On Wednesday Jezebel wrote about a viral story, written by the James Beard-award winning food critic Kevin Alexander in Thrillist, that appeared to be either an act of shoddy journalism or a self-serving acceptance of a single unreliable narrator’s statement of fact. The truth, Jezebel has learned, is that it was a little of both: Both the writer and at least one of his editors were aware of their source’s domestic harassment conviction, which they made the choice not to note in the story or to otherwise pursue.
The story in question was sort of about Steve Stanich, whose eponymous Portland, Oregon burger spot Alexander named the No. 1 burger in America awhile back, and was also kind of about the restaurant’s closure after that honor allegedly overwhelmed the business and forced it to close. But mostly, the story was about Alexander: His nostalgia, his coming to terms with the power the internet had afforded him, and the overwhelming guilt that inspired him to revisit Stanich, whom he found “wistful and philosophical and clearly in pain.”
This narrative was complicated somewhat when the Willamette Week reported Wednesday morning on Stanich’s myriad legal and financial troubles in the years leading up to his restaurant’s closure. These troubles included a domestic harassment conviction for attempting to strangle his then-wife in front of their teenage son in 2014, along with the suggestion of other red flags. Alexander’s piece alludes to Stanich’s “personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family,” and mentions a conversation he had on background with his source.
All of this would, to any fair-minded reader, and especially any fair-minded reader familiar with the basic working mechanics of journalism, bring up some serious questions: About the extent to which Stanich shared his “personal problems” with Alexander, about whether his editors were aware of Stanich’s violence against women, about why they weren’t if they weren’t, and, especially, about how this story could have possibly been published as a navel-gazing meditation on the writer’s own guilt and fame.
On Wednesday, reached for comment by the Week, Alexander was quoted saying he hadn’t known about Stanich’s legal troubles, and that they were separate from the “personal problems” alluded to in his piece. Later that evening, Thrillist published an editor’s note on its original story:
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Following the publication of this story, additional reporting in Willamette Week has revealed details of Steve Stanich’s legal issues, including a history of domestic abuse, all of which is vital to the story of what happened to Stanich’s restaurant. We missed a very important part of the story, and we deeply regret and apologize for our error.]
It’s possible, of course, for a reporter and their editors to “miss” an important part of a story, as the Thrillist editors claimed they did. One could make the argument that as a food critic, Alexander lacked the skills or inclination to look into Stanich’s past, and the quotes given to the Week certainly suggest that as a simple critic, Alexander couldn’t possibly have had the responsibility to know about something serious like this. Oddly, though, a day later, Alexander began circulating a prepared statement to the press that said he actually had known about some of Stanich’s past deeds:
My piece was a reflection on the role of food critic and the responsibility journalists have to preserve the places we write about. I tried to approach the issue thoughtfully but not investigatively. Through research into Steve’s background I did come across his 2014 harassment conviction, but I failed to investigate the details. I deeply regret not digging deeper on this. In retrospect, I would have approached the piece differently. I apologize to anyone impacted - most especially the Stanich family.
Additionally, on Wednesday afternoon, some employees were surprised to learn via a staff-wide apology from a top editor that at least one editor, as well as Alexander, had been aware of Steve Stanich’s domestic harassment charge from 2014. The message on Slack was the first employees had heard that the oversight was intentional, rather than the kind of mistake that might befall any food critic and his editors. The note also included a forwarded statement from Alexander, who apologized to the staff for failing to investigate Stanich’s history of violence. This morning, another editor sent a follow-up, promising review. (We have reached out to Alexander and Bison Messink, Thrillist’s executive editor, about the circumstances of the article’s omission, and we will update this story if we hear back.)
It appears that as he set out to report a story about family, guilt, and a man’s tortured brush with fame, Alexander found evidence of another story that didn’t fit in with the essay about personal salvation he envisioned. Maybe he just didn’t take it seriously, concerned as he was with, as he told the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner, his “reflection on the role of food critic and the responsibility journalists have to preserve the places we write about”; maybe it conflicted with his priors; maybe it just didn’t pique his curiosity. It remains unclear when he shared this information with his editor, and why they chose not to flag or further interrogate it. (A Thrillist representative says the editorial process is under review.)
But rather than look into or explain the information, Alexander bundled it as part of vague personal troubles on terms that would normally suggest Stanich’s family was dealing with something on the order of an addiction issue—something personal and adjacent to but not directly bearing on the matter under concern. He doesn’t appear to have asked about the time he was convicted of physically assaulting his wife. Coincidentally or not, this was besides the point Alexander was intent on making, about how powerful he was, and about the effects his power had. It also seems that when Alexander and his editor spoke about the presence of a woman’s trauma, just outside the story’s frame, they both chose to look away, perhaps believing the power of Alexander’s story would overshadow whatever was in that court file.
There was a story here; one a reporter might have chosen not to run, fearing the harm it might cause, or one they might have followed to whatever conclusions it led them to. Both of those stories would have been true, but the one they ran wasn’t, not quite. The correction, in which they write of somehow “missing” a part of the story, as if it were simply misplaced or unseen, isn’t really true, either. Instead, the story Thrillist told about Stanich’s elevated the apologetic reporter at the expense of victims he didn’t know—or didn’t want to know—about. The difference there means very little in one reading, and everything in another.