SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews

By John McManus
Posted Sept. 13, 2005

I use the column as an initiative to get advertisers to run their ads. The paper gives me free rein

-- George Habit

The San Francisco Examiner and Independent agreed Friday to label as advertising a regular restaurant news column the newspapers had used to reward advertisers and solicit ads from eating establishments.

The announcement, by Executive Editor Vivienne Sosnowski, came in response to queries by Grade the News about George Habit, a dining columnist whose articles appeared several times each week in the newspapers.

Mr. Habit's columns were presented as news and he was identified as a journalist under the byline "special to the Examiner," or just "Independent Newspapers."

In reality, Mr. Habit is an ad salesman, not a journalist. His column, he said in an earlier interview, is designed not to help consumers make informed dining choices, but to reward advertisers and entice new business from restaurants that have yet to sign an ad contract.

"Yes, I use the column as an initiative to get advertisers to run an ad," Mr. Habit said. "The paper gives me a free rein."

George Habit's column on Aug. 24 paid homage to his advertisers.

In the Aug. 24 edition of the Examiner distributed on the Peninsula, Mr. Habit lavished praise on 29 restaurants, bars and attractions; 25 had ads on the same pages across which Mr. Habit's column was spread. Two more establishments had advertised the previous week.

"We do favor the accounts that are advertisers," he explained. "Even if the food is no good, the atmosphere is good. You can always find nice things to say about a restaurant."

Apparently Mr. Habit will still get to write nice things about restaurants, but readers now will be warned that his comments are advertising, not news.

"Our new publisher has decreed that George Habit's material will be labeled as advertising," Ms.Sosnowski wrote in a one-sentence e-mail reply to a set of questions about the ethics of pay-for-play reporting in the Examiner and Independent. John P. Wilcox became president and publisher of the Examiner, which claims a circulation of 160,000, in August.

How payola works in news

"Payola," a term coined in the music industry to describe the illegal practice of providing cash or gifts to radio stations to induce them to popularize certain songs, also happens in news, when favorable stories are traded for ads.

Mr. Habit was forthcoming about how he used his column to foster sales and how previous publishers had accepted the practice, sometimes over the protest of editors, because of the volume of advertising he was able to bring in.

Mr. Habit offers articles and photos as inducements for ads.

He described, for example, how he wooed the owner of a new restaurant called Liquid, that recently opened in San Mateo. In his column on Aug. 24, Mr. Habit wrote: "This attractive establishment serving traditional Japanese lunches, cutting edge sushi, innovative sake drinks and Asian fusion dinners is turning out inspiring fun-to-eat dishes in a comfortable ambiance, fashionable interior décor, matchless service and a marvelous dining experience." He included in the column a photo of Liquid's owner, chef and a hostess.

"We've yet to get an ad on that, but I thought if I did something like that that, I'd be able to get an ad out of that," he said, adding that business people like to see their photos in the newspaper. "I think they'll come around."

Health inspections differ from reviews

There is sometimes a substantial discrepancy between Mr. Habit's columns and San Mateo County Health Department assessments of eating establishments, which are available online.

For example, on Aug. 17, Mr. Habit wrote about a current advertiser: "A new and exciting chef has joined the great smelling and tasting kitchen at Cinco De Mayo on Laurel Street in San Carlos. Ah yes, owner Oscar Franco has added even more culinary expertise to his comfortable, family-friendly restaurant as he continues his tradition of serving authentically Mexican cuisine in a fun and upbeat environment."

At its last health inspection in April, the restaurant was upgraded from the "poor" to the "average" category. Online records show county inspectors have visited five times in 2005 so far, citing the eatery for major health-code violations such as "food is being contaminated or adulterated," "required food temperatures are not met," "vermin are not properly excluded," and "hands are not being properly washed."

According to Dean Peterson, director of environmental health for San Mateo County, those violations were corrected, but an "average" score means that at the last unannounced visit, inspectors found some combination of three major or nine minor infractions.

A question of ethics

I'm responsible for over a half million dollars in advertising. When the publishers look at those figures, they have ruled in my favor.

-- George Habit

Mr. Habit said he occasionally writes about restaurants that he has no hope of selling an ad to. "I do that to have the pages look more ethical," he said.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists demands more. It states that: "Journalists should distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

Mr. Habit said from time to time editors tried to shut down his column or have it labeled as advertising, but publishers had always gone over the editors' heads to preserve the feature as is.

"I'm responsible for over a half million dollars a year in advertising," Mr. Habit explained. "When the publishers look at those figures, they have ruled in my favor."

The question of whether to label the column as advertising has come up since Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz purchased the Examiner and Independent in February 2004, he said. "Scott McKibben, with much deliberation, decided not to do that." P. Scott McKibben was president and publisher until August 2005.

Mr. McKibben, who did not return a phone call from Grade the News, left the Examiner in August to become the chief operating officer of Western Color Print in Denver.

'It's a shame'

In the regulated broadcast industry, payola is against the law. But in the press, while many consider it unethical, it's unlikely to be banned, since the First Amendment restrains government oversight.

"It's a shame because consumer journalism is so important," said Kelly McBride when told of the Examiner restaurant column. She is the Ethics Group leader at the Poynter Institute, an education center for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"The audience turns to independent reviewers who have expertise in a certain area specifically because people want to make informed choices about where to spend their money," she said. "When that kind of journalism is undermined and is no longer critical commentary, but advertising, it hurts the credibility -- certainly of that news organization, but also of journalism."

Deception

Restaurateurs, of course, know Mr. Habit's columns are advertising rather than news. Rosie Bernardo, who handles advertising for the Arrivederci restaurants, said Mr. Habit "constantly tries to keep the bigger advertisers happy, and one way of doing that is through a little column. He tries to give strokes. So that's what that column is all about."

But Ms. Bernardo said that if she didn't have first-hand knowledge that George Habit was actually an ad salesman, she might take it for a real review. "If I were to read his column, I'd take it as story telling."

Mr. Habit said the column hasn't been labeled as advertising, even though he's listed in the advertising department rather than news department of the Examiner and Independent, because that's the way advertisers want it.

Asked if readers might read his column with more skepticism were it properly labeled, he conceded, "I think so, for sure."

News payola not new

Mr. Habit, 84, has worked at newspapers in the Bay Area since 1946. He said he was aware of the ethical firewall that is supposed to separate the news side of the business from advertising: "They've never been on the best of comradeship," he said. "Today there's better rapport between the two departments."

When he was a younger he had to convince editors to give businesses favorable coverage to get ads, Mr. Habit recalled. He said other newspapers' ad sales people are able to trade coverage for ads and he didn't want to be at a disadvantage. (Grade the News found that advertising presented as news was common at Knight Ridder's Daily News papers, which circulate on the Peninsula, South Bay and East Bay.)

Mr. Habit said that when he started working for the now-defunct Peninsula Times-Tribune, "It let me do it without any advertising label on top." The paper at the time was owned by the Tribune Company. "And the Chicago Tribune, that's an ethical operation."

Next year Mr. Habit hopes to celebrate his 60 th year in newspapers. During that time, he said, he has never read the SPJ Code of Ethics. "But, I've heard of it."