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April 25, 2014

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The end of anonymity: Eater outs R-J food critic

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Food and beverage industry website Eater Vegas launched earlier this year.

On May 17, Eater Vegas, the months-old local outlet of national food and restaurant blog Eater.com, posted a photo of Heidi Knapp Rinella, restaurant critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The accompanying post by Eater editor Susan Stapleton explained that the photo was taken by an anonymous “reader” at the Gordon Ramsay Steak press conference on May 11, and claimed it was something Rinella would ordinarily skip because she “tends to shirk public events.”

Rinella, who also writes the Review-Journal’s Taste of the Town column and other food features, completes her weekly restaurant reviews anonymously (or at least attempts to) and at the expense of the newspaper, her employer. So, it makes sense that Rinella generally avoids press conferences, media dinners and other public events, you know, to maintain that whole anonymity thing.

When asked about the purpose behind publishing a photo of a restaurant critic who attempts to work unrecognized, Stapleton defended the decision, writing, “Eater covers all the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, including its critics.” Stapleton also offered examples of critic “outings” in other Eater cities. One instance was the infamous Red Medicine incident of 2010, when LA restaurateur Noah Ellis identified Los Angeles Times anonymous critic S. Irene Verbila, took her picture, kicked her out of his restaurant and posted the photo online “so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her.”

Rinella declined to comment about the Eater posting.

The incident opens up an interesting discussion. The days of the traditional anonymous restaurant critic are either dwindling or have passed completely, depending on whom you ask. We are all content managers now, and technology allows all of us access to an online audience. Everyone has a camera in their pocket and an opinion ready to be blasted out through a plethora of platforms. Anyone who has read Eater knows, as Stapleton posits, that it covers various aspects of the restaurant industry, not just food and the people who cook it. Stories are meant to generate traffic and, no doubt, publishing photos of anonymous critics is one way to do that. Frankly, the words I’m typing now are intended to produce some web hits, too, though perhaps through different methods.

By maintaining anonymity, a critic would be able to avoid special treatment and the potential pitfalls of biased opinions. There is value in working quietly and undercover, even if it may be difficult or unnecessary these days. And even if bloggers don’t agree.

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