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Unmasking Groucho

Indy takes Gazette to task over hiding food writer's identity



What's in a pseudonym? That which we call a critic by any other name would still operate as such. So why the pseudonymity?

Back in February, the Gazette introduced Nathaniel Glen as its choice out of more than 50 Groucho Marx mask-wearing candidates in a "reality-show-like process" for its food reviewer position.

"We can't tell you too much about him (in fact, his name is a pseudonym), nor show his picture, because we'd like to maintain some of his anonymity," wrote entertainment editor Warren Epstein, in Feb. 23's Go! section.

Since then, the man who enjoys cover and secrecy has caused an uproar with what some considered culturally insensitive remarks, and Glen has generally proven a tough, even inflammatory, critic. (He occasionally retracts his claws on the Gazette's dining blog, with such posting titles as "Even with a so-so review, I'm a fan of Fanz.")

Consider this: A writer compares a sushi chef to a sweatshop worker as Glen did a few months ago and gets called out on it by his readers. If that writer is using a pseudonym, readers may never address the writer, and he escapes damage to his reputation. Are we alone in thinking something's wrong there?

We contacted the Pueblo Chieftain, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Westword to find out if they allow food critics to use pseudonyms. None did, nor could any cite a good reason to do so. For sport, we even checked in with the New York Times: same response.

We also spoke with ethics group leader Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a journalism resource center. She brought up a number of other issues regarding pseudonym use in food writing:

"... First of all, anonymity undermines credibility, because you can't verify information. Second, anonymity has to be justified. Whether it's granting a source anonymity or having an anonymous writer, you have to be able to justify it with journalistic reasons. I can't imagine why you'd need a food writer to remain anonymous."

McBride went on to say, "The public has a legitimate beef if they have complaints but they can't talk to a real person, especially for critical writing. Critiques are by nature controversial, because you're going to tick someone off. So putting your name to it is so important. Because otherwise, it can just be a cover for taking pot shots."

Did the Gazette hide the identity of its new critic because readers might have been alarmed to find out that he's actually an established Gazette staffer with bylines elsewhere in the paper?

The Indy spoke with Epstein shortly before dropping this week's issue to print and asked him the Gazette's journalistic purpose for using a false name for its food critic.

Epstein, who fields phone calls from the public when they ask for Nathaniel Glen, defended the Gazette's practice, citing three other papers the Florida Times-Union, the Marin Independent Journal (Calif.), and the Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) as also running pseudonyms. (The Post and Courier, contacted Wednesday, actually told us that it does not use pseudonyms.)

In the interest of serving the public, we're calling into question the Gazette's need for secrecy beyond standard industry practices (using credit cards bearing other names, even wearing wigs or fat suits).

Though we fully understand the importance of food writers being able to "secret-shop" establishments so as not to receive preferential treatment, the Indy does not allow columnists to use pseudonyms.

What should exempt the shadow known as Nathaniel Glen from playing on the same level field as critics elsewhere?

From a variety of sources, the Indy has come to learn of the enigmatic Mr. Glen's true identity.

Must we name names?

Contributions by Amanda Lundgren.

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