“LOOKSMAXX” (v.)

(NOW WITH UPDATE)    The Toronto Star Wheels section is a giant moneymaker for the newspaper – two or sometimes three sections each Saturday, running, on average, 26 pages of advertising and 10 pages of editorial copy. (Those two figures overlap, of course – editorial and pagecounts can be distributed over the same printed sheets.)

Wheels writers are often jetted off to exotic destinations for superexclusive new-car previews, with all expenses paid by automakers. You can safely assume everyone is flown business class, put up in four-star hotels, and plied with numerous goodie bags. The whole enterprise is flatly an unethical journalistic practice, in which corporations, many of which advertise in the paper, indirectly pay for coverage.

The Star admits it’s unethical, but also admits it is too profitable to pass up.

Is the editorial integrity of the Wheels section undermined when the newspaper agrees to accept free trips and hold back information about the cars its writers have previewed? The simple answer to the question… is yes. […]

The Wheels section serves three purposes: It provides information to readers who love, buy and drive vehicles, it provides an exclusive advertising environment to vehicle makers and sellers, and it generates revenue that makes other journalism possible.

It is one of several “special sections” in the Saturday paper that pairs content and advertising. […]

One way to ensure editorial independence is to pay your own way. In fact, that’s Star policy for staff. Most writers for Wheels are freelancers, however, and the paper decided some time ago that the pay-your-own-way rule did not apply to them…. Wheels editor Mark Richardson estimates paying for this would have cost the Star roughly $750,000 — a travel budget he does not have. […F]or now, Star freelancers will continue to make the free trips.

The paper has taken a number of steps to try to counterbalance an ethically ugly situation…. The paper has, rightly, opted for transparency. If a car company paid for the trip, a line at the bottom of the story says so. […]

Accepting free travel to preview cars is not ethically or journalistically sound. Nor is the paper’s contradictory position on free travel…. And why would the Star diminish the credibility of the independent content in the section by including stories written on junkets?

Essentially, the Wheels section outsources unethical behaviour. It defines car-company junkets as unethical for paid staff, then hires freelancers to evade the definition.

The Ryerson Review of Journalism detailed just how adamant writers are about retaining a system that bathes them in luxury. Ted Laturnus: “All I can say to the people who think we shouldn’t be taking free trips is, ‘Go fuck yourself. Come back to me when you’ve grown up.’ They don’t know the side of reality to this business. I do. I’ve been in it for 20 years. I have no patience for that sorta thing. It’s the way the game is played.”

And Mark Richardson, Mr. Ethical Wheels Editor? He

was the recipient of [a] present. In August of 1999, BMW flew Richardson to Calgary for a press event the likes of which he had never seen before. Upon arrival, he was wined and dined, put up in a four-star hotel, and given a special $2,600 motorcycle suit – a gift to the journalists for coming, so BMW said….

He was unsure of the ethical problems that might arise from accepting such an expensive gift, but after he returned from the trip, the Star’s ombudsman told him to keep the suit if he wanted. He used the suit and eventually featured it in a story. (In the article, he compared it to other suits, saying that it was excellent but prohibitively priced.) After writing the story, Richardson was called into the editor’s office and forced to give the suit back or risk termination. He gave it back.

Wheels writers are quite nervous about their unethical behaviour, but are surprisingly willing to brag about the perks.

  • Mark Toljagic, “Living the high life on the auto circuit,” Wheels, 2006.10.14:

    Car companies say they set their events in far-off places… not to persuade and reward writers, but to provide the right environment and perspective for their vehicles….

    But some freelance writers, unencumbered by newspapers’ employee rules, have been known to dip into the manufacturers’ gift bags with enthusiasm….

    “Car companies expect that writers want to eat lavish meals… and believe that by providing this, they have a better chance of getting favourable reviews, [Robert] Bostelaar says. “Unfortunately, I think that at least in some cases, they’re right.”

  • The obituary for Wheels founding editor Dennis Morgan stated:

    Morgan had just three weeks to gear up for the 16-page inaugural section. He called it Wheels and insisted on the same high journalistic standards as the rest of the paper. Reports were fair, honest and balanced – definitely not puff pieces for the manufacturers and dealers. […] The Wheels section, which “he was forever proud of,” brought the Star tremendous credibility with auto manufacturers, said [publisher] Honderich, adding that it also earned a windfall in ad revenues.

    “I think (Morgan) was surprised by the success of that section,” recalled managing editor Joe Hall…. “He always used to joke that he should’ve asked for 1% of the revenues that the Wheels section brought in, rather than a salary, so he could’ve retired years ago.”

  • Wheels senior writer/fixture Jim Kenzie: “Still, compared to flying all over the place and driving hot new cars, as opposed to bolting fenders onto cars [in an assembly plant]? Well, I’d rather be doing what I’m doing, thanks just the same.”

  • Hed on section break page, 2008.02.23: “Winter has Toronto in its icy grip, but our Wheels writers weathered the Mediterranean warmth to get the first drive of two new luxury vehicles. It’s a tough gig, but someone had to do it.”

Declarations of conflict of interest

Ostensibly, car-company junkets are supposed to be declared in each article. Such declarations are custom-designed to be missed – they’re in the footer of each piece. After a particularly egregious article on a television personality that turned into a Ford advertorial, I decided to fact-check the Wheels section’s ass and keep track of how many trips were stated as company junkets and how many weren’t.

I looked at every issue of Wheels from mid-January to present and tracked how many articles had a dateline and didn’t and, of those with datelines, how many declared that somebody paid the writer’s way.

Here are the results. A place name was always declared as a junket unless indicated otherwise. These kids get around.

  • Peter Bleakney: Steamboat Springs, CO
  • Steve Bond: Temecula, CA; Sacacomie, QC
  • Brian Early: Washington, DC
  • Howard J. Elmer: Windsor undeclared twice; Chicago; Laguna Beach; Niagara-on-the-Lake; Knoxville; Spartanburg, SC (where another journo killed a deer with a BMW X6); Ann Arbor
  • Angela Forgeron: Las Vegas
  • Gerry Frechette: Vancouver undeclared
  • Ian Harvey: Modena undeclared
  • Jim Kenzie: Detroit undeclared; Florence; Monaco; Bordeaux (Laurance Yap filed locally on the same car); Paris undeclared; Santa Monica; Reno twice; no dateline, but clearly Santa Monica
  • John LeBlanc: Warren, MI undeclared; San Diego undeclared; Dearborn undeclared twice; Rosamond, CA; Nice; New York undeclared; Dallas; San Diego; Las Vegas
  • Mark Richardson: Melbourne, FL undeclared
  • Lorraine Sommerfeld: Kiruna, SE
  • Marc Toljagic: Morgantown, WV undeclared
  • Laurance Yap: Detroit undeclared

That makes 24 declared trips and 13 undeclared. So much for declaring conflict of interest: One-third of the time, the facts are hidden from readers.

Exclusions:

  • I ignored wire copy, repair and Q&A columns, and a few squibs.
  • Essentially every writer went to the Detroit Auto Show, and none of those trips were declared as paid junkets.
  • Gerry Malloy’s auto-news column is a regurgitation of press releases (complete with press photos) and should be a blog, not a column in a newspaper. There was one such column in every issue (all 18).
  • Two foreigners, Jeremy Clarkson and Dan Neil, filed articles from the U.K. and (presumptively) Los Angeles, respectively.

These writers produced a single article each (no dateline):

  • Ian Harvey
  • Allan Johnson
  • Jeff Jones
  • Andrew Meeson
  • Rosemary Speirs

So: Wheels-section writers, whether on-staff or freelance, fly around the world at car companies’ expense and usually declare their unethical behaviour. Often, however, they act unethically and don’t declare it.

Readers eager to find hypocrisy under every doormat will be pleased to learn that I was only ever offered one junket (by Sun), which I turned down. I’ve had my expenses paid to speak out of town many times (in nearly all cases, in fact), usually with speaking fees attached. Over the decades, I’ve had quite a few eval units of software, keyboards, and the like, which are trifling.

“The Star responds”

(UPDATE, 2008.05.19)    Wheels editor Mark Richardson wrote in to point out that an undeclared trip might not necessarily have been a junket (true). Some stories were datelined in the city of the writer’s residence, or writers paid their own way. Richardson identifies only the following as undeclared junkets:

  • Jim Kenzie’s hotel room in Detroit might have been paid for by a car company.
  • John LeBlanc drove to Warren and Dearborn at his own expense, but his trips to New York and San Diego were probably junkets.

All the rest of the undeclared trips, Richardson insists, were paid for by the writers or the paper [“Mark Richardson: Melbourne, FL undeclared (THE STAR PAID FOR THIS ONE)”].

He objects that I didn’t call him before running the piece. I told him I did an independent analysis of published facts. Apart from overlooking the point that an undeclared trip might not have been a junket (it occurred to me, but I didn’t write it down), my approach is fair. I did exactly what Antonia Zerbisias would have done were she still writing a media column.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.05.18 16:04. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2008/05/18/wheels-ethics/

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