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Investigative Food Journalism - fascinating expose!

This expose of the ultra-high-priced Noka Chocolates (up to $9.75 a piece) by a the blogger at DallasFood is really interesting. Quite a fun read.

http://www.dallasfood.org/modules.php...

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  1. This is an AWESOME story.
    This is one of the great effects of the internet -> web ->
    blogosphere ... how a guy with domain-specific knowledge
    can get an instant forum.

    Thanks for the pointer. It'll be interesting to see if
    the story becomes a story and if this evolves in a
    high profile way.

    1. That's a great piece. I love it when people go out and prove that the emperor has no clothes.

      Personally, I hope that article drives these hucksters right out of business.

      1. Very interesting piece. I read it all the way through.

        I think "journalism" is a bit of a stretch. I would call it "research." Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those journalists who hate all bloggers (though it does bother me quite a bit that this person only goes by his first name).

        But American journalism (and I'm speaking specifically of American journalism since this blogger is in Dallas) is committed to both sides of the story. (As opposed to journalists in other countries, most notably the UK, who are very clear about their opinions and biases.) Even taking off my editor's hat, purely as a reader, I'm wondering why he left so much out of the story -- why didn't he call Noka and confront them about Bonnat? Forget even being confrontational -- why not call Bonnat and ask them point-blank if they are Noka's distributors? Is Bonnat publicly held? Is it possible to find a list of their clients? It doesn't seem (unless I missed it) like he tried to contact Bonnat in any way.

        To me, this is a very interesting essay written by someone with a passion for chocolate who might possibly have a bias against Noka -- or not. But it's very clear he came to his conclusion BEFORE writing or researching his piece, and did his level best (besides one phone call and some emails) to closet himself with his own subjective research and not directly involve the parties he writes about.

        I say "subjective research" because I have to trust this man, whose last name I don't even know, that Bonnat chocolate tastes exactly like Noka chocolate. Is there some scientific way to measure the chocolates, using microscopes or some other technique I'm not familiar with, to tell empirically if they are the same product? If not, then nothing can be done, but "tastes the same," frankly, isn't good enough for me.

        I've never been to Dallas, had Noka chocolates, or eaten any chocolate more expensive than Godiva, for that matter. And if everything this man has written is true, then I am truly outraged that Noka charges that much -- well, as outraged as I can be over an overpriced product sold far from my home that I'd never consume myself.

        But as a journalist, and specifically an editor, it's my job to poke holes in a story and work with the reporter to make it as solid as it can be, because readers are bound to have the same questions I do. Which is why blogging can be so troubling: We all want information to flow freely, but everyone -- from Pulitzer winners on down -- needs a good editor.

        19 Replies
        1. re: Covert Ops

          Dear CO: Blogging often gets a story like this out, even if it is uncomfortable or incomplete. It wouldn't be printed in a "respectable" newspaper and would be spiked by the editor because Neiman Marcus is an advertiser. It sounded as if there was no cooperation on the part of the owners upfront, so I'd say that was why no further attempts were made. There are always more than two sides to a story, if you study semantics it explains there are always shades of gray inbetween, not black-and-white. Two sides of the story can be translated into, often, "the official" version and the "actual" version. This fiction from jourtnalism school that a story must include opposing quotes is antiquated at this point in time, when so many sources are available. For example, NoKo has a beautiful website telling it's story and sales people out there at Neiman Marcus. The probablem with so much of what passes for Main Stream Media Journalism MSM today is it is opposing quotes from two sides, without any real research behind it. Most reporters today don't know how to do research. That's what made IF Stone so great was his ability to do research and to expose what the "official" story tried to tell the public. The PR field works overtime, and very successfully, to surpress certain information. Go back and look at the implications of the WMD quotes, that were never challenged by research, and see why the MSM has lost much of its credibility - it functions too often as a conduit for the quotes and information each side (and there more than "both" as you imply) rather than imparting real information. Please re-read Language in Thought and Action and re-think two-valued black/white orientations, and you will be a better editor for it. I am not against editors; I am for them; but I have seen journalism become more of a megaphone than a truth teller and it saddens me.

          1. re: EclecticEater

            EE: I am more than aware of the brainwashing power of Establishment J-School. And I didn't mean for my small rant to come off like I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Not all voices need to be heard, and not every story requires an opposing viewpoint.

            So often journalists fail to think like their readers, ask themselves the questions readers ask. As a READER, I'm wondering what Noka founders would have said had Scott called back and said, "OK, so I figured you out, it's Bonnat, what do you have to say?" I want to know this, not in the interest of fairness and giving them a chance to comment -- he already gave them that chance -- but for the pure drama it would have lended to the piece, whether they went on a rant, hung up or ignored him.

            Also, as a reader, I think he was lapse in not contacting Bonnant at all, not even to TRY to ask them if they were Noka's supplier. Maybe they would have told them, maybe they would have said that's privileged information -- and under the country Bonnant's incorporated in (France?) they may or may not have legal protection in that regard.

            But the fact that he didn't even bother to ask -- after calling literally dozens of other chocolatiers and seemingly having such insider knowledge and contacts -- tells me he was either lazy -- which I doubt, since he put so much effort into this -- or cowardly, afraid his own research would be disproven.

            Despite that, I'm not trying to disparage someone else's work -- I'm just saying there are serious unanswered questions that I, as an informed reader, would like answered.

            1. re: Covert Ops

              I completely agree with this -- I was waiting for the return call to Noka to ask them about Bonnant, and don't understand at all why he didn't do that. And seriously, the "tasting" is him tasting the chocolates? That's not a tasting, that's just a guy eating chocolates -- I was looking for a panel of people to try the chocolates to confirm his conclusion, and didn't get that. I think it's a great read, but definitely not journalism.

          2. re: Covert Ops

            dood, i think part of the "bigger point" of this story is
            the failure of "regular journalists" without the DOMAIN-
            SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE to see through the bullshit ... e.g.
            when they went on TV etc.

            see e.g.
            http://www.dallasfood.org/modules.php...

            i think your disparaging comments about subjectivity
            miss the point. again somebody with specific knowledge
            about a field might be able to tell a lot about something
            from information that might not mean much to a non-specialist.
            for example the physical size of a new microprocessor might
            not sound like especially sensitive information to a
            non-specialist ... but to somebody who knows the field,
            it might reveal information about yeilds, hence costs,
            profits etc.

            i think in this case, this guy noticed the pricing of
            the chocolate from these guys were waaaaaay out of sync
            with even other super-high end mfgrs and he was in a good
            position to analyze the public statements justifying
            the cost difference.

            1. re: Covert Ops

              Think about how many food writers included the following "THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS OLESTRA. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients." And what the response from the manufacturers would have been.

              1. re: Covert Ops

                As an editor (but not a journalist), the problem I have with the "both sides of the story" idea is that stories that try to be balanced often by that very act are distortions. Any journalist writing a piece can make a couple of phone calls and get two "sides of the story" but unfortunately what then happens is that both sides appear to be equally valid, which is often not true. You can write a story about the earth being round and make it balanced by calling someone from the Flat Earth Society, but that doesn't mean that the "side" of the Flat Earth Society has any validity.

                This is actually my pet peeve with American journalism today: journalists are so convinced that they should give both sides of the story that they often given way too much creedence -- or at least, print space -- to people who at best have fringe views and at worst are out-and-out crackpots, thus giving their positions a validity they don't warrant.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  right!

                  in this case, i expect the "other side" to come
                  from the noka folks or some other source ... dialectic
                  and all that.

                  1. re: psb

                    I agree. The point is well made. I expect NoKa will start a PR campaign to explain it all, with every justification in place, and maybe even swiftboat the dallasfood piece.

                    1. re: EclecticEater

                      Hello, when the going gets tough, the tough hire a
                      crisis management firm ... the hamhandedness is
                      pretty entertaining.

                      Begin here:
                      http://blog.rsynnott.com/dan-noka-cho...

                      So this Dan dood, appears to be the fellow at:
                      http://www.keeneypr.com/
                      (based on an email addr which of course may not be authoritative

                      )

                      Notice from their domain reg:
                      Keeney, Dan dan@keeneypr.com
                      DPK Public Relations
                      1209 Kings Brook Drive
                      Southlake, TX 76092

                      So far the response seems to mostly be "it's the packaging
                      stupid".

                      I wonder if he's being paid in chocolate!

                      1. re: psb

                        So, this Danno, Dan guy is supposed to be a professional PR person? I read his comments. If this is the way that NoKa prefers to defend themselves, it gives me yet another reason to stay away.

                        1. re: QueenB

                          Late breaking news ... it turns out the Dan/Danno
                          commenting on the web sites *is* the Keeney PR dood,
                          BUT he was motivated by MORAL OUTRAGE, *not* a
                          pecuniary relationship with Noka Chocolate ... AT
                          THE TIME of his comments. He's also interested
                          in having lunch:
                          http://www.keeneypr.com/en/art/?222

                          On a completely unrelated note, what was it
                          LE DUC THO said said FRANKLY and OPEN-HEARTEDLY to
                          Henry KISSINGER? If *only* there were some way to
                          find out via the World Wide Web ...

                          1. re: psb

                            Dan the pr man appears to have a little too much free time.

                            1. re: Withnail42

                              Actually, it appears that Dan the PR man is a pretty comically inept liar. Not a credit to the PR profession, in which the skilled operators can conceal the fact that they are telling the opposite of the truth.

                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                Oh dont tell me none of you dont feel some slight
                                sympathy for Dan. After all, he is the underdog
                                in this Danno vs Golaith contest [by which I mean
                                Google + the Blogosphere + Logic and the Facts].

                                Not to mention how commendable it was for him to
                                become involved "only to defend a principle".

                                Again, look at what you get when you
                                google(noka, chocolate).

                2. re: Covert Ops

                  Covert Ops,

                  A few responses to your comments....

                  I'm sorry that you're bothered by the fact that I only go by my first name. I've gone by my first name on Chowhound for the five or six years I've regularly participated on the board. I've gone by my first name for the two years I've run the DallasFood.org site. This is the first time anyone has complained about that. [I will say that it's a little surreal that the complaint is being voiced by someone named "Covert Ops." ; ) ] In the case of the Noka reports, I believe I set out enough hard facts that people could reach their own conclusions about Noka's product and business practices, regardless of whether those facts were posted under my first name, first and last, a pseudonym, or anonymously.

                  You asked why I didn't stage a direct "Geraldo Rivera" confrontation with the folks at Noka. I gave them an opportunity to answer the interview questions and they blew me off. When I called them with similar questions, they gave me false or misleading answers and dodged the couverture question outright. I didn't think any information would be gained by another call. While I realize there might be some dramatic value in a showy confrontation, I wasn't after drama. (That much should be clear from the length, level of detail, and generally dry tone of the reports.)

                  You asked why I didn't mention any effort to contact Bonnat. A fair question. It's one that I may answer down the road. For now (and I know this won't be satisfactory), let me just say that this series of reports does not reflect the full results of my research.

                  I'm not sure which conclusions you feel I reached before researching this piece. Could you be specific? All I knew before beginning the research was that Noka was ridiculously expensive and that it seemed improbable that they were actually making chocolate.

                  You accuse me of "closeting myself with my subjective research." There's very little of the "subjective" in the reports. The analysis of pricing and ingredient lists are based on objective, publicly available information. While the tasting certainly contained an element of subjectivity, it was a redundancy--a secondary check on what the process of elimination had already revealed. I would be more persuaded that my research and analysis were flawed if you (or anyone else) could point me to non-Bonnat single-origin chocolates from Venezuela, Trinidad, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar that have 75% cacao solids, added cocoa butter, and no vanilla or soy lecithin. That strikes me as a very "objective" question.

                  You attack the subjectivity of the tasting portion because it involves trust in someone "whose last name [you] don't even know." Understandable (though I'm sure knowing my last name wouldn't assuage your concerns). If you don't trust my palate, that's fine. Try the chocolates yourself. (You'll enjoy it!) But, in the meantime, remember what I said above, as well as in the reports--the blind taste testing was a redundant check on the process of elimination. Belt and suspenders. Even if you throw out the tasting portion, you still have to offer a suitable alternative to Bonnat for each of the countries of origin.

                  I'm not a journalist. I don't claim to have the same standards of judgment, thoroughness, and professionalism that were exhibited by the pros who've covered Noka for the Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, and Food & Wine (last names: Harris, McCausland, and Halpern). I'm just a guy who really likes chocolate (and barbecue, Mexican food, chicken-fried steak, et al.) and talks about it online. Take it for what it's worth.

                  Scott

                  1. re: Scott

                    Scott:

                    I should change by chowname to "Scott's bulldog" :-)
                    but seriously, excellent work, both in terms of the
                    research and presenation ... perhaps hardest ... or
                    most impressive ... is your measured feedback.

                    I dunno how what resource you have available to you,
                    but I hope you are in a position to investigate the
                    hackage:
                    http://www.dallasfood.org/modules.php...

                    --psb

                    1. re: Scott

                      Scott: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Again, I want to stress that I admire your work and was impressed by both your exhaustive knowledge of chocolate and your dedication to this topic.

                      The reason I do not post my last name, while mentioning the fact that you did not, has nothing to do with Chowhound: I was refuting the claims of some other posters that your work constituted journalism. Now this may only be my opinion, but in my opinion journalism goes hand in hand with accountability and credibility, which can NOT be accomplished anonymously. To most people this does not diminish the validity of your work: not really to me, either. Obviously you know your stuff, and though you do occasionally take a "snarky" tone, I don't really think you've left out important facts that would have altered the outcome of your tests. (Remember, as I posted below, I'm playing devil's advocate here.)

                      I do not post my name on Chowhound because I am posting here for fun, not as a journalist. I don't often write for my publication, but when I do, even if it's opinion (I occasionally do reviews and columns) my full name, e-mail address and sometimes my picture accompany it.

                      Again, I'm not trying to attack you or your work personally. I guess I'm just on a personal crusade, on behalf of my industry, to remind everyone that not everything posted on blogs, especially anonymous blogs, can be trusted absolutely. (Nor everything in the newspaper or on TV, but that's a discussion for another day and another board.) Add to that the fact that no blog has someone else editing it -- and I include reporters' blogs on news Web sites as well -- and that is very troubling to us all in the industry. Not because I worry I won't have a job -- as I mentioned before, everyone needs an editor, and I can code HTML so I guess I'll be ok either way. :-P But because the sheer fact that someone else is reading your copy with a critical eye always makes it better. At the very least, they will point out things that are missing that the reader needs to know. (And I must have been on track, because you yourself seem to admit that contact with Bonnat is in the future.) At the most, they will uncover serious error or legal matters that could save you from a lawsuit. (It doesn't appear you have that problem at all.)

                      You claim that you are not a journalist (and you never have said you were: others on this post have), though I beg to differ with your other claim and I say that you DO have the standards of judgment, thoroughness and professionalism as MSM reporters, and sometimes more -- if only all my writers had your dedication and attention to detail. (And excellent spelling! LOL)

                      In the end, the point of my posts is the same point your expose on Noka makes: Don't take ANYTHING at face value. Always question. Ask why? Where did it come from? What's hidden that I might not know about? This makes us better consumers, of media, of chocolate, of life.

                      Congrats on the great effort -- please post here (as I'm not a regular reader of Dallas blogs) and let us know when you've updated it. :-)

                      1. re: Covert Ops

                        obsessing on the "you are not a journalist" to me is
                        sort of like my criticizing Owen Chamberlain
                        [http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/re...] for not
                        having a teaching degree when i took quantum mechanics
                        from him.

                    2. re: Covert Ops

                      I just read all your comments and think you make a very weak case. I think Scott's work is squarely within the great American journalistic spirit of muckraking. Sure, he's not uncovering police corruption, rancid meats being sold as fresh, or unsafe vehicles, but in essence his work is the same.

                      Is he doing straight news reporting? No, but that doesn't mean he's not doing journalism. I think only the most naive think that news can be unbiased. What it should be is fair. His reports are overly fair and measured, imo. I think that if I was faced with a company that basically defrauded me, I wouldn't be so generous as to only pepper my reports occasionally with a snarky comment. Should an investigative report on pedophiles avoid making any judgmental comments?

                      These reports are far beyond the average blogging -- what some guy ate for dinner and why it gave his dog gas. This is journalism. And if the average reporter put as much time, effort, and research into their stories, maybe they wouldn't be losing their markets. And if all bloggers put this much effort into their work, there wouldn't be much need for newsPAPERS. I wish even 25% of what gets investigated on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and CNBC had this level of thoroughness and research. This was the Frontline of chocolate exposes.

                      One of the great things about his report, too, is that anyone can repeat what he's done. You don't have to take his word for it. It seems that after all the scandals from within prestigious news organizations like the New York Times, that your industry has more to defend than Scott.

                    3. Here is a link to a post by the writer, from December 19, 2006.

                      www.chowhound.com/topics/325789