What's behind Seattle Weekly's failure to disclose its writer does PR for c

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Earlier this summer, Seattle Weekly failed to disclose that a writer of one of its recent stories also does public relations for a company about which she wrote. Even worse, iMediaEthics found out that her editor knew about the connection and approved the writer’s inclusion of her client in the story prior to publication.

But that’s not all.

One of the sources for the article, Wiley Frank, co-owner of Seattle food establishment Little Uncle, provided evidence to iMediaEthics that suggested the article was misleading and unfair to his business and to his wife/business partner.

The May 29 article, “Can ‘White Guys’ Make ‘Authentic’ Ethnic Food?” was about white men being in charge of food establishments serving ethnic cuisine in and around Seattle.

The problem with including Little Uncle was that the restaurant’s co-owner, Frank’s wife, is not a “white guy” but a woman of Thai ethnicity named Poncharee Kounpungchart (PK). The writer of the article, Tiffany Ran, knew that this troubling fact would disqualify Little Uncle from inclusion in her piece. PK’s name and ethnicity was mentioned in the article, which only added to the oddity of her inclusion of their establishment under the “white guys” umbrella.

Ran told iMediaEthics that she is a publicist for and founder of the PR company BlindCock Media, and at the same time freelances as a cook and a journalist who contributes stories to the Seattle Weekly, a free weekly alternative newspaper.

So why was Frank and his Thai wife PK’s establishment, which is based on firsthand, non-white-guy knowledge of ethnic food, included in the article “Can ‘White Guys’ Make ‘Authentic’ Ethnic Food?”


Seattle Weekly unfairly marginalized Little Uncle’s female co-owner

Little Uncle was obviously shoe-horned into the white-guys-only category in order to fill out the story that Ran wanted to tell, which included at least one of her PR clients and two other restaurants.

However, to keep with that theme of white men owning ethnic restaurants, Seattle Weekly marginalized Frank’s wife, their partnership and her background.

The article’s headline “made me annoyed,” Frank told iMediaEthics. “The color of my skin never came up in the questions,” Frank told iMediaEthics.

What annoyed him the most was “making a whole issue of genetics or how you looked.”

iMediaEthics found that the Seattle Weekly article failed on three levels:

  • Seattle Weekly deceived readers by not disclosing Ran’s conflict of interest.
  • It misrepresented Frank and PK Frank by marginalizing their business as run by “white guys”
  • And, it let down readers by not reporting the real story about the influence of PK at Little Uncle.

iMediaEthics spoke with PK about Seattle Weekly not featuring or even interviewing her for its story about non-ethnic cooks making ethnic food.

“Dismissing me made me upset but what made me more upset was the other Thai chef, the sous chefs and class A workers [at Little Uncle] were dismissed too,” PK told iMediaEthics by phone.

“There was no point to the story that I could see,” PK said. But there was a trade-off between research and fitting a narrative, she saw. “Instead of doing research, it [Ran’s article] was calculated to get attention,” she said.

“You go into journalism, you need to know the ethics. What she did was not fair,” PK said of the Seattle Weekly article.

For her, like her husband, Frank, it doesn’t matter if somebody’s Thai, Mexican, or French. In her restaurant, there’s a whole mix of nationalities, she said. “You don’t have to be Thai to make good and tasty food,” PK said.

She added that idea of authenticity is not valid because you can’t fairly compare Thai food made in Thailand with Thai food made in America.

The “regulations and health department rules … things are different here,” she pointed out.

Back Story: Seattle Weekly wrongly forced Little Uncle into narrative

iMediaEthics examined Ran’s e-mail exchanges provided by Frank that show she approached her article with the focus of “chefs with Western training making ethnic food.” Frank argued against this approach, which is why he felt misled when the final article went to publication.

Ran’s correspondence began May 9, when she told Frank about her planned story.

“I’m working on a story for Seattle Weekly on chefs with Western training making ethnic food,” she wrote. “I would assume that your trips to Thailand and PK’s role in Little Uncle helps shape the menu and your food significantly, but I wanted to see if you’d be willing to talk about how you strive for authenticity, or perhaps how you don’t in some ways and allow for your interpretation.”

“There has been a lot of discussion about Western chefs making ethnic food since Pok Pok came on the scene, and I wanted to see what your thoughts were on this issue and get an understanding of how you started approaching a cuisine and flavors that you were not initially familiar with.”

Frank responded to Ran’s interview request, letting her know he was a sensitive source.

“I have been burned too many times to do phone interviews, and you would have to really twist my arm to do a face to face interview as I do not give the best answers on the spot,” he cautioned. “Email is my most preferred method of interview. You will get the best of me in this fashion.”

He responded at length to her line of questions, but ultimately argued that her premise of white people making ethnic food should be dismissed.

“Can or should a Western trained chef make good food of a different ethnicity? I do not see why not, especially if the food tastes delicious.”

He said he was willing to discuss the topic because he was hoping readers would understand the larger point that it doesn’t matter “what the cooks looked like.”


 Little Uncles’ Co-Owner, Frank, emphasized his Wife was Co-Chef and Thai

His long response unambiguously pointed out how important it was to his business that his wife, PK, was part of it.

“As far as Little Uncle is concerned, PK is Thai and she is my co-chef and co-owner. We would not be able to do what we do and be where we are at without PK at the helm. PK and I both bring different and opposing skills and emotions to the table in order to make a food experience that I think only we can create.”

Frank added that he has been “trained in a lot of ethnic cuisines,” and that “immigrants to this country have been able to cook professionally since the birth of our nation in restaurants that are not of their own genetic makeup.”

He also pointed out that Little Uncle has never labeled itself as “authentic.”

“Little Uncle would never attempt to trump an individual’s perception of what is authentic. Little Uncle is authentic in that there are real people making food with real ingredients and we have real customers who really like our food, but Little Uncle is not authentic.”

After follow-up questions from Ran asking if Little Uncle has been criticized for its portrayal of Thai food, Frank responded that he really hasn’t.

“I think people come back for PK regardless if they are from the Thai community or not,” he added. “I will repeat that I would not be where we are without her hard work.”

Frank’s remarks about PK’s vital role never made it to Ran’s article. The story only said that the two worked together to open the food stand and never explained how PK, the co-owner was Thai, and not a white guy:

  • “When Wiley Frank and his wife Poncharee Kounpungchart (PK) opened Little Uncle, their first Thai food stand…”
  • “Of the 16 Little Uncle employees in the past few years who prepare and serve food, only two have been of Thai descent, one being co-owner PK.  Both menus are shaped by the owners’ travels and experiences in Malaysia and Thailand and crafted with the experience of many years in the restaurant industry.”


iMediaEthics asked Ran and her Seattle Weekly editor to explain

iMediaEthics asked Ran and Seattle Weekly food editor Nicole Sprinkle why Little Uncle was included under the umbrella of ethnic restaurants run by “white guys” and why PK wasn’t featured more prominently. “We know that his wife is Thai, as we mentioned in the piece, but that wasn’t the point,” Sprinkle wrote.

Sprinkle told iMediaEthics that Ran pitched the story and included Frank.  Both Sprinkle and Ran said they weren’t aware of Frank’s problems with the article outside of his headline complaint.

Ran said that she didn’t choose the headline. Despite that, she argued by email to iMediaEthics, “The title of the article, while not my choice, is a reference to the overarching question that has been echoed in media as of late. It is not meant to literally label owners of said businesses as white or non-white. The article is meant to explore how people perceive authenticity when it comes to ethnic food. It’s not about who is white and who is not.”

Likewise, Sprinkle wrote,

“Bottom line: This wasn’t a story literally about “white guys” making ethnic food but about what people’s perceptions of authenticity are, and how certain chefs have been affected by them. Just because Frank has a Thai wife who is co-owner doesn’t mean he hasn’t felt “discriminated” — as he clearly explained to Ran.  Perhaps our headline wasn’t the best in conveying the real substance of the article. Sometimes one tries to write snappy, attention-grabbing headlines that might not always do the story justice.”

Contrary to what Sprinkle and Ran said, iMediaEthics notes the article centers on the question that was included in Ran’s article, not just the headline:  “Could a Western chef make ‘authentic ethnic food?'” Further, race is mentioned throughout the article.  Below, see seven examples:

  1. “None of the cooks or staff at Kedai Makan are Malaysian.”
  2. “Only two [Little Uncle employees] have been of Thai descent.”
  3. Mashiko has a “female, Caucasian sushi chef.”
  4. Teriyaki “is rarely prepared by Japanese cooks.”
  5. Din Tai Fung “has both Asian and Latino cooks.”
  6. Little Uncle cook Rose is “Caucasian.”
  7. Burzell and Frank are “Western.”

iMediaEthics asked Ran about the examples of race being featured and about the conflict of interest when writing about her client in this story. We asked: “Even with a disclosure of the conflict, how could you ever ethically write negative things about clients in your journalism, given that your clients pay you to write only positive things about them?” Ever the PR rep, Ran didn’t answer the two questions but wrote instead: “It’s been riveting, Sydney, but sounds like you have enough to draw your own conclusions and write a fabulous piece. Have a great week!”


Trouble for Ran and her story started in May

Seattle online newspaper The Stranger discovered Ran’s undisclosed conflict of interest in writing her article in May.

The Stranger said it unearthed the conflict after it received several press releases authored by Ran, a PR person, promoting a Malaysian food stand, Kedai Makan. They soon noticed Ran’s byline on the Seattle Weekly article about white men making ethnic food that included her client, Kedai Makan.

The Seattle Weekly article, as discussed, featured Kedai Makan, that Ran is hired to shill, with no mention of her role as its PR flack.

Kedai Makan was one of the three included in the article, “Can ‘White Guys’ Make ‘Authentic’ Ethnic Food?”, along with Little Uncle and Hummus Pop-Up.

iMediaEthics also asked Ran about this troubling conflict of interest.

Ran told iMediaEthics in her defense that she veers away from “writing about anything that included my clients.”

She also suggests that somehow the conflict of her writing about her clients but not writing reviews (“I also never write restaurant reviews”) helps mitigate her ethical problem of being paid to only say nice things about a client and being trusted as a journalist to tell only the truth — both good and bad — about clients.

To spell it out  — If she reported anything negative, even if it was true, is it reasonable to believe she would keep getting paid by these clients? Of course not, hence the problem with her being both a PR flack and a writer who mentions her clients in news content.

Both Little Uncle and Hummus Pop-Up, the two other establishments mentioned in the article, confirmed to iMediaEthics that they have never used Ran or her PR firm, either before or after the Seattle Weekly article. Only Kedai Makan has done so.

Little Uncle’s Frank, told iMediaEthics by e-mail: “No, we have never hired or used Tiffany Ran or Blind cock media for PR work. Needless to say, we were also surprised at the lack of disclosure from the Weekly concerning Ran’s PR work with the other establishment in the article.”


Seattle Weekly Knew of Ran’s Conflict before Publication

Amazingly, Ran’s business relationship with Kedai Makan was well-known to her Seattle Weekly editors. They even discussed with her whether or not to include them because of her conflict.

Seattle Weekly food editor Sprinkle confirmed with iMediaEthics by e-mail that Ran “pitched the story” on ethnic food establishments and she approved the inclusion of Kedai Makan in the report because it was relevant.

“Ran and I discussed the story at length and I felt that because it was not a review of Kedai Makan, and because their story really fit into the topic at hand, they were a legitimate inclusion,” Sprinkle wrote. “This was not a story about Kedai Makan, but about an interesting issue in food culture, that touched on several local chefs and their experiences,” she added.

Although Sprinkle wrote to iMediaEthics that “there was certainly no nefarious intent to deceive readers in any way,” this misses the problem that their writer Ran is bound by a duty to her clients to not say a negative word about them, in contrast to when writing true editorial content a writer’s duty is to the truth and to the public .

“We obviously did not follow through on our disclosure practices in this instance. We regret this dereliction of duty,” Sprinkle added.

Likewise, Ran confirmed (with a positive spin) that a conscious decision was made with editors to include her clients. She wrote iMediaEthics that, “There was a thoughtful discussion between myself and the editor regarding whether to include my client in the piece and we concluded that the topic just wouldn’t be sufficiently explored without Kevin’s input.” Kevin Burzell is the owner of Kedai Makan, Ran’s client.

Ran rationalized, indicating she did not learn her lesson about conflicts of interest that erode the trust of readers and degrade journalism, that it was important to include Kedai Makan in the article, despite her business relationship. She even wistfully implies, making vice a virtue, that her article, absent her clients, misses “an honest voice.”  And yet, any search of restaurants in Seattle would find hundreds of establishments of different ethnicities and authentic cuisines that would seem to also fill the “honest voice” bill without the dishonesty of having a business connection to them.

“In this case, I weighed the consequences of writing this piece and for me, it came down to either this issue being explored in a way that lends an honest  voice to the chefs who had to confront these issues head on or to continue on without shedding light on this particular angle,” she wrote.

Disclosure, Correction Added to Ran’s article

Seattle Weekly has since added a note at the bottom of the article that discloses Ran’s relationship to Kedai Makan. The disclosure states:

“Tiffany Ran is the founder of BlindCock Media, which provides social media and marketing services for restaurants and chefs in Seattle, including Kedai Makan. She cooks at Barnacle Bar.”

The article also carries this correction: “An earlier version of this story did not note the author’s business affiliation with one of the subjects. We regret the omission.”


Seattle Weekly‘s Other High Profile Instance of Conflict of Interest

This is the second time Seattle Weekly‘s lack of disclosure of a writer’s relationship has caught iMediaEthics’s attention.

In 2011, Seattle Weekly revealed that the writer of its recent cover story criticizing true crime writer Ann Rule’s book was engaged to the convicted killer at the center of the book. Seattle Weekly said it was unaware of the writer’s relationship.

Rule ended up suing Seattle Weekly and the writer for libel, but a Seattle Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit saying that the article was “free speech protected by the First Amendment,” as iMediaEthics wrote at the time.

We asked Seattle Weekly’s Sprinkle, after the lack of disclosure of Ran’s relationship to Kedai Makan, how the newspaper handles disclosures.  For example, do writers have to give editors a list of any business relationships before publication?  Sprinkle said the weekly newspaper does ask about potential conflicts of interest.

“Writers are asked if they have any affiliation—be it personal or business-related—with any of the subjects of a story,” she told iMediaEthics. “In most instances, the presence of a relationship disqualifies the writer from reporting the story. In cases where the editor feels the writer’s experience and relationships add authority to an exploration of a particular industry issue—as was the case here—we will allow the writer to proceed, but only with full disclosure in the body of the text.”

The case of Ran’s conflict of interest was a troubling failure to adhere to this standard of editorial practice.

FInally, Sprinkle said Ran will continue to write for Seattle Weekly.  She said, “It is not my intention — nor was it ever — to have her write about her clients. As I told you before, this was a special/unusual case where I believed including one of her clients had value, and a disclosure would have made that acceptable. “

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