Fairness in criticism with Sam Sifton

Sam Sifton’s experience is in restaurant reviewing, but the lessons from his Alaska Press Club presentation on fairness in criticism can be applied to all kinds of reporting. 

Listen to Sam Sifton’s presentation

Sifton is a national editor at the New York Times, where he has served as the culture editor and food reviewer. Alaska journalist Julia O’Malley introduced Sifton, bringing up a review he did on a New York City restaurant called Nello. To start off his presentation, Sifton asked the audience if it was fair to call Nello “a rip,” saying “rage can overtake someone at that place.” He said he thinks the answer is yes. “It’s totally fair.”

“I pivot into this notion that, look, it’s annoying to me,” Sifton said in his talk. “There literally is a pasta there that costs $100 — and I don’t have $100 to spend on pasta, but hedge fund managers do and they really like it.” 

Using his review on Nello as an example, Sifton dived into the reporting process he underwent for a restaurant review for the Times. Sifton called one of Nello’s regular customers, who told him that expensive pasta is nothing to him. He realized this was true for all the people in the restaurant, which includes Suadi princesses, he said.

“The point being that if you judge the place on the merits of the place — that’s fair — even if you’re saying it’s not for me, it’s probably not for you, the reader either,” Sifton said. “But for the people who go, they enjoy it because they are treated well, It’s like a club where they pay their dues every time they go. The money is of no difference to them.”

When reviewing a restaurant, Sifton says the New York Times will send the reviewer three or four times, which is part of what Sifton refers to the publication’s “fairness doctrine.”

“It really does insulate us from people saying, ‘Hey, that’s a cheap shot,’” Sifton said. “‘Really, because I spent like 12 hours at your goddamn restaurant, and I think it’s fair for me to say it’s awful or great or whatever.’”

Sifton went on to ask the audience about the pressures of criticism of reporting in Alaska or in smaller communities, and how the craft of restaurant reviewing in a place like New York City — with millions of people and thousands of restaurants — can be used in smaller markets.

“It’s our job on one level to be of service to our reader, which means at the Times, assessing the places that everybody wants to know about — the new and exciting,” Sifton said. “Also to serve as a kind of check on the arrogance of the places that have been around forever, and charge huge amounts of money for awesome food and consider themselves the best in town.”

Sifton said that many of us probably don’t like shooting things down, and that we’re mostly out to find the best and evaluate the thing everyone is talking about, in hopes of providing a frame through which people can experience the thing themselves. 

“If we’re being fair, we’re placing each one of the cultural products in the world that we live in, in the world that we cover,” Sifton said. “That’s pretty highfalutin talk. I don’t think at most papers that’s what criticism is about. I think most papers’ criticism is about, ‘Am I gonna go? Is it good?’… placing the reader in the world that you’re living in and giving everyone a sense of what it’s like and why it matters, or doesn’t matter or why you’re angry — and providing a basic reader service. Good, bad, indifferent.”

Whenever writing criticism — whether it’s about a restaurant, play or otherwise — reporters need to be ready to field some potentially uncomfortable phone calls, Sifton said. You need to be sure in your position, which means doing the work.

“You need to be confident that what you’ve done in whaling on this place is not an ad hominem attack,” Sifton said. “It’s not something that you came by lightly… I’ve done this, this, this, this, this, this and this. I am secure in my opinion. I know that I am right. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree. ‘Goodbye. Thanks for calling.’”

On the flip side, criticism can be taken to heart to improve a person, play or event. Sifton shared a story he wrote about a Taiwanese restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called Xiao Ye, opened by Eddie Huang. Sifton said Huang was very popular on social media and had potential to be famous in pop culture, if not in cooking. Huang had another bao sandwich restaurant that was “really good.” He wrote a review that said “if he spent as much time in the kitchen as he does on social media, he would probably be pretty good.” He said Huang is a good cook, and he’s seen evidence of it. The morning after the review came out, Huang got an email from his mom who said, “I feel like this is a review of your entire life.”

“You have this big deep confessional thing where [Huang] is like, ‘he’s right, he’s exactly right and we’re gonna try harder,’” Sifton said. “He closed the restaurant and started concentrating on being a kind of media personality and all that kind of stuff.”

A Press Club audience member asked Sifton how to inform readers that a hypothetical play is actually a miserable experience, while at the same time, avoiding crushing the spirit of young or inexperienced community actors. Sifton said to think of ways to explain what is good about it.

“The way to attack the problem is to say, ‘Was there a moment? Is there anything? Is there any moment here that approached art? Is there anything?’ Sifton said. “Is there anything here where we can say — in the midst of this bleak, awful month in this bleak town — when these good-minded people got together with a great idea to put on this play — what is the redeeming quality?”

Sifton said to look for a way to fairly and kindly say that this isn’t the best version of this show in history, but in this town, this week, you won’t find a better rendition of the performance.

“Unless you’re angry, there’s always some moment of transcendence, and I think it’s worth lingering on that, even if there’s a lot of bad around it,” Sifton said. “I think that there is a continuing, ongoing role for criticism in communities, whatever the size, if you’re keeping them honest that’s the point.”