An appetite lost over Chick-fil-A and food ethics

The entire Chick-fil-A mess was one of the most depressing stories of the summer.

Really, Syria's a mess, people are recovering from mass shootings, some of us are trying to appreciate international beauty in the Olympics, but instead the nation (based on my unscientific observations of Google searches, Facebook, and Twitter trends) appears pretty wrapped up about a fast food restaurants views on marriage. It was mind boggling, everything from how it started to how it was perceived to how mayors reacted to how fans reacted to how everyone and their mom just had to have an opinion. I just want to be able to eat without it saying something. Is that really possible anymore? It's honestly really unclear. Would you like fries and a side of politicized rage with that?

Anyway, I committed to reading nothing more about CFA unless it was actually revealing something new and fresh about the human condition and how we think about food, religious freedom, mayoral power, the free market, why people feel so strongly about a fast food restaurant, or something. Mostly, though, I just covered my ears, shielded my eyes, and tried to shut my mouth.

Then my eyes almost popped out of my head after reading a brief post from Jim Romenesko about the New York Times's Mark Bittman, a food journalist whom I read and generally admire. I think it does reveal something about unfiltered blogs, how we treat people after death and a paper's duty to ensure ethics across the board. For background purposes, earlier this week, he posted this (which was later edited):

Sysco is the latest food giant—it’s the largest food distributor in the country—to come out against gestation crate confinement of pigs. The National Pork Producers Council’s communications director was quoted in the National Journal saying: “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets…I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.” Really.

Speaking of pigs, the VP of PR for Chick-fil-A dropped dead of a heart attack the week after the chain’s latest homophobia/anti-gay marriage scandal. Here’s an obit, and here’s more about him. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A had record-breaking profits after its President, Dan Cathy, drew a line in the sand over same-sex marriage.

I've learned a lot from people like Bittman about food ethics and journalism, why what we eat and where it comes from matters. Based on the reporting Bittman and others have done, I'm a wanna-be local food, fair-trade, organic vegetarian but I'm not quite there. In fact, I ate a fast food something yesterday (ducking). Authors like Bittman seem to take ethics very seriously, and I appreciate how they bring a set of careful thinking into the food we consume.

But since when is it okay to call someone who has died a pig?

Okay, maybe Bittman wrote it with a glass of wine in hand, a brief lapse in judgement. Here's his brief update:

In a recent blog post, I used an inappropriate phrase to refer to the late VP of PR for Chick-fil-A. My choice of words did not rise to either my own standards or to The Times’s, and the phrase has been removed from the post. I regret this lapse.

Not to be all picky, but I don't see an apology anywhere except that he seems afraid for his job and platform. But, ultimately, since when is it okay for the New York Times to leave that blog post published for four days?

Frank Lockwood, from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commented:

At most reputable organizations, this would be cause for dismissal. Certainly, if Mr. Bittman had directed this kind of venom at, say, the ACLU or the Kennedy family or the spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, he'd already be in the unemployment line.

As I've said before, social media and blogs help us see real people behind the media, identifying biases in reporter's unfiltered, unedited postings. On one hand, it's interesting and helpful. On another hand, it's a little scary. There is a reason why editors are so essential to the media process. At their best, editors filter content through a journalistic, ethical lens. They also make sure you don't say pubic instead of public, but really, editors are the gatekeepers the internet doesn't seem to value when it comes to traffic goals.

It's unclear what the standards are at the Times for blog posts, since they vary from publication to publication. For instance, does Bittman publish straight to the web and then his posts are overseen by someone later who can flag something that isn't per the Times standards? Something like that would never go into print, which is filtered through many, many layers. The problem is, people on the internet can't necessarily tell the difference between edited and non edited when it's under the Times banner.

Let's look at the post again. I'm not shocked that Bittman, in his view, would believe that a man who endorsed and publicized such views as marriage as between a man and a woman would be bad, since he would apparently go directly against Bittman's beliefs about the way the world should work. I'm also not shocked that Bittman would portray him as homophobic, since if you hold certain beliefs about marriage that don't include gay marriage, that's how you might get painted. Is it fair? Is it accurate? I don't think so. Are people who oppose gay marriage really homophobic or against gay people at large? If so, that would represent a pretty wide range of people, from Muslims to Mormons to Catholics to, well, a lot of religious and even nonreligious people. We have to be precise and fair in our language.

Questions about word choice are so important to religion coverage because it's so important to characterize even people we disagree with in a way that is journalistic and ethical. It's not rocket science. If you're going to talk about food ethics, you have to start with a basic ethic of how we should treat one another and how it applies to journalism, even on your little blog.

The beauty of the internet is that you can have longer headlines, you can have longer stories and phrases that flesh out someone who opposes gay marriage instead of just calling them "a pig" or "homophobic." There is no reason why a blog post, with the infinite space, could not be more careful and thoughtful. And there is no reason why the Times could not have hit delete earlier. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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