When drama flares up on Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s weekly online chat with readers, it is usually about kids in restaurants or a tipping conundrum. So one woman’s anonymous comment during a recent session was the digital equivalent of a party-stopping record scratch.
“Well Tom your latest review is accompanied by a picture of my husband dining with a woman who isn’t me!” she wrote. “Once confronted with photographic evidence, he confessed to having an ongoing affair.”
You could practically hear jaws dropping in offices everywhere.
“Just thought you’d be amused to hear of your part in the drama,” she added. “This Thanksgiving I’m grateful to you for exposing a cheat!”
The comment spread on Twitter and quickly became Topic A at holiday tables and happy hours. News organizations the world over published neon-glare tabloid headlines, such as “Washington Post restaurant critic exposed husband's affair.”
But like many other outrageous tales that crop up on social media, it turned out not to be true.
The woman sent a follow-up email last week to Sietsema. In it, she confessed that she had made up the story and sent the comment, with no expectation that it would be posted — let alone that it would go viral. She thought it was funny, she said, and that it might get a laugh out of whoever read it. That confirmed the critic's initial hunch; his response during the chat was, “Please, please, please tell me this is a crank post. I'd hate to learn otherwise.”
Sietsema does get his share of dubious reader-submitted questions in the freewheeling, fast-paced chat, which he also moderates. Participants in all Post chats are anonymous, and some of his chatters, for example, will claim to be diners off the street singing the praises of an eatery that the critic suspects they are actually affiliated with. He resists posting those, he says, and he screens out crude messages. But the “less formal” nature of a chat — it’s live, and he’s answering questions as they come in — means he can’t verify the authenticity of every comment. “I like readers to see the full range of the questions and comments I get,” he says.
This one seemed different enough to share — and the reaction to it certainly proved that readers were interested. So we contacted the woman to find out more. (To verify that she was the original poster, we asked her to send in another comment to the chat, and the IP address was the same as the original.)
The 40-something Washington lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid embarrassment, said the story she concocted had several sources of inspiration. One, she admits, was liquid. “I think I had just come home from happy hour,” she said.
But mostly, she says, it’s a scenario she has imagined repeatedly. She often scans photos in the media, wondering if she will see someone she knows, wondering what these strangers are up to. And she has been cheated on, she says, which she discovered in more prosaic ways. But surely, she thinks, something like this is bound to happen. “I’ve used a lot of dating apps, and there are a lot of married men on them. Those men ask you out to public places,” she says. “And I'm like, ‘What are you thinking?’ ”
Her invented story of a cheater unmasked in a restaurant review might have seemed cinematic, but there is good reason people wanted to believe it, says Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.”
It is a primal thing, she says, which is what one might expect from an anthropologist. Calling out a philanderer satisfies our age-old urge to protect the “pair bonds” that for millions of years ensured the continuation of our DNA, she says. “Of course, people don't actually think this way, but it’s why we have evolved protective devices,” she says. “We want to catch the cheater.”
That is part of the reason we are obsessed with cheating — and cheaters. “Stories about infidelity are powerful,” she says. “How many books and poems and myths and legends and movies and operas and sitcoms deal with this topic? It plays on such a fertile mind.”
Though the story of a busted philanderer might be satisfying, its spread is a cautionary tale.
Media outlets ran with the story, with some playing down the caveat that the claim had not been verified and that it was suspected to be a “crank.” Syndicated TV show Inside Edition even aired a Post photo that accompanied a recent Sietsema review, circling the faces of an unidentified couple sipping wine in the backdrop that online sleuths suspected was the couple in question.
The story offers another, perhaps more broadly applicable lesson: It is a reminder to cheaters everywhere that such a scenario could actually play out. Famously lucky ’80s movie hero Ferris Bueller might have gotten away with playing hooky and subsequently appearing on TV, but others might not be so fortunate to avoid a lens that could expose them.
When Washington Post photographers arrange to shoot photos in restaurants to accompany reviews, they secure the permission of the management. “The owner of a restaurant can say ‘I don’t want you here’ — it’s their property and they can do that,” says Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “But it’s different for customers, and they shouldn’t have the same expectation of privacy.”
At least a cheater might know when he or she will feature prominently in a photo. Washington Post photo editor Jennifer Beeson Gregory described the process thusly: “Photographers ask diners for their names when there is a handful — or fewer — of people in the photo or if the focus is on a few people in a large space,” she said. In such cases, Post photographers identify themselves and alert potential subjects that their pictures might run in The Post.
And management might give the diners more warning. “Sometimes, a host or hostess will alert diners that a photographer is present,” Beeson Gregory added.
Osterreicher, a former photojournalist, recalled a long-ago assignment where he photographed worshipers holding hands at a sunrise Easter church service. When he approached one of his subjects to get his name, the guy asked him to please not use the photo. “The woman he was with wasn’t his wife,” Osterreicher said. The photographer obliged, he said, because the man had asked nicely — and Osterreicher had plenty of other pictures to turn in.
But he says that with the ubiquity of smartphones and security cameras these days, most people should assume that they’re always being watched when in public.
So even if the story turned out to be bogus, Sietsema’s advice is sound. He initially tweeted the soap-operatic portion of his chat transcript, accompanied by an apt warning: “Cheaters, take heed!”
More from Food: