The way Jeff Glucker tells it, it was a matter of a few phone calls. The first came from Autoblogs’s Chris Paukert as Glucker was driving his 2000 Civic Si up California’s Interstate 405, letting him know that Jalopnik editor Mike Spinelli would require his attention. We’re going to run a story, Spinelli told him, and he explained that Jalopnik would be “exposing” Glucker’s double-dipping excursion with a PR firm and Autoblog in support of a Nissan Versa promotional campaign. Jeff had taken money from a PR firm to promote the contest. He’d written e-mails to his friends in the autojourno biz, asking them to post stories about the contest on their blogs… and then he’d “put on his other hat,” that hat being labeled “Associate Editor, Autoblog.com” and written a story about the contest for that site. Google “payola”, Spinelli would later message him, referring to the illegal practice of paying radio DJs to play a particular song at the expense of others.
“I don’t have Bluetooth,” Glucker told him, “I’m on the freeway. I need to call you back.” He rolled up the 405 in silence, thinking about his options. What would happen next? Paukert called one more time, asking for some additional details. When the phone rang again, Jeff saw that it was Spinelli, and he didn’t — he couldn’t — answer. He didn’t know what to say. Automotive journalism wasn’t a hobby for him any more. He’d left a lucrative job in another industry to follow his dream of writing about cars, and now he and his wife needed every dollar of his reduced salary just to keep going. Sure, he was on his way to drive a $375,000 Lexus LF-A, but the car that was taking him there, the car he really owned, wouldn’t fetch ten grand. Could he lose his job for this? What would his family say? How would he replace the income? What was going to happen next?
The last call, when it came, was from Autoblog editor John Neff, and it provided the answer to that last question: he was being terminated. Immediately.
Everybody liked Jeff Glucker. I know that I certainly liked the guy, and continue to like him. Tall, handsome, fresh-faced, effortlessly optimistic, he was a natural fit for the see-no-evil world of automotive “journalism”. He enjoyed driving new cars in fabulous locales, and he didn’t mind saying nice things about them. Reading his back catalog reveals a genial writer with a knack for a friendly turn of phrase. After leaving his first autojourno job at NADAGuides, but prior to working for Autoblog, he’d co-founded Hooniverse, a site that served as a refuge for old-school “Jalops” who’d failed to keep up with Ray Wert’s transition of Jalopnik from gearhead’s club to lad’s mag.
Over the course of a few years in the business, Mr. Glucker had managed to make friends in precisely the same way that your humble author has not. Riding the endless wave of loaner cars, five-star trips, and cozy friendships with manufacturer PR reps, he’d come to know some people. When one of those people asked him to promote a “Nissan Versa contest with Britney Spears”, Gluck took the gig and he took the money that went with it. The rest of the affair is well-known. He reached out to other people on behalf of his PR friends. Some of them published articles, some of them didn’t.
This behavior wasn’t against “the rules” of the industry. Far from it. Automotive journalism, automotive PR, and automotive advertising are three legs of a very crooked stool. David E. Davis, the supposed “dean of the industry”, started his career by writing advertisements. His most famous piece in Car and Driver, the Turn Your Hymnals to 2002, is a shameless advertisement for BMW that doesn’t even pretend to find a single fault with the car. It’s perfectly normal for automotive journalists to go work a PR or ad gig for a while and then return to writing. Favors are exchanged. On his way out the door to a major OEM, a journalist will write a few puff-pieces for that company’s products. If he’s thinking about leaving his job at that OEM later, he may curry some favor with a senior editor or two somewhere by flying them somewhere really nice or making sure they’re sitting in a six-figure “long-term tester”. Many of the articles you read in the color rags and larger websites are “placed” by a PR person making a call to a friend. It happens. All. The. Time. It’s not illegal, and there isn’t a single publication in the business which deliberately avoids participating in the process, not even TTAC.
Back to Mr. Glucker: After sending out his emails, he decided to “change hats” and publish a story in Autoblog about the Nissan contest. It wasn’t “double dipping” in the traditional sense. He didn’t receive any extra payment from Autoblog for writing the article, and as he was eager to emphasize to me, the PR firm which hired him didn’t pay him “per view” or “per placement” or anything like that. He just wrote the article and sent it off for publication. This was the action which resulted in two bile-filled Jalopnik articles and Glucker’s immediate termination.
I asked Mr. Glucker what his response had been to Spinelli’s initial call. His answer? Confusion. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. Had Autoblog mentioned this kind of thing in the “ethics lecture” he’d received upon his hiring there? Nope — because there had been no such lecture. Autoblog isn’t unique in that regard. The “rules”, if there are any, are rarely spelled out to anyone. Even when the rules are spelled out, they are easily bent, as Washington Post writer Warren Brown proved when he accepted a free trip to Bologna, Italy. Never in his career had anyone told Glucker that he couldn’t do what he’d done.
I would like to take a moment to spell out exactly what Jeff did to get fired, and compare it to things that would have been perfectly acceptable for him to do. Jeff was fired for writing the article himself without notifying Autoblog of his cash compensation from the PR firm. Let’s exaggerate the situation and assume that he was paid two thousand dollars, which he wasn’t, to promote the contest. That’s breaking the rules, but here are some things he could have done with no penalty:
- Had he asked another Autoblog contributor to write the story, that would have been acceptable, although the story would have differed in no particular way from the one he published.
- Had Jeff received a free $10,000 first-class flight to Monaco, a free $2,000 hotel room in Monaco, and had then attended a press conference where the Nissan contest was discussed, and written an article about the contest in Autoblog, that would have been completely fine.
- Had Nissan given Jeff a “long-term tester” Versa to use as he saw fit for a year — a benefit which would cost normal people perhaps up to seven or eight grand, depending on the cost of insurance and maintenance in your area — and left a card describing the contest in the glovebox, that would have been exactly in line with the way things are done in automotive journalism.
- Had Nissan given Jeff a free GT-R to race in Speed World Challenge, along with all of the necessary go-fast parts, and some crew to help him, and his entry fees — let’s call it a $250,000 package — and he had then written about the Nissan Versa contest, he’d be in the clear.
- Had Nissan told Jeff explicitly that he would become the head of Nissan PR, earning mid-six figures a year and traveling the glove like a sultan, and the only requirement for doing so would be to publish the Autoblog article before quitting his job… well, go cross-reference the names of the current PR people at the major manufacturers with the list of editors at Car and Driver and other places, and you can draw your own conclusions.
All of the above compensation schemes, no matter whether they are worth ten grand or half a million bucks, are not only permissible, they are encouraged. Here’s a reality check for you. If you think there’s a difference between getting a tax-free, cost-free one-year lease of a $95,000 car and receiving a $5000 check every month from a manufacturer, you’re wrong. If you think that there’s a difference between drinking for free on the Monterey seaside and getting a restaurant gift card for $250, you are wrong. There may be technical differences, but there are no moral differences that any sane man could see. And Mr. Glucker was ostensibly fired for a breach of morality. His personal record doesn’t support the allegation. He has no police record. He’s never run a Ponzi scheme, killed a family with dangerous driving, beaten his wife, or spent a night in jail for a bar fight. He’s a “regular guy”, and as that regular guy, using the information he’d been given and learned during his time as an automotive journalist, he didn’t see why taking a few hundred bucks to promote a contest that was free to enter would be a bad thing. He wasn’t asking anybody to buy a Versa. He was offering them a chance to win a Versa. He didn’t put the Honda S2000 on the “10 Best Cars” at the same time as he was racing an S2000 with a manufacturer’s title in SCCA competition. He didn’t do a puff-piece on BMWs immediately after flying to Spain on BMW’s dime. He took a buck and wrote an article encouraging people to enter a contest. If it was immoral of him to do so, then everything I’ve discussed above was immoral… but the public stance of the automotive journalism industry is that those things are perfectly fine.
Why, then, did Gluck’s head have to roll? This is simpler to understand. He’d made an enemy in the business. This man (or woman) happened to get a copy of his email, and that person knew that it could be exploited for his (or her) gain. It’s well-known that Jalopnik and Autoblog like to snipe at each other. He (or she) forwarded the email to someone at Jalopnik, and all he (or she) had to do was wait for what another journalist colleague of mine called “a Tomahawk through the bedroom window”.
John Neff didn’t have to fire Mr. Glucker. It’s highly unlikely that any actual laws were broken here. The FCC nominally regulates blog content, but that regulation is dispensed with a mild, forgetful hand. If Autoblog, as a company, had done multiple paid placements without disclosing that fact, it’s possible that someone might have eventually asked them to stop, but the rules, such as they are, don’t appear to consider the potential for conflicts of interest, multiple representation, or non-cash compensation. Firing Mr. Glucker certainly didn’t prevent Ray Wert from using the incident to attempt a solid poke in the eye to AOL’s Arianna Huffington, and the decision was greeted with outright contempt by the bulk of Autoblog’s readers, many of whom pointed out that much of Autoblog’s content is indistinguishable from paid advertising anyway. Why bother letting him go?
I would suggest that terminating Mr. Glucker’s employment was simply the easiest thing to do. Note that, among the many pieces discussing the situation, none have asked whether or not Autoblog bothered to educate Jeff on the bizarre, hypocritical “ethical stance” regarding cash placement of articles. Nobody’s willing to open that can of worms, because nobody wants to be known as The Guy Who Ended Everybody’s Free Ride.
Here at TTAC, we are the exception to that rule. We aren’t afraid to point out that the emperor may not have any clothes, but he has a hell of a frequent-flyer mileage total. It’s time to fix this industry. It’s time to revamp the system by which vehicles are evaluated. It’s time to level — and that really means remove — the hidden economy by which manufacturers shape, direct, and manipulate press coverage. Instead of flying selected journalists to Europe to drive a new car, the manufacturers should make the car available somewhere in the United States, and then let everybody pay for their own meals, travel, and accommodations. Instead of giving away long-term testers, the manufacturers should make early examples available to lease at real market rates. It’s time for a new system. I don’t have all the details, or all the answers, but I know this: an industry which puts one man out of a job for taking a small cash payment while his colleague flies first-class to Europe right above his head is wrong, it is corrupt, and it needs to end. Now.
Jeff isn’t a Robert Farago or Jack Baruth, ready to tirelessly savage his enemies, real or imagined, in print or electronic form. In our conversation, he repeatedly refused to say anything derogatory about Autoblog, John Neff, or anybody else on the team. He was polite and friendly, albeit depressed. He told me,
I am just a guy who loves cars, loves to write about them… I made a mistake, and I wish I could change that.
The problem is this: he didn’t know he’d made a mistake, and nobody told him it was going to be a mistake. In truth, the mistake wasn’t his. It was John Neff’s, it was Autoblog’s, and, speaking for the industry in general, it was ours.