that John D'Anna might want to apologize for his restaurant critic.

But no, he was calling to "respectfully" huff and puff, threatening to sue us if we didn't take Seftel's picture off of our Web site. He gave us until 3 p.m. to remove the offending photo and until 1 p.m. to let him know what we planned to do.

He claimed we were violating the critic's right to privacy, although Seftel is a public figure, and is paid a lot of money to write reviews that can sometimes shutter a restaurant. And we also own the picture of him that we published.

D'Anna claimed Seftel couldn't do his job anymore, because he was no longer anonymous.

Of course, we didn't take the picture down. So shortly after 3 p.m., my phone rang again. "We don't mess around," D'Anna informed me, adding that the legal hot water were in was called "tortious interference" -- interfering with the critic's contract that says his identity must remain a secret.

I told D'Anna that Seftel could remain anonymous, but he would have to try a little harder, perhaps dyeing his hair or shaving his beard. He didn't think that was funny, either.

The Republic has yet to file a lawsuit.

But the whole thing has me reflecting on this business of journalism that we're in and why on Earth one reporter -- which is what Howie Seftel is -- should have any greater and more legal right to privacy than any other reporter, or any other person we write about, for that matter.

First off, claiming tort of interference with a contract is a heavy burden for the Republic to prove.

According to Dan Barr, a well-known Phoenix media lawyer who has represented most media outlets in town, including us and the Republic, the tort of interference with a contract has four elements that would need to be proven:

1. The existence of a contract, which, at this point, only D'Anna says exists; most print reporters don't negotiate their jobs in writing. 2. Our knowledge that such a contract exists. We had no knowledge of Seftel's contract with the Republic. He never had a contract with us. 3. That we set out to interfere with the contract. 4. And that non-performance of the contract damages the Republic.

Barr believes we're only interfering with Seftel's ability to recycle his old reviews.

On October 5, Seftel finally called. He left this message on my voice mail:

"Kristi, this is Howard Seftel at the Arizona Republic. You asked me for comment on your piece you wrote about me . . . I do have a comment for you. It's off the record and it's not for publication. I want you to take my photo off your Web pages now. You're violating my rights. If you don't, you'll see me in court. 'Bye."

To go off the record, both parties have to agree. Being a journalist himself, Howie knows this. I didn't agree. And I'm using his message to point out that, like his editors, he seems more concerned about his ability to slip undetected into the Valley's finest dining establishments than about his own sloppy work ethics.

We also got several letters from Seftel defenders, including one from a restaurant owner who says he knows Seftel well, and the critic has done much for the restaurant industry, including this guy's own operation.

So much for Seftel's anonymity.

Howie should be embarrassed that he can't seem to think of anything new to say about the many new places he reviews. He should also be embarrassed that the industry he's supposed to be keeping at arm's length thinks so highly of him.

Perhaps one of Seftel's readers said it best on a Republic message board devoted to the critic.

"Howard, how could you?"

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Kristi H. Dempsey