The Stranger Eats, Regurgitates Its Words

Bad food, pulled stories, and fuzzy policies.

Does The Stranger follow any "editorial policy" as to when a restaurant can be reviewed? Does it remove stories from its web site in order to mollify advertisers? After the events of last week, it's hard to answer either question definitively. On Thursday, the Weekly contacted Stranger Publisher Tim Keck seeking to ask him about an odd piece of self-censorship. A whiny review of Thomas Street Bistro—a new, pint-sized Capitol Hill eatery—had disappeared from The Stranger's Web site shortly after being published in the paper's Jan. 3 print edition. Searching for the story on The Stranger site led to a blank page that said: "We're sorry! The page you're looking for does not seem to exist...." Even more mysteriously, the restaurant—which writer Chris McCann dubbed "sad," calling the food "depressing" and saying it reminded him of "our very limited capacity for transcendence"—then started running quarter-page ads in the very paper that had panned it two weeks earlier. Thomas Street Bistro co-owner Adam Freeman says The Stranger agreed to give him "a deal" on advertising—and immediately yank the story from the site—after he complained about the review. Freeman had previously run ads in the paper. (He has also been an advertiser in Seattle Weekly.) No explanation was given to readers or published in The Stranger. But two hours after the Weekly contacted The Stranger's publisher, seeking to discuss the matter, an explanation from Editor Christopher Frizzelle went up on The Stranger's blog. It said: "Two weeks ago we pulled the review from our web archive because our timing was off." McCann's piece went "against our editorial policy of waiting at least three months before doing a formal review of a new restaurant." Added Keck in an interview: "We don't feel like it was a fair review." However, The Stranger's three-month "policy" was clearly either newly invented or a complete fiction. The paper has recently reviewed restaurants such as Txori, Joule, and Chiso Kappo (also faulted for a lack of "transcendence") well before any of those had been open for three months. Those reviews have not been pulled from The Stranger's site. Here, for instance, is The Stranger's reviewer on Joule: "People are surprised to find out that, as someone who makes a living writing about restaurants, I'm ambivalent about reviewing new ones...but then there are places like Joule in Wallingford—open for just over a month—a restaurant about which I have been unable to contain my excitement." (Emphasis ours.) Keck confirmed that Thomas Street was given free advertising, but said it was not part of any deal or "quid pro quo" to quiet the angry owner. He said there were "production errors" in previous ads the bistro had run in his paper. Freeman, who immigrated to the United States 10 years ago, opened Thomas Street Bistro on Thanksgiving. He says the reviewer came calling a few weeks later and brought a baby to the restaurant, which, with about eight tables, is smaller than most living rooms. Freelance writer McCann confirms this, adding: "Honestly I tried to make the review as fair as I could." He says he, too, was never told that the story had been pulled or given an explanation. "Taking something down is very unusual, especially if there's no note of it at all," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, the leading think tank for journalists. "This is outside the pale of how you would normally handle a mistake." On Friday, after we published a version of this story on our Daily Weekly blog, The Stranger put the Thomas Street Bistro review back up. Editor Frizzelle then wrote a second post, saying that the paper didn't actually have a three-month policy, and denying that it gave the bistro free ads. Good to have all that clarified.

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