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The Media Is the Massage

Pampered Reporters Get the Full Treatment in New York

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK, Aug. 30

Joel Jimenez is in the chair beneath a black robe as Faith Daudier snips at his hair and Carol Flores, kneeling in a low-cut dress, works on his nails.

"When I saw the wonderful ladies here, I said, 'Let me get pampered,' " says the Christian Broadcasting Network reporter from Virginia Beach. "Be gentle -- I'm new to this," he tells Flores.

Rick Andersen of the House Press Gallery opts for a manicure from Carol Biz. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Laura Raposa, a Boston Herald columnist, has just finished receiving a "very soothing and relaxing" facial in a curtain-enclosed bed, and now makeup artist Ralph Johnson is dusting her face with Yves St. Laurent sheer skin tint and bronzer. Her writing partner, Gayle Fee, is waiting for a head and neck massage, currently being performed on ABC's Sheila Marikar.

Welcome to the gritty front lines of the Republican convention, where hard-bitten, hard-driving, tough-as-nails journalists are getting five-star coddling. It's all free of charge, a fact that seems to cause few ethical concerns in a section of the office building adjacent to Madison Square Garden billed as "The Spa."

The rudeness capital of America is determined to soften its image. New York City officials persuaded a number of tony businesses to donate their services and products, and the 15,000 media types here are proving to be very willing recipients.

First came the white truffle risotto from Joseph's Citarella and the creme brulee from Le Cirque at the Saturday night welcoming party. Then there are the concierges from the Ritz-Carlton and other world-class hotels, helping to ease the week's trials and tribulations. The cuisine in the press center is being orchestrated by a former chef at Gracie Mansion. Journalists even have their own red-carpeted, air-conditioned bridge, connecting their workplace in the renovated James A. Farley Building, a former Postal Service facility, to the Garden.

These press perks are designed to avoid excessive crankiness by those covering President Bush's renomination. And compared with the Democrats' Boston convention, where media types worked in a massive tent and had to endure urine-soaked port-a-potties, New York is a civilized step up.

Asked if he is trying to buy favorable media coverage with oodles of free stuff, Kevin Sheekey, president of the New York City Host Committee, laughs. "I hope not," he says. "Certainly members of the media will observe whatever appropriate restrictions their news organizations may impose. What you're providing is a way to help them do their stories."

The price tag: more than $5 million, bridge included.

Cindy Barshop, who runs the Completely Bare Spa, extols the virtues of mini-facials and micro-dermabrasions while a woman is getting the treatment on the enclosed massage bed. "No matter what you want in there, we'll do it," she says. "It'll be hard [with] 15 minutes, but we'll make your skin look better. . . . We're trying to tell the press to relax and enjoy New York."

Kevin Dyson, senior vice president of Barneys New York, says the upscale clothier is responsible for the pool table, leather chairs and large flat-screen TVs, and is working with John Allan's Salon to provide haircuts, manicures and hot-towel treatments (normally $65), plus shoeshines. Dyson is standing next to a clothing display by the Italian company Kiton that he says "will hopefully bait people to come up to the store" on Madison Avenue.

But that's not all. A Barneys concierge, Taylor Piedra, offers to take journalistic measurements and have shirts delivered by messenger. The service is free, although media staffers would pay $125 to $325 for each shirt by Armani, Piatelli or Lorenzini, among others.

How does this help a Manhattan store (with branches in Beverly Hills, Boston, Chicago and Seattle)? "Well, they can always shop at Barneys.com," Dyson says.

Maria Bortoluzzi, the concierge at Le Parker Meridian hotel, describes her mission from her seat in the press welcome center: "If you need something done, found, expedited, facilitated, we're here to help you out." That means help with faxes, subway fare cards, dinner reservations, research assistance, all at the snap of a finger. Such things matter in a city where someone is more likely to elbow you aside to grab the last taxi in a downpour.

"New York City is aggressively using this event to sell itself," Sheekey says. "We're trying to show the media they can come here and have a good experience and expect a level of professionalism."

The food service is being run by Mitchell London, the former chef for Ed Koch, from the Upper West Side's Fairway Cafe. Rather than the usual convention fare, he's serving up bagels and lox, eggplant panini, shrimp salad, Haagen-Dazs bars and other delicacies, along with espresso and cappuccino.

Thumbing his nose at the Democratic convention, London's flyer touts the "extremely delicious" fare, saying: "The food and drink here is DEFINITELY NOT WHAT WAS OFFERED IN BOSTON (so we hear)." Small problem: The service generated such long lines that the place virtually ran out of breakfast and lunch fare.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted a welcoming party for the media Saturday night at the dazzling new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, with the company picking up the $1.5 million tab. A jazz band performed as journalists cruised the restaurant booths offering sashimi, monkfish, spring rolls, bratwurst, penne with vodka sauce, pork dumplings, cookies, eclairs and the aforementioned creme brulee. Hugo Boss, Benetton, Sephora, J. Crew and other shops remained open for the guests.

City officials have also distributed goody bags in the form of a black Republican National Convention carrying case. Inside are an NYC 2004 notebook; a book on city landmarks; a History Channel DVD on Ellis Island; a disposable camera; Dunkin' Donuts coffee mix; a pedometer from AstraZeneca; a Con Edison key chain; red, white and blue M&Ms; and a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese emblazoned with a GOP elephant.

Since the media's favorite subject is the media, the spa's debut Monday produces a sizable scrum of journalists recording the action -- or indulging and reporting at the same time. Marianela Pereyra of the Fuse music network sits in a chair while Maryn Azoff, in a Completely Bare T-shirt, massages the roots of her streaked hair from behind.

"That's good -- it looks very spa-like," says Pereyra's cameraman.

She look into the camera: "I haven't quite made it to the floor yet. . . . This fabulous lady from Completely Bare is giving me a very nice head massage. I figured I'd make a little pit stop in the salon. Back to you in the studio."

As the customers luxuriate amid the massages and manicures, looking more blissful than working hacks have any right to do, Herald gossips Raposa and Fee are asked how they will justify this excellent adventure to their bosses.

"They know we're a couple of divas," Raposa says. "Thankfully, one of our bosses is a metrosexual."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company