As many people who regularly read food blogs know, ConAgra pulled a tragically ill-conceived public relations stunt recently. As The New York Times reported, the company lured food bloggers into an exclusive underground dining event and then fed them frozen three meat and cheese lasagna as they filmed their reactions. In fairness, I think they were going for that old “We’ve replaced the usual coffee they serve here with Folgers” approach, thoroughly mocked by the “Saturday Night Live” skit above.
What’s curious to me was ConAgra’s audience. I’m certain that Ketchum, the normally hip-to-it agency involved, would not have tried such a stunt with established journalists from other media. Imagine a narrator saying, “Let’s watch Barry Estabrook inhale the heady tomato flavor. Oh, wait, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold is taking a bite! Let’s watch!” Or, “So Michael Ruhlman, you’ve been duped into eating commercial pepperoni. Pretty good, huh?” You think so? No, me neither. So frankly, I don’t blame the bloggers for their reaction. They called the company on it. Loudly, and with conviction.
semolina [enriched with niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], egg white), seasoned cooked beef and pork (beef and pork, seasoning [flavorings, salt, spices, dextrose], tomato paste, salt, soybean oil), ricotta cheese (pasteurized whey, milk, cream), mozzarella cheese (part-skim mozzarella cheese [pasteurized milk, whey protein concentrate, cultures, salt, enzymes]), contains 2% or less of: parmesan and Romano (made from cow’s milk) cheeses (part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, cellulose powder [prevents caking]), garlic (in citric acid), carrots, celery, seasoning (salt, dextrose, sugar, spice, spice extractives [including paprika, soy lecithin], disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate [flavor enhancer], tricalcium phosphate and soybean oil), onion, sugar, heavy whipping cream, salt, bread crumb (wheat flour, sugar, yeast, soybean oil, salt), spices (includes oregano and basil), modified food starch, dried egg whites.
ground beef, Italian sausage, tomatoes, lasagna noodles, onion, carrots, celery, olive oil, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, eggs, garlic, oregano, basil, kosher salt, pepper
It strikes me as an issue of semantics. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines a journalist: “a writer who aims at a mass audience.” Here’s how it defines journalism: ”the collection and editing of news and information for presentation through the media.” But with blogs, your mileage will vary in how well the term “journalist” applies. Personal voice defines most blogs, and traditional journalism seeks to strip that out. (I was nearly 30 before using the word “I” in a story.)
But the label “blogger” is problematic in that it’s too generalized. I have a very talented friend in San Francisco who debates whether to call himself a “writer” because he’s not sure if he warrants the title since he writes “only on a blog.” I say bullshit. If Ernest Hemingway were around, he’d be all over Twitter. Charles Dickens would most certainly blog. I challenge anyone to suggest neither of them are writers. I’ve long been an advocate of the policy that if you do the verb, you can call yourself the noun. If you write, you’re a writer. If you take photos, you’re a photographer.
Why shouldn’t some bloggers self-assign their own titles if they feel undefined by the more general term? If you’re diligent about research, reporting and ethics, I see no reason why you can’t call yourself an independent journalist. If you primarily write about food, perhaps publish original recipes that you prudently test, you do your research, live up to ethical guidelines, treat other writers with respect and take your work seriously, I’ve got no qualms about saying you’re a culinary professional. By definition, “professional” means “relating to, or connected with a profession.” While everyone would prefer a paycheck for what they do, that you’re not getting one shouldn’t automatically put you in some lower caste.
It’s about time the rest of the media world — and companies like Ketchum and ConAgra — to do the same.