Friday, December 3, 2010

Shame on the food editor

The Bergen County courthouse in Bergen County,...Image via Wikipedia
How well does The Record cover one of the busiest courthouses in the state?

Weeks after The Record of Woodland Park stopped publishing restaurant health ratings in the Better Living section and online, Food Editor Susan Leigh Sherrill wrote a "letter" to readers today in an attempt to explain why they were yanked after more than a decade (Page 19, Better Living).

One reader of reacted immediately, charging that Sherrill and the former Hackensack daily have caved in to pressure from restaurants.

Sherrill's letter appears in full below, but basically, she says the inspection list wasn't complete, because some health departments refused to supply the ratings. (Wyckoff was prominent among them.) Reporting the results in some towns and not others was "unfair," she said.

Pressure from restaurants

Here is the reaction of  one reader, who refers to the letter as an "article":
Friday December 3, 2010, 10:24 AM - yeahright says:
This article is completely false and misleading. The restaurants in the Bergen County area pressured the Record to stop publishing the health inspection list. IT is so obvious because restaurants in the Bergen County area spend alot of money for advertising in the Record. This is a "no-brainer". I am very disappointed that the Record "caved". I strongly believe that as long as the information was true and accurate, the Record should have kept publishing the health inspection list. The Record is doing a disservice to people who dine out, people who are consumers and to the general public.
Sherrill said another objection to the list was that reasons weren't given for a "conditional" rating, "which can create a false impression that the restaurant is unsanitary." 

Inspectors give reasons

But she neglects to mention that the conditional rating was defined at the beginning of the weekly list as a violation of the health code. And when a restaurant is fined or closed, reasons are always given.

For example, when health inspectors fined Madangsui, a popular Korean barbecue restaurant in Fort Lee, that week's ratings noted it was for thawing frozen meat on the floor. For patrons familiar with the restaurant's claim that it served only fresh meat, the fine took on added significance.

Another popular restaurant, Petite Soo Chow in Cliffside Park, received a rave review from Restaurant Reviewer Elisa Ung, but in May 2009, it was closed down by health inspectors, who cited "general unsanitary conditions." It reopened later with a "satisfactory" rating.

My wife, my son and I patronized Petite Soo Chow several times, but we stopped eating there in 2008 after seeing a male waiter picking his nose in the dining room on each visit.

The job of compiling the restaurant list was given to a news clerk, who worked from reports faxed to her by municipal health departments. The list were riddled with misspelled restaurant names and other mistakes, and for a number of years, it was my job on the news copy desk to correct them, drawing on my background as a freelance food writer for the paper. At that time, they were printed in Sunday's Local section.

Hungry for food news

The disappearance of restaurant health ratings is another step in the dumbing down of food coverage that began in 2006, when Publisher Stephen A. Borg folded the Food section and promised readers "daily" food news in the general features section, Better Living. 

Unfortunately, then-Food Editor Bill Pitcher, working under the supervision of Features Director Barbara Jaeger, proved to be little more than a glorified recipe editor and he never delivered on that promise. 

Meanwhile, Jaeger went on a cost-cutting drive by, among other things, limiting the restaurant reviewer to a single guest at meals the paper paid for and reducing free-lance food assignments.

Borg hand-picked Sherrill as The Record's food editor this year after she spent several years as food and entertainment editor of (201) magazine, his favorite North Jersey Media Group publication. The magazine still lists her as a "contributor" and she edits its Dining Out listings.

Still, she comes from a restaurant-catering background and her food writing often is celebratory and uncritical. She also thinks nothing of accepting free food, cookbooks and other gifts, and then publicizing them. 

Here is her "letter" on restaurant health inspections:
Letter to readers
Friday, December 3, 2010
The Record
 We recently discontinued publishing the weekly listing of restaurant health inspection reports.

We did this for two primary reasons:

1. The information we receive from local health departments is not complete. We do not get the details about why a restaurant or food establishment was cited as "conditional," which can create a false impression that the establishment is unsanitary, when the citation could have been issued for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with food safety or cleanliness.

2. Compiling the listings requires the cooperation of local health departments. A number of these departments do not comply with our requests for this information or consistently report "no activity." We feel that it is unfair to report activity in some towns and not others.

Some readers have reacted strongly to our decision, although most we have talked with understand when we explain our reasoning. Like all of our coverage in The Record, it is important that the listings be accurate and fair.

We want to know what information is important to you. Send an e-mail to and put Inspections in the subject line.

Susan Leigh Sherrill

Food editor
Disappointing front page

Not long ago, the three stories on Page 1 today would have appeared on the front of Local or inside the section, written by reporters under the Law & Order editor on Deirdre Sykes' assignment desk. 

But I guess Editor Francis Scandale had nothing else for the front page but police and court news, and a vote-fraud probe in Paterson -- the second day this week Silk City affairs have landed on A-1 in the former Bergen Record.

How did Staff Writer Kibret Markos miss the significant jury verdict against a DWI driver accused of being under a "cocaine hangover"? 

He reports on A-1 that the sentencing is "today," meaning the verdict was returned a month or more ago. Markos, who works out of a press office in the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, may be spending too much time on smoking breaks.

One of the few municipal stories in Local today is about 216 new apartments between the shopping centers on Hackensack Avenue in Hackensack, replacing the Best Western Oritani Hotel and a Japanese restaurant, one of the worst in North Jersey.

Splashy restaurant review

In reviewing Chakra, a Paramus restaurant that has a new chef, who serves a $38 steak and a $17 charcuterie platter, you'd think Ung would tell readers if the beef was raised naturally or whether the "hanging meats" in a cold room are preserved, but she doesn't say a word about that. Her rating: Excellent to Outstanding (three and a half stars).

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  1. How well does The Record cover one of the busiest courthouses in the state? Is under your posted picture of the courthouse.. Well? Whats the answer? Why isnt there more investigating reporting on lawsuits at the courthouse? Because the lawyers that work at the newspapers also know the Judges and Lawyers in the suits filed? So the deals that the lawyers make behind closed doors dont end up in the paper? Cause all Judges were former lawyers,and the lawyers we have now will eventually become the Judges. Its a small Legal world in NJ.

  2. The real troubling aspect of lawsuits are the high legal fees you need to pay to get access to the courts. Not all lawyers will take a case on a contingency basis, hoping to share in any award or settlement in lieu of collecting legal fees before a trial.

    So, those high fees limit access to many plaintiffs who can't afford them. You'd think the courts would monitor the fees, but, as you point out, judges are former lawyers who thrived under the system.


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