If you haven’t read Brendan McAleer’s very funny article in defense of press junkets, it is worth your time to do so. Brendan whips his metaphorical pen around and around in the liquefied candy of the public-relations game until a delightful froth appears, just light-hearted enough for guiltless consumption. Savor it, enjoy the sweetness of the metaphors and the tastiness of the characterizations…
…and then come back here and click the jump for your vegetables, as I explain how the PR machine creates journosaurs from idealists, use a little bit of “Freakonomics” to show how “it’s very effective!”, and tell a story about the day I decided to step off the gravy train.
Start with this fundamental insight: Journosaurs are made, not born. Those buffet-browsing, three-hundred-pound beasts who clog the arterial hallways of every auto show and complain in authoritative tones about “understeer” as they circle the track twenty seconds off the pace are the creations of the automotive PR industry, not moths drawn to its flickering flame. Go to your local library and pull up a Seventies issue of Car and Driver. What do you see? You see angry young people. They were engineers and racers who were actively rebelling against the status quo. They were going to test the cars, tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. Sound familiar? Of course it does.
Thirty-five years later, the names were the same but the men had changed. The young racer was a wizened connoisseur of business-class travel, sending his steaks back and complaining about the tiresome length of a press-event drive loop. The intellectually fearsome literary iconoclast had become a bewhiskered self-parody who, as Johnson writes of Congreve, had committed “the despicable foppery of desiring to be considered, not as an author, but a gentleman.” The English dandy was long dead, as was the amiable raconteur. Only the prematurely balding engineer had remained the same, and he was eventually chucked out the door for “being out of touch”.
Orson Scott Card wrote two books — Wyrms and Speaker For The Dead — exploring the possibility of what I would call morphology masking genetics. In both books, humans come to an alien world and find that the existing organisms can mate with Earth-origin species. The resulting offspring look identical to their Earthly ancestors but carry the alien genes. When idealistic young journalists mate with the automotive PR machine, the offspring is something that looks just like them but carries a new genetic message — and over time, the genes reassert themselves. You can’t fool yourself into thinking that you can sleep with the enemy and remain intact.
Young writers arrive at a press event, see the journosaurs trampling eachother for a free windbreaker or an extra glass of wine, and they say to themselves, “I can withstand this. My integrity isn’t for sale, at least not that cheaply. I’ll take the flights, and the cars, and then I’ll write what I damn well please.” They think they’re resisting the pitch. It’s kind of cute.
Make no mistake. When the automotive PR machine wants to simply buy you, they can write a big check. I sat down a while ago and estimated that a single autojourno friend of mine had received the equivalent of $165,000 in pre-tax benefits from a single manufacturer during the previous year. For a class of people who generally earn under $50,000 annually, that’s a ticket to a whole new lifestyle… and best of all, unlike real income, you don’t have to share it with your wife or your kids. You can live like a king on an endless peregrination across the globe and never have to deal with your family at all. The average newspaper “Wheels” section guy, travel writer, or in-flight magazine scrivener is easily bought with this stuff. They’re the equivalent of Vegas escorts. They take the money, and the gifts, and they open their legs without shame or self-consciousness.
Those of us who consider ourselves writers, who think we have integrity… well, we are like the girls at Byrn Mawr. We need to be romanced a bit before we’ll get our knees dirty. That’s where “Freakonomics” comes in. If you remember that book, it was a very interesting diatribe about how the real incentives in a situation determine behavior. The famous example concerned real estate agents. It was demonstrated that agents who are selling their own homes tend to keep their homes on the market much longer, and turn down more offers, than they have their clients do. Why? It’s simple. When they are dealing with their clients, they’d rather have 6% of $300,000 or whatever today than 6% of $310,000 in a few months. When it comes to their own homes, however, they’d rather wait and pocket that difference.
In Winning Through Intimidation, Robert Ringer talked about how commercial real estate agents work for the seller but form relationships with the relatively few people who do all the buying. As a result, those agents tend to find themselves representing the buyer’s interest to the seller, rather than the other way ’round.
Automotive journalists may work for their readers or their editors, but they form relationships with the PR people. Go look at any autojourno’s Facebook page and see if you can hold the vomit in as you read the cutesy interactions with their PR reps. It’s a cavalcade of in-jokes, faux-world-weary complaints about airports (always mentioned by code, not name) and mutual oral service.
“Hey Bob, you owe me for making me take that Sienna!”
“Oh yeah, buddy! Remember that time that Jake got lost in a Sienna on the drive cause it didn’t have nav? WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE LAST CALL!”
“Hey, see if you can get that press car in brown! That’ll be awesome!”
“You bet, pal! Can’t wait to ROCK THE MALDIVES AGAIN!”
We may enter this business as wary outsiders, but we’re embraced so quickly by good-looking, friendly people who just like us for ourselves and want to hear what we have to say… and after a few years of the behavior, we tell ourselves that we’ve earned it, that we are great writers, that these weaselly PR people are servicing us because they recognize our talent. We see through them… but they’ve become our friends, too. And they can be so helpful, with the driveaways, and the high-school reunion rides, and the frequent-flier redemptions to fun vacation spots with a $185,000 car waiting in the airport pickup lot… And they’re so stupid. They are just PR people. We see through what they do. We’re hip to the game. And yet…
Enough generalizations. I will tell you about the day I realized I had fallen down the rabbit hole. I’d done a few years of events, and the PR people, who are never as stupid or vapid as they appear, knew right away how to ring my bell. It wasn’t through money or perks: I had indepdendent wealth and I scorned the free-windbreaker crowd. They came at me through pride. I would be sitting at dinner when a charming but not obviously beautiful woman (yes, they know all your weaknesses; for the homely gay men, in and out of the closet, who make up about a quarter of the business, there are always fresh-faced, ripped-chest PR boys as well) would sit down next to me.
“You’re Jack Baruth.”
“I read your article on our sedan. It… (smiling) was… tough. But between you and me, it was fair. It’s about time that somebody took us to task on those brakes. I’ve been telling them that we can fool the old guys, but we can’t trick people like you. You have time for another drink?”
Yes. I was tough. But fair. And handsome enough in my own way to seal a deal or two. And then one day I was standing at the auto show, talking to an attractive PR woman a few years younger than me, when an executive from her company came up, and she turned, and she said,
“This is Jack Baruth. He’s been a big advocate for us.” And everybody smiled while the floor dropped out from under me. I felt sick. The room spun. I was somebody’s fucking advocate. I ran back to the room that night and performed a close reading on everything I’d written about that company. Looking for signs that I’d been bought, that I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, that I was molting and becoming a journosaur myself.
I got religion in that hotel room, my friends. I threw down the false idols and recommitted myself to my personal deity. Who’s that personal deity? It’s you. You may be my fan — and I thank you for it. You may hate my guts and look for every chance to unearth a contradiction or mistake — and I love you for that, because you’re making me stronger. But you’re it. I write for you. When I’m in a car, I’m thinking about you. I’m committed to telling you the most truthful things I can. That doesn’t mean I’m here to slam each car in to the ground; he who criticizes every car really criticizes none. You deserve the truth. About the business, about the product, about the way the sausage is made. You deserve to know. I’m not perfect; I will trade reliability for horsepower, soft-touch plastics for handling, and I still fall in love across the room with these fresh-faced little girls in their manufacturer polos. Nor do I expect to last forever in the business. I’ve been making enemies while everybody else has made friends, and one day one of those enemies will pressure TTAC beyond what they can withstand. I know the end of the story.
Young Mr. McAleer has a Porsche 911 press car this week; the company may have a no-Jack-Baruth policy, but they’re too smart to have an explicit no-TTAC policy. If Porsche lets him share his driving impressions with all of you, I believe you will be able to trust him, and trust those impressions. He’s a good man and his heart is pure. But here’s something else you can trust: from now, until the day I’m drummed out of autojournalism or my corpse is strapped into the seat of a burning race car somewhere, I’m your huckleberry. I’ll die, or I will walk away, before I change sides. I work for you, and I won’t forget it.