Restaurant News

Mouth by Southwest's Jess Harter Has a Long History of Mixing Editorial and Advertising

When an argument broke out on Twitter earlier today over whether it's appropriate for a food critic to sell ads on his blog to restaurants he's also reviewing, something sounded awfully familiar.

So we reached into the Way Back Machine (a.k.a. Google) to pluck a gem from the July 8, 1999 edition of Phoenix New Times.

The topic? "Journalist" Jess Harter -- and the line (or lack thereof) between editorial and advertising departments.

Harter, former food critic for Tribune Newspapers, has run his own food blog, Mouth by Southwest, for years. He's also been doing some reviews for the Arizona Republic and azcentral (and wrote for an extremely brief time for Chow Bella, a couple years back).

MXSW is a one-man operation -- Harter writes the copy and sells the ads. So eyebrows zoomed when he posted the link to his latest Republic review of BLD (he loved it, 4 stars) -- a restaurant that advertises on his personal blog.

Apparently no one ever sent Jess the Journalism 101 memo. This isn't the first time the issue's come up in conjunction with his name.

Back in the 1990s, Harter had a similar gig, on a grander scale. He ran the Trib's entertainment publication, "Get Out," and apparently he really ran it -- both the editorial and advertising deparments. Check out our 1999 coverage (in our former "Flashes" column), which begins with a visit from Dan Dunn, a columnist who'd just left his job under rather gray circumstances when our story begins....

The Flash has learned that "Twisted" columnist Dan Dunn (he of the unfortunate head shot in sunglasses) abruptly quit on Friday and promptly embarked on a wild Fourth of July weekend in Las Vegas. The Flash learned this when Dunn himself showed up in the New Times lobby Tuesday morning, sunburned, $700 down, and looking for a job. "I want to stick it to that bastard," Dunn says--"that bastard" being Get Out chief Jess Harter.

The trouble started two months ago, Dunn says, when Harter was put in charge of Get Out's advertising, as well as its editorial content, over which he'd already ruled.

"The lines are blurred there," Dunn says. "The guy trying to bring in advertisers is the same guy telling writers what to write. It's a totally unethical situation."

For example, Dunn says, Harter recently directed Get Out club scene columnist Jennifer Birn to start selling ads to the same clubs she is supposed to write about and critique.

Dunn says he was frequently and openly critical of Harter's double duty. "I made a joke in one meeting where I said, 'I've got an idea: How about I start wearing a different hat in the picture for my column every week, and we can tell businesses that if they sign an ad contract, I'll wear their logo on my hat?' Jess didn't think I was very funny."

...Harter is listed in Get Out's masthead solely as "Editor." Real editors have nothing to do with advertising.

Yet when the Flash called Get Out's Tempe office and asked for the person "in charge of advertising," the Flash was transferred to--ding!--Jess Harter.

"I'm not really the editor or the advertising director of the paper," Harter explains. "I'm the general manager."

The Flashes column went on to make fun of both Get Out and the Republic's The Rep. We won't bore you with that -- you already get the picture.

Interestingly, Harter posts his ethics policy on his blog. Here it is:

MXSW is a strong proponent of full transparency in food writing:

• Coverage of newsworthy information or events at any East Valley restaurant is provided free of charge.

• MXSW does not accept invitations to grand openings and other special events not open to the general public.

• MXSW does not accept free food or beverage unless they're offered free to the general public.

• Free food and beverages are never accepted in association with reviews. Review visits are unannounced.

• MXSW is supported solely by display ads. All ads run down the side of every page.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at