This morning I was sitting in the lobby of the Park Plaza in Boston, smiling as effusively as the early hour permitted at a waitress in an attempt to get some coffee. Possibly it was because of the lack of caffeine in my system that a blog post from Alan McLeod was needling at me. In his October 31st blog post about press junkets, there was a tacit, albeit relatively lighthearted, accusation of impropriety on the part of the people taking part in the press junket that was allowing me to fail at flagging down a much needed cup of joe while listening to Tony Bennett in a prodigiously swank chandeliered environment.
Maybe it’s because of the reading that I did leading up to the trip to Boston (Robert B. Parker novels), but I feel that I should probably address the issue. Parker’s detective, Spenser, spends quite a bit of time sussing out exactly where his morals lie in relation to his occupation. It’s one of the defining qualities of the novels that he has things that he will and will not do in order to stay true to an internalized sense of self. There’s a sense of what can be referred to as honor in Spenser’s character; an imperfect analogy in this case because the stakes generally involve life and death.
I write about beer, so the stakes are not that high. There is still a curious morality at play, but comparatively little hangs in the balance. On a good day, I might be able to influence someone to try a certain beer. I recommend things that I like and tend to pan things that I don’t like. See this week’s column on Rickard’s Oakhouse and Creemore’s new offshoot Mad and Noisy. On my best day, I might be able to frame debate about craft beer and subtly influence the way people think about what they’re drinking. I think that’s about all anyone can do with this gig.
That said, Alan McLeod has posted a junket declaration form in his blog post, and I’ll play along. Initially, I was a little huffy and indignant about it, before realizing that if that was the emotional state, he probably had a point. I will fill it out to the best of my ability without attempting to justify too much and without staring too long into my navel.
♦ Name (optional)
♦ Destination and name of brewery or breweries.
Boston, Mass/ Sam Adams
♦ Price of junket and portion you paid.
I don’t want to break out the calculator to estimate the first part and I don’t need a calculator to tell you the second part is no dollars
♦ Who organized the junket?
The people at Elevator Communications, who handle PR for Sam Adams and Moosehead in Ontario. Also, Magner’s Pear Cider.
♦ Why were you selected to go on this junket?
I would like to think that it is because of my somewhat sardonic sense of humour and gentle bonhomie, but probably due to the fact that I have a large readership in Canadian Newspapers and a smaller, but high quality readership on the blog.
♦ Will you disclose the junket in any resulting articles?
Actually, yes. I sort of have to in order to write about it on the blog, since I’m aware of the potential for there to be some perception of malfeasance. I have already done so on social media. I’m also doing so as I write this sentence.
♦ Will you refer the junket as “research” in any resulting articles?
Almost certainly. I have never dealt with the strictures of academic citation. This is a blog where I make reference to Truckasaurus periodically. Also, I bought a bunch of craft beer from non Sam Adams breweries that actively constitutes research or, as some would put it “drinking stuff.” I also bought a copy of Norman Miller’s Beer Lover’s New England, which will almost certainly be useful at some point.
♦ Do you intend to call people on junket “friends” in any resulting articles?
Probably not the PR people, given that this is a working relationship. It’s not a comment on them personally, since they seem like nice folks. I was already friends with one of the other Journalists going in. It would be asinine to refer to Jim Koch as a friend after meeting him for a couple of hours or so, but I can definitely say that I respect what he’s built and that the man gives good quote. Actually, I might keep in touch with Todd Bellomy, who is Sam Adam’s Consumer Relations Representative, but that’s mostly because he’s a huge beer nerd and I like the cut of his jib. I would not currently call him a friend, although I get the sense he’d be fun to hang out with.
♦ Will you disclose to your actual friends that you intend to call people on junket “friends” too?
Most of the people I know are in the beer industry or related to the beer industry currently and I have no qualms about that disclosure. I should probably diversify the ol’ friendship portfolio.
The simple fact of the matter is this: I think you have to take junkets like this on a case by case basis. If you look at say, articles that P.J. O’Rourke wrote while reviewing cars, he’s vehement about disclosure on who’s paying. I think that’s the right way to go. I tend to disclose the fact that people send me beer to review. I freely acknowledge, as anyone who expects to be respected while writing about beer must, that you can only review what is in front of you and that the research budget is not huge. Does the fact that you have been sent a beer (or, indeed, been invited on a spree like this one) mean that you will review it positively? If it always does, that might mean that you are in someone’s pocket, which you’d certainly want to avoid.
I find that in my case I will soundly thrash things I don’t like even if they are free. There is the larger argument to be made that you can only write from experience, and that by definition, the long term mental model is irrevocably influenced by experiences like this. To claim otherwise would be nonsensical. It’s a thing I’m aware of and fairly vigilant about. I suspect that the fact that Alan’s blog post needled at me at 6:30 AM in an environment where most people would be content to listen to a light jazz soundtrack and punish the continental breakfast buffet speaks to the fact that I have an active moral compass when it comes to representing my activities as they relate to writing about beer.
There is also the other fact, which some folks might not be willing to admit to. While I’m certainly compensated well for writing (be it books or newspaper columns), a trip like this would typically be beyond my financial means. Given the circumstance, if someone invites you to go to Boston, meet Jim Koch and eat a bunch of really good seafood while drinking a selection of beer on their dime, the response is predictable.
As Spenser would say, “We’d be fools not to.”