My Fair Lady: How I Trained A Hairdresser To Be A Better Journalist Than The GM Bloggers
Poor Professor Higgins! On he plods/Against all odds! Well, he had a tough job: changing a girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks into a prim and proper member of society. I had a simpler task in mind. I wanted to make sure that my hairdresser/girlfriend/bodyguard, the infamous Vodka McBigbra, could legitimately attend all this year’s auto shows with me. She actually works pretty hard at the events, lugging the Steadicam and obtaining everything from AA batteries to front-row seats so I can keep my Kiton jackets free of wrinkles, but a few of the shows don’t permit “assistants”. Publish or perish is their motto. Not a problem. I decided to make an authentic automotive journalist out of her. How tough could it be?
Meanwhile, our friends at General Motors were working on a not entirely dissimilar project. They’d identified some “bloggers”, given them all-expenses-paid trips to Detroit, and led them on a two-day adventure where they would be fed plenty of talking points to uncritically reTweet along the way. It isn’t cheap to fly people from the coasts to the Midwest, put them up in a top-notch hotel, feed them, and keep them entertained, so naturally GM would want to make sure they got their money’s worth.
The stage was set for a titanic contest. Sure, the playing field wasn’t level. After all, I’ve never gone bankrupt, the UAW doesn’t control my labor supply or my finances, and I didn’t design the 1984 Eldorado. Still, the plucky underdogs from the RenCen had a few tricks up their sleeves to even the odds…
Day One: Sunday, January 9, 2010
Our $99-a-night suite at the Best Western was a short 192-mile jaunt by Town Car, but I decided to use the time to bring Vodka up to speed on the finer points of journalistic ethics.
“You see,” I said, “we are paying our own way, while the GM bloggers are being flown for free from all over the country.”
“But you take free flights all the time, to the new car events,” she replied.
“That’s not the same thing at all. In that case, we are getting access to new cars the only way we can. But the auto show is supposed to be neutral ground. We’re supposed to be reporting news in an impartial fashion. We can’t be tainted by a pre-programmed manufacturer agenda.”
“That stuff you just said,” Vodka opined, “sounds like you just made it up, right now.”
While the GM bloggers were settling into their rooms at the RenCen Marriott, Vodka and I went to the Volkswagen event at the Firehouse. While I fumed about the fact that there was no actual car at the soiree, Vodka knocked back six glasses of wine (“like a free bottle, plus!”) and elbowed her way through the crowd to watch the band “Train” perform “Drops Of Jupiter”.
“This is the most fun business ever,” she said.
Day Two: Monday, January 10, 2010
Early in the morning, GM herded their bloggers into reserved seats to see the Buick Verano unveiling. The Tweets were fast and furious as a dozen sets of thumbs moved in unison repeating the PR word-for-word. Vodka and I didn’t get up that early, but we managed to snag seats for the Audi A6 intro. I was impressed by the introductory video, which showed a confident businessman leaving an ultra-modern house and confronting a variety of weather conditions on his way to an important meeting.
“What a corny, stupid movie,” my companion-in-journalism said. “You had a car just like that and all you did was drive it real fast around people on the highway shoulder and complain about the way the iPod didn’t always work. What does it cost, anyway?”
The next few hours were a dream come true for the GM bloggers, assuming they’d always dreamed of “roundtable sessions” with a series of post-bankruptcy executives. Their Twitter accounts uncritically repeated the ridiculous assertion that GM executives are not permitted social media presence because of “threats”. Words like “humble”, “authentic”, and “sincere” were used in abundance. One blogger repeatedly begged her “Twitter audience” for questions.
I’m with Joel Ewanick. Any questions?
“Do we have any questions?” I asked Vodka.
“Ask where the free lunch is. Or you could ask ‘How dare you?’ That’s always funny.” Upon meeting Hyundai’s PR person, Vodka had an interesting question of her own: “I actually have a Hyundai. It’s pretty good. Right now it’s pretty dirty, too. I’m going to clean it soon. Do you think a lot of people here have Hyundais of their own? Or do they, like, not own cars?”
With a little time to kill, we went to the basement to perform V. McB’s very first comparison test. She drove a Chevy Volt around an indoor track and then hopped into a Lincoln MKZ hybrid. As the Lincoln PR rep discussed the regenerative charging, Vodka stopped him short.
“This has batteries?”
“Batteries wear out. Like, one time I had a cell phone and the battery wore out, and nobody would sell me a new one. How much do batteries cost for this car?”
“Well, we haven’t had to replace any yet, but…”
“I’d want to know that before I bought the car.” We then jumped into a fuel-cell Mercedes B-Class. “How good is the air conditioner if there’s no engine to turn that thing that breaks sometimes?” The Mercedes rep admitted that he wasn’t sure.
I asked her for a decision on our impromptu comparison test. “The Lincoln is much better. The back seat has room in it. It’s more fun. And it’s nicer. I think it’s worth the extra money.”
“The Volt costs more, actually.”
“Why? Aren’t they the same? They do the same thing.”
“There’s a lot of argument about that, actually.”
“That’s ridiculous. They’re the same. Except the Lincoln is nicer. And it doesn’t look so weird. But they should both have more room inside like the Mercedes B-Thing. You’d probably like to have a hatchback like the Mercedes. You would use it to hide guitars from me when the UPS man delivers them.”
Day Two: Monday, January 10, 2010
A Twitter question: If you’re not at the Detroit Show, should you tag your tweets “ That question didn’t bother the GM bloggers, who were taken off-site for a guided tour of certain GM facilities. In unison they Twitpicced, YFrogged, and Plixied dozens of photos of old GM cars, tagging them all “ Were they commanded to do so? I don’t know, but I do know that a normally calm and collected Autoblog editor lost his famous cool and Tweeted
Nice of @(redacted) to puke detritus all over Twitter.
With the amount of boring pseudo-news and journalist bitching coming out of Detroit, I almost muted altogether.
This deterred precisely no one. On and on the Tweets went. And while 2010 attendee Joel Feder (who was also present for the 2011 GM program) was careful to fully disclose the financial benefits of being a GM blogger, one wonders whether all of the participants will be quite as ethical about it. It’s also worth noting that Joel was subsequently hired by content-grinder SEO buzzards “High Gear Media”, so in that case GM’s money ended up buying them a friend in the business as well as a friendly blogging face.
Tuesday was a day off for most real journos, but it was a working day for me and Vodka as we struggled with our video crew to film eight segments on the show’s most interesting introductions. I also agreed to appear in a local news segment about the “swag” given to journalists. When the female producer began touching-up my hair, Vodka stormed over and re-fixed it to her preference. Uh-oh. On the other hand, she was remarkably placid when I declared my everlasting love for one of Ford’s PR people. “She does look fabulous in that dress, I must admit.”
Most of the General Motors crew received an extra night in the Marriott, but TTAC doesn’t pay me well enough to buy hotel time on a whim. We were packing for the “meet TTAC” dinner and the five-hour snowy drive home afterwards when Vodka said to me, “Guess what? I found a real story. Like one nobody else has.”
“You’re kidding. When did that happen?”
“Just a few minutes ago. In the hotel lobby. I saw a foreign guy in a wheelchair and I was talking to him. You know how guys always talk to me. He was setting up a party for a German car company and he got hurt. Who’s going to pay for him to get hospital care here? Why did he come all the way over from Germany to do that when there are Americans to do it? Was the scaffolding safe, you think? I’m going to write my first story about this, instead of the stupid Volt. What’s the matter? Why do you look sad?”
“Sweetheart,” I said, “you don’t understand. That isn’t what we do.”
“Yes it is. You said be a journalist. I’m a hairdresser, but you said be a journalist, so I found a story, and I interviewed someone, and now I have a story. Isn’t that being a journalist?”
“It is, it’s just that…”
“It’s just that what?”
“We aren’t really… journalists.”
* * *
Many thanks to my love, my companion, and best friend, the woman who is far more complex, intelligent, and dynamic than I permit her to be in my stories, the 32FF girl herself, “Vodka McBigbra”.
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- Marty S Corey, thanks for your comment. Mercedes has many different models, and will survive. Jaguar is planning on only offering electric models and will be in trouble. They should continue their ICE models as long as possible, but have discontinued the F-Type already and will probably be discontinuing everything else. We purchased the current XF this year, which is a nice car, but would have been splendid if they had just continued the supercharged V-6 in it.By the way, I have really enjoyed your Continental and Eldorado series. Was just showing it to my barber, who owned several 1954-56 Eldorado convertibles.
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