The Web and the Rise of Rotten Reviews The role of critic has become increasingly widespread. Now anyone can post a bad review — or receive one — on the Internet. Guests discuss how the Web is changing the role of critic and how to combat a bad review.
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The Web and the Rise of Rotten Reviews

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The Web and the Rise of Rotten Reviews

The Web and the Rise of Rotten Reviews

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Everybody's a critic. Bad enough if you're an actor, for instance, to open the newspapers ever so carefully on the morning after opening night, but in today's world, your bad reviews may have been snowballing through the blogisphere for hours. Of course, the same is true of raves, but once the boo birds begin, it's hard to shout down the choir. Take, for example, the fight between New York restaurant owner Jeffrey Chodorow and The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, or the contractor who's suing a woman here in Washington, D.C. because she complained about his work in a post to an online forum.

Of course, it is just possible that your book, movie, play, plastering, or your pasta really weren't very good. But if you think you've been unfairly maligned, what to do?

Later on in the program, Alan Schwarz on the origins of Ernie Banks' let's play two, Ozzie Smith's back flip and Gaylord Perry's spitball.

But first, if you've ever been trashed by a critic or if you've scalded somebody else's work online, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is You could also join the conversation on our blog at

And we start our conversation with Nancy Miller, senior editor of Wired magazine. She joins us from our member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. NANCY MILLER (Senior Editor, Wired Magazine): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: And I guess what really has changed in this world is the advent of the Internet.

Ms. MILLER: Absolutely. The Internet now allows everyone to be a critic. As you said, you know, opinions are like bellybuttons. Everybody has one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: We're more happy to reveal our opinions, though, than our bellybuttons, most of us.

CONAN: Well, anyway...

Ms. MILLER: Well, not Britney Spears.

CONAN: In any case…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But there is - you know, it used to be that, you know, even a town that has seven or eight newspapers, very few people got to actually express their opinions, and you had very little recourse except to write a letter to the editor, which they may or may not publish.

Ms. MILLER: That's right. But being able to rebut a bad review - like that restaurateur or a filmmaker - is crucial to how people are responding to reviews and reacting online. It...

CONAN: And...

Ms. MILLER: Sorry.

CONAN: And, I know, I was just saying, and even to the point where I guess the most recent example is the movie "300," not much liked by the critics and a smash hit online and at the box office.

Ms. MILLER: That's right. I mean, there's a difference between bad reviews and bad buzz. A movie can survive bad reviews. They do all the time. A lot of blockbusters get panned by critics, but they're popular, and so people will go into seem them. Bad buzz, on the other hand, is that the movie's not only not good, but it - there's no real value in seeing it...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MILLER: ...and so people don't show up.

CONAN: Yeah, those you can see in the reduced numbers. It opens on Friday, and the audiences get smaller through the week...

Ms. MILLER: That's right.

CONAN: ...and at that point, ooo, you might as well just pull the plug on that baby.

Ms. MILLER: Right, when they cut the theaters in half, when you see minus 1,000 theaters, and it opens in 2,000 and they take a thousand…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MILLER: …that's usually a bad sign.

CONAN: Now you used to work at Entertainment Weekly…

Ms. MILLER: Indeed.

CONAN: …and I guess you've written or edited your fair share of reviews.

Ms. MILLER: Sure.

CONAN: How does the entertainment world deal with a harsh review?

Ms. MILLER: You know, it - I was talking to some critics who write for Entertainment Weekly and other magazines, and we were just saying that it seems like, I guess, filmmakers and actors and producers have always been sensitive. But it just seems like they're extremely sensitive these days, and maybe that's because of the proliferation of reviews. But it seems like no one can really take criticism the way that they used to, you know? Maybe in the days where, I don't know, let's say Pauline Kael was writing a review for The New Yorker, it was considered sort of discourse, and you just - you debated an idea of why a movie wasn't good.

CONAN: And at least it got mentioned by Pauline Kael.

Ms. MILLER: That's right. That's right. That's right. If Pauline Kael - we now have, you know, panning your movie. I see how that might hurt a little bit versus Pauline Kael.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's not quite the same cache.

Ms. MILLER: No, not at all, not at all. And someone named Tyler Durden 52 or, you know, someone with an invented name online is trashing you, you have to wonder how did I end up here?

CONAN: And that's another part of it, is the anonymity available to a lot of Internet critics. If you didn't like Pauline Kael's review, you could write her a letter. You could even call her up. If you got totally bent out of shape, you could go to her house. What do you do if it's a Tyler Kepner(ph) 52?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: Well, it's funny - a good example of what you do is you challenge them to a boxing match, as a director actually did. There's a director named Uwe Boll, who - by most standards in online and in print - is a terrible director. He actually specializes in adapting videogames to movies. So his movies aren't - they're awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: However, he was upset because he felt that the online community, who - you know, his fan - the fan boys of these videogames were trashing his movies, like "House of Dead," and that - unfairly. So he couldn't respond to all of the - that so many Web sites were trashing his movies, he couldn't respond to them all, but he said they were affecting his box office.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MILLER: So he challenged his critics - his faceless, nameless critics - to a boxing match in Vancouver last summer. And three of them fought him in the ring. Three, pimply, weaseling, movie nerds…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: …God love them, they all showed up in the ring, and he beat the living stuffing out of them. So at least he got some sort of catharsis from that experience.

CONAN: This is not an option available to most writers, or indeed to most moviemakers, I wouldn't think.

Ms. MILLER: Well, I wouldn't want to be a food critic, because you never know what they're going to slide in there…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: …once you're known around town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And yet we mentioned that dispute in New York. I mean, this restaurateur said, all right, I'm going to fight back and start my own blog and attack The New York Times food critic.

Ms. MILLER: Yep. And I think that's fair. When - his complaint, and as another critic - another chef's complaint - is that the problem is accuracy. I think that anyone who produces quality work, as these chefs do, I mean, they're not Wendy's. I mean these are top-rate chefs.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MILLER: They really care about their craft (unintelligible) - not to use that terrible word - but they really care. And so with the quality, I would want to make sure that the review was accurate. I think that, just like movies, restaurants live and die by word-of-mouth, and so they - maybe they want to fix it. If they can fix it, they'll fix it. But I think that the crucial element here was whether or not the critic - if it's accurate or truthful or done in -I think, the mean-spiritedness is what really galls most people who get reviewed.

CONAN: We're talking with Nancy Miller, senior editor of Wired magazine. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail: Let's go to Debra, Debra with us from Denver.

DEBRA (Caller): Yes, hi, Neal. Hi, Nancy.


CONAN: Go ahead.

DEBRA: Oh, sorry.

CONAN: That's OK.

DEBRA: I'm an author of a book. I'm going to try not to say the name of the book, because this one person wrote the worst review. It was over one thousand words in narrative reviewing my book and saying how terrible it was. It was posted on Amazon in 2002, and it haunts me because...

Ms. MILLER: Well, you've got to say the name of the book now, because...

CONAN: Everybody's going to wonder, yeah.

DEBRA: This isn't the (unintelligible) to NPR, though, Nancy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEBRA: But truthfully - and, you know, instead of five stars, which is the maximum on Amazon, I have four and a half stars, and it is - because Amazon won't remove negative or positives, which I respect, I - you know, and there's other people that haven't maybe loved the book. But no one went for over a thousand words to take it apart in a very ugly, horrible, nasty way. And yet that lived - his review lives on, so I - and coincidentally, the book that he reviewed was a self-published tome that has since been published by a major house, and yet that review still hangs out there in Amazon, even though it's a different ISBN number, and is related to the same - to my book today. So, you know...

CONAN: I wonder, if you have a biography on Wikipedia does it cite this review?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEBRA: I haven't - I don't need to fight it, because luckily a lot of people have, including my mother probably, right? Because that's the other thing I wanted to bring up, is that whether it be Amazon or a lot of these things, if you wanted to, you could - you can fake a screen name or use - ask all your sisters and your friends to e-mail into Amazon and review your book and say positive things.

And that sort of skews opinions as well, and it's not reality. So that's why I take it with a grain of salt that the - that this man took all this time out of his life to write something so mean and nasty about such a really - it's just a book that has done - it's in its fourth printing. It's done pretty well, but why did he choose me to be so horrible with? I have no idea.

Ms. MILLER: Well, and I will say this - and I can say this because I work at Wired - a lot of people who spend a lot of time online don't have much of a life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: And I can say this because I work at Wired and so - and I have a - maybe I'm up there, too. But people who spend time writing mean-spirited reviews, they are probably doing that not only for yours but a thousand other people. But it - what you're talking about speaks to a really crucial factor in the difference between new media and traditional media - newspapers versus the Internet. At the end of the day, traditional media is still considered legitimate, while online media is not so.

CONAN: And one reason you mentioned, Debra, is indeed there have been cases where authors of books have been caught going online to give their own books rave reviews.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: Exactly.

DEBRA: Well, and I have to tell you honestly, Neal, I have not done that. But it is awfully tempting to ask my family members or to have myself or my husband do that to skew it, but I just won't do it. I will also add one more thing, and that whether it the Internet or the regular media, I think sometimes publicity, any kind of publicity, helps sell - whether it be books or lots of other products - so sometimes it just - nobody cares.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DEBRA: I can't speak for a restaurant, but I would imagine another author who just wants to see their name in the paper, because sometimes it just helps to gain that visibility…

Ms. MILLER: Well...

DEBRA: ...on a consistent basis.

Ms. MILLER: ...James Frey is a perfect example of that. I mean, the story was broken about James Frey...

DEBRA: Right.

Ms. MILLER: ...and the inaccuracies of his book on, who found all of the evidence, or lack there of, to his sensational story. And yet that still sold. It's still on The New York Times' bestseller list.

DEBRA: It is, Nancy, and that is shocking to me, actually. And I had read the book before that came out, that it was a fraud. And so it - you just really have to learn to take these things with a grain of salt. I saw a movie with my - my daughter was home on spring break - the one with Will Ferrell, when the author - does anybody remember what it's called?

Ms. MILLER: Oh, yeah, mm-hmm, yeah.

DEBRA: OK, and it got bad reviews here in Denver, and I believe in USA Today as well, because I'm daily reader of that. And yet...

Ms. MILLER: "Stranger Than Fiction."

DEBRA: was on an airplane, Sara and I watched it. We thought it was great. So the reviewers at least in that case for me were wrong. I really enjoyed that movie, so I try to take those kinds of reviews with a grain of salt and just for…

Ms. MILLER: Well, when you're talking about Hollywood, too, I mean, it's a different game. The reason why Hollywood likes movie stars so much is because regardless of the review, if you like Will Ferrell…

DEBRA: Yeah.

Ms. MILLER: …and we all do, we all turned out to see him in "Blades of Glory" this weekend - then you'll go whether or not A.O. Scott says it's stupid or not - you know, A.O. Scott from The New York Times. So there's an example of a star. That's why Hollywood needs stars so much in the last decade.

DEBRA: That's true, and yet up to that point, my husband and I had not seen that movie because we sort of had a negative impression because of the reviews. And it was because we were on an airplane and it was showing, I said, well, let's give it a shot. And the reviewers were wrong in my opinion. That's what I…

CONAN: All right.

Ms. MILLER: Well, I think it's also about, isn't it, Emma Thompson plays an author that's…

DEBRA: Right, exactly.

Ms. MILLER: …there's a wrong authored in that movie, so it - I would understand why you would want to see that.

DEBRA: Ah, there you go. That must be it. I felt connected.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And look at it this way, it beats staring out the window, so.

DEBRA: Right, so you can ask the name of my book now, because I feel better about it since I first called in, unless you don't want to.

CONAN: Go ahead, and you've got three seconds to say it.

DEBRA: It's "The Fine Art of Small Talk."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Debra, thanks very much. Good luck with your fourth printing.

DEBRA: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: So long. We're going to talk more about rotten reviews on the Internet and, well, I guess in regular media, too, when we get back from a short break.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking today about bad reviews and how the Internet has changed who's writing them and who's getting them. It could be an average customer writing that service at your restaurant was terrible. It could be last night's date with a comment on your kissing. So what's your recourse when this happens? Of course, you're welcome to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is You're also welcome to check out our blog at

Still with us is Nancy Miller, a senior editor at Wired magazine. And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Dave, Dave with us from Oklahoma City.

DAVE (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Dave.

DAVE: I'm in a blues-rock outfit, and we just released our first national release on the Blind Pig label…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVE: …in January. And overall the reviews have been good. I mean, it's - they've been good, not great. It's an unqualified success. But I came, actually, last night across our very first unqualified negative review. It was on an online blues magazine. Obviously, I'm not going to tell you which one it is.

CONAN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: But there's - no matter how much you tell yourself that - to expect it, it still - you still go through a bout of being indignant when you read it, and you just want to call them up and give them a piece of your mind.

CONAN: A kick in the stomach, isn't it?

DAVE: Yeah, it is. It is.

Ms. MILLER: It stinks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: (unintelligible)

Ms. DAVE: There's no...

Ms. MILLER: Yeah, but with music...

DAVE: Go ahead.

Ms. MILLER: Sorry to interrupt your thought, but with music, however, it's - a bad review doesn't necessarily mean that people aren't going to buy your album. I mean, we see that all the time with "American Idol." You know, stars like Kelly Clarkson whose albums get panned all the time, but she's a multimillion-dollar singing sensation...

DAVE: Sure, sure.

Ms. MILLER: is Chris Daughtry. So people decide on their own, I think, much more with music these days than in any other medium of how they're - what they're going to buy and how they're going to buy it, and sometimes a scathing review can illicit enough sympathy with listeners that they go out and support you...


Ms. MILLER: …which isn't - which, you know, isn't the best way to go, but I suppose...

DAVE: Right.

CONAN: The pity vote is not necessarily what you're looking for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: Right.

Ms. MILLER: Yeah, not with music or dating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: Right. (unintelligible) the album have been, you know, it was - has been reviewed pretty well so far, and, I mean, nobody's buying it anyway...

CONAN: Yeah.

DAVE: it's not like it's going to make that big a difference.

CONAN: But it's hard not to take it personally, isn't it?

DAVE: Sure. But you have to tell yourself that there's really - how can you argue with an opinion? I mean, what objective criteria could we all agree on to say this person was wrong and reviewed it unfairly? So…

CONAN: Well, Dave, whoever that person may have been was clearly an idiot.

DAVE: Yeah, right. I appreciate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: (unintelligible)


Ms. MILLER: And stop Googling yourself. It's not good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: OK, bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us now is Joan Stewart. She runs Publicity Hound, a consulting company that teaches businesses how to use free publicity. She's with us from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Milwaukee. Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. JOAN STEWART (Founder, The Publicity Hound): Great to be here.

CONAN: And is it true that there is no such thing as bad publicity?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEWART: No, there is such a thing as bad publicity. But I help people fight back by turning it around and sometimes going out and trying to get good publicity, because there are so many opportunities for people to get good publicity, even after a crummy review.

CONAN: And what are those?

Ms. STEWART: Oh, they're all kinds of ways. Let's use the restaurant industry, for example, since you talked about that earlier.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STEWART: Back in the 1980s, I was a restaurant reviewer for a newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, and reviewed restaurants every other week and would see - you know, occasionally would give bad reviews to restaurants. Some of those same restaurants would turn around and pitch story ideas about their restaurant to people who worked for our paper…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STEWART: …which is exactly the right thing to do because, you know, the whole restaurant industry, and food in general, is a huge topic. It's a huge topic, and there are all kinds of story ideas that restaurants can pitch.

CONAN: So in this case, revenge is not a meal best served cold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEWART: Absolutely. And, you know, many restaurant people, in particular, their first reaction to a bad review is to yank their advertising, thinking a-ha. I'll show them who's boss, and they yank their advertising. That's the wrong approach, because often that can backfire.

CONAN: Nancy, isn't the - isn't just the opposite true in Hollywood? If you get really bad reviews and you've invested a quasilion(ph) in dollars in some blockbuster, you escalate the advertising if the reviews are bad.

Ms. MILLER: That's right. You sort of bury it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: just throwing money at it. I mean - or sometimes I think that with "Gigli," for example - which is a - was a - I mean, an enormous box office bomb, if I could use that oxymoron - I think they took out a full-page ad - a studio took out a full-page ad just to say that they were supporting "Gigli." It's almost just in the face of adversity, you will triumph just by showing that you believe in something…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MILLER: …and that you're supporting it. But, you know, with - the thing that I find really interesting, and I think the thing that's changing - and it was Hollywood studios, and maybe restaurants, too - is this idea of saying, OK. We've got something that's broken here. Let's fix it. The great thing about online these days is that studios can let, you know, not paper critics, but Internet critics see a movie early, and then with a few months advance, and then they get their opinion on it, and they can make tweaks as necessary.


Ms. MILLER: And with that, the critic feels included in the process, and then they will more likely to give it good buzz if they make those adjustments, which is something that Hollywood's never done before, you know, try and get your audience's opinion before the movie comes out and then actually listening and fixing it.


Ms. MILLER: And I think that that's how restaurants succeed as well. If you've got a dish that's not that great, you could fix it and you make it better, and I think that that's how you turn something around.

CONAN: Joan Stewart, is this an option, particularly with online situations? You were talking about newspapers earlier. How do you combat bad reviews in the blogs?

Ms. STEWART: Oh, I absolutely agree with what she just said. You know, if somebody has given an opinion that your food happened to be off the night they were there or your service was off, don't get defensive and try to argue with them. One of the best ways to make the situation OK is to, let's say, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, and a lot - I hear a lot of people say, well, I'm not going to write a letter because nobody reads letters to the editor. That's not true. The big advantage to writing a letter to the editor and being able to speak in your own words about the review is that editors seldom will edit those letters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yet that doesn't address the situation of what if it's blog? Do you get on the blog and…

Ms. MILLER: Okay. (unintelligible).com

CONAN: Pardon me?

Ms. STEWART: You sure do, yes.


Ms. STEWART: You get onto the blog, and most good bloggers will allow comments at their blog. And you post a comment and state in your own words exactly what happened at your restaurant that night, and certainly correct errors.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MILLER: I think that...


Ms. MILLER: ...that anyone in this business needs to recognize these days that this is - we are in a critical culture. I mean, this is the way the culture is. We all have an opinion, and we all have now a format to express that. In the past, critics were sort of seen as on high, where, you know, if you're a critic, you know more. You're smarter than your reader. These days, in the user-generated society, online we are a community. We all are either the same or some of us are smarter than the people that are critiquing.


Ms. MILLER: And I think that that makes a crucial difference in how you respond to a bad review and also how you can fix it. This is a culture we're not - there's no last say, unfortunately, sometimes. You know, like there's -everyone has the last word, and the word just keeps going and going and going and going into infinity.

CONAN: And I wonder, Joan Stewart, if that's not an option for some businesses to say, well, you know, if the all-mighty Times Courier Picayune hated it, it must be good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEWART: That's how some people feel. And by the way, I have some advice for the two callers who called in: the woman who wrote the book and the gentleman who has the blues CD.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STEWART: Both of them mentioned If you happen to get a bad review at Amazon, don't sweat it. gives anybody about 17 different opportunities to get fabulous publicity for your own book or whatever it is you're selling. For example, the author who got a bad book review on "The Art of Small Talk," if I were her, I would go over to Amazon and start taking a look at other books in that genre, and she can review those books and get a link back to her own Web site.

CONAN: Hmm. All right, so this is a way to spread the news.

Ms. STEWART: That's right, and Amazon actually gives you about 17 different opportunities. You can post free articles there. You can post lists of your favorites books, CDs, etc.. And if you're proactive about this and you go out and try to get as much publicity as possible, as much good publicity, that bad review could be just a little blip on the screen.

CONAN: And it must be a lesson then to these businesses: You'd better Google yourself everyday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEWART: I think so, and I even encourage people to set up what's called a Google Alert.

Ms. MILLER: Yes.

Ms. STEWART: Go to, or just do a search for Google Alert, and you can set up an alert so that Google alerts you every single day when either your name or your company's name or specific keyword phrases show up on the Internet. That's how I find out about bloggers who are blogging about me. I have a Google Alert setup for my name.

CONAN: A-ha.

Ms. MILLER: And I see the value in that, and sometimes though I wonder at what point do we recognize that there is going to be dissent in anything that we do. Not everyone's going to love everything. We're not kids. We're adults now, and you have to be able to accept criticism. And sometimes maybe just letting it go and - I mean, in the case of these sort of sensational cases that we're reading about with The New York Times critic, fine. But there's certain instances where it's like, OK, so he didn't like my work, you know.

CONAN: Big deal.

Ms. MILLER: I got a bad review on Well, let it go. I mean, that's part of putting yourself in the public forum. And I think that there's a level of maturity we sort of need to grasp after a certain point and time where we're going to get bad reviews and just deal with it and move on.

CONAN: Joan Stewart, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate your coming in.

Joan Stewart…

Ms. STEWART: Great to be here.

CONAN: Joan Stewart, founder of Publicity Hound. She joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Milwaukee.

Here's an e-mail we got from Leslie in St. Louis, Missouri.

When I was a music critic for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, I received hate mail from people who didn't have the courage to sign their own names and either sent the letter anonymously or under a false name. Whether I was right or not, I had the courage to sign my own name to my review and stand behind it, which was more than I could say for my detractors.

And I guess that goes to a lot of anonymous e-mailers as well.

Let's see if we can get Jeff on the line - Jeff with us from Berkeley, California.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

JEFF: I work in an emergency room, and a couple of weeks ago we were called into a meeting with the administration where they went over the Smith-Gainey(ph) results of the surveys over the last year. Everybody that comes to visit the emergency room is sent a survey. And not very many of them fill them out and send them back. And we got the lowest ratings nationally for our slot, which was 20,000 to 30,000 patients a year.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, that's - what happened as a result of that?

JEFF: Well, they're trying to figure out what we can do, you know, and how we communicate to patients. And most of the survey questions are based on, you know, delays and things like that. And so we have - you know, there isn't really any solutions. They were just telling us the problem at this point.

CONAN: That must be awful to get that kind of review, though.

JEFF: Well, there were charge nurses that went home crying, you know, and called out sick for a couple of days and just - I mean, it was a really unpleasant situation, and they made a conscious decision to not give us any positive feedback and tell us so that there wasn't any, quote, unquote, "mixed messages."

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: But, you know, it sort of ties back to your earlier program today in the earlier hour about social services and how people are coming to the emergency room for hangnails.

CONAN: And then upset when they're not taken first.

JEFF: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. All right. Jeff, better luck next time.

JEFF: Hey, thanks for taking me.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye. Here's another e-mail. This one from James in South Bend.

One bad review of a bicycle part helped create an entire group of Web sites that review bicycles, cars, photographic equipment and the like. It's become a resource at least for groups of cyclists to check out what other people's experiences have been before spending hundreds of dollars on the latest set of shiny bicycle toys. Even after the bad review has long faded away, the sites are still going strong.

That from James in South Bend.

We're talking about bad reviews and what to do about them. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our next guest - that last e-mail goes right up his alley. Robert Krughoff is founder and president of Consumer's Checkbook, which rates local businesses in several cities across the United States. He's with us here in Studio 3A.

Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. ROBERT KRUGHOFF (President and Founder, Consumer's Checkbook): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And so how do you know if a reviewer - I guess we shouldn't talk all bad reviews - well, take a bad review with a grain of salt?

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Well, I guess so, but I must say, as you say, we rate auto repair shops and plumbers and hospitals and banks and all kinds of local service firms. And I don't find myself spending as much time worrying about the firms getting a bad - unfairly getting a bad rating as I worry about consumers getting lousy service because they don't know which firms are good and which firms are bad.

And, in fact, one of the things that I worry about is firms getting too savvy with this kind advice that some of your other guests are giving them about how to go and stack the reviews.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: At Checkbook magazine and, we spend a lot of time and a lot of effort in strategizing to make sure that the firms can't be the ones who do the reviewing. We really want to count on consumers to do the reviewing. And for us, a big deal is having an adequate sample size. So, you know, one comment, two comments, five comments, I wouldn't, you know, I wouldn't make any decision on an auto repair shop or a plumber based on that.

We won't even publish comments on our Web site or in our magazine unless we have at least 10 ratings of that firm.

CONAN: And do you give out, you know, stars for - you know, Joe's Repair Shop got four bad reviews and 10 good ones, we'll give it three stars?

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Yeah. We will give checkmarks to the firms that get the highest percentage of favorable ratings. And we're trying to distinguish along the whole continuum - from the very best to the, you know, ones that are OK to the ones that are not particularly good to the terrible ones. And we want people to be able to sort those out to save themselves a lot of trouble, a lot of hassle, and a lot of time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jonathan - Jonathan with us from Portland, Oregon.

JONATHAN (Caller): Hi.


JONATHAN: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JONATHAN: I think it brings up an interesting point that we live in an era where reviews can now be interactive, between consumers themselves and between the consumers and the product producers or the artist-creator.

CONAN: And our guest - in a way, Robert Krughoff, that's what you're doing, because consumers get together and they sort of collectively make a decision.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Yeah. The idea is to do that and, of course, we've been doing this for 30 years in a print magazine - Checkbook magazine - where we proactively survey our own subscribers and also Consumer Reports magazine subscribers and get their ratings from consumers. And, you know, that's an important thing. It's a little easier to do online.

But we tend to try and do it proactively, where we send out questionnaires and we send out e-mails to our subscribers and to Consumer Reports subscribers, getting them to provide the ratings. Because one of the things we really worry about is having that Web site sitting there where people can just go and stuff the ballot box, basically.

CONAN: My uncle's repair shop is really, really good.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Right. Some of this advice you were hearing earlier, you know, is, you know, ways to do that. And we take a lot of measures to prevent that from happening. One is we know who the raters are. We know, you know, we're only going to let them give one rating, and we're not going to let them give a rating to their competitor if they give a rating to themselves, etc., etc.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I guess, Nancy Miller, I guess what Jonathan - our caller from Portland, Oregon - is talking about is what people refer to as the democratization of criticism.

Ms. NANCY MILLER (Senior editor, Wired magazine): That's right. It's a peer-to-peer thing. Now everyone can express the way that they feel about a product. And one of the - the good side of a bad review - as the guy mentioned with the motorcycle bike shop - is that bad reviews exist for a reason.

Sometimes something isn't working properly, and that community can get together and it creates and environment where you are useful. You can now have a little community that shares information on how to find the best of something and to be aware of the worst of something.

I think the examples of the unfair reviews, obviously, there are sort of nut jobs out there writing crazy reviews. But for the most part, I think, there is an integrity, the desire to want to share something that's good and to warn people of what's bad. I think that there is…

JONATHAN: So I think now that online reviews provide an interactive environment where people can post immediately and say I had problems with this product. And then the next reviewer can say I had similar problems…

Ms. MILLER: That's right.

JONATHAN: …or here's how you fix that problem.

Ms. MILLER: And the manufacturer can say that, too.

CONAN: All right. Jonathan, thanks very much for the call.

And Nancy Miller, thank you for your time today.

Ms. MILLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Nancy Miller, a senior editor with Wired magazine. Robert Krughoff, thank you for joining us here in Studio 3A.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And he is Consumer Checkbook's president and founder.

More after a break. This is NPR News.

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