NEW YORK -- It was billed as "An Afternoon in Paradise," and by the time we were served the mousse with rum sauce and the Hawaiian hula dancers began undulating across the floor, the affair was living up to its name.
The scene was the Westin Plaza Hotel, where I and more than 100 other journalists, looking silly as Hawaiian girls placed leis around our necks, were plied with champagne, song and free gifts. After a long drumroll, three lucky scribes won a drawing for free vacations in Hawaii and Asia. The rest of us had to content ourselves with an offer of two free nights at Westin's newest hotel in San Francisco.
What was I, an ostensibly serious journalist, doing in the midst of such frivolity? After all, I had spent a decade in Washington building a reputation as a nuts-and-bolts investigative reporter. My idea of a good time is poring over a stack of financial disclosure reports, or being left alone in a room full of GAO audits. A hot out-of-town junket for me is a mayors' conference in Indianapolis. While my colleagues headed for expense-account digs, I ate my lunches off styrofoam trays in the Post's cafeteria.
But when I arrived in New York last summer, I thought I owed it to myself and my readers to find out how the natives lived, to learn about the glitter and gold, the hedonism and hype. I soon became amazed at the extent to which companies here, without the slightest trace of embarassment, shower freebies on journalists in hopes of a bit of favorable coverage.
To be sure, any Washington reporter can dine out seven nights a week in the endless round of embassy parties, congressional receptions and trade association bashes. But I didn't care much for the rubber-chicken fare, and there is an ingrained ethic in the capital that rules out the truly spectacular junket at private expense (unless one is a member of Congress.)
Not so in New York, where a more unbridled brand of capitalism seems to flourish. So when a steady stream of invitations began to cross my desk -- touting everything from champagne tasting at the Museum of Modern Art to previews at the networks -- my opportunity was at hand. I decided to launch an in-depth investigation into corporate self-promotion in the nation's financial capital.
In just the last couple of months:
Hill and Knowlton offered me a free stay at Atlantic City's Golden Nugget, where I would be entertained by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. The reason? The casino is changing its name.
A Mexican town promoting a tennis festival invited me to Maxim's, where I could discuss my backhand with John McEnroe and Tracey Austin.
BVD asked me to lunch for the unveiling of its new underwear ad campaign, where reporters were given free packages of briefs (one size too small, unfortunately.)
MasterCard asked me to breakfast at Carnegie Hall, with singer Gladys Knight as the bait.
Dinah Shore invited me to the Hard Rock Cafe. The catch? I would have to eat Holly Farms oven-roasted chicken.
Party-giver Bobby Zarem invited me to meet "literally two of the most engaging and attractive people in the world," model Carol Alt and her husband Ron Greschner, captain of the New York Rangers. The day after the luncheon at Elaine's, I saw a photo of the fab couple in the Daily News, which happened to mention that they are coming out with a new exercise video.
New York Woman, an aggressive new magazine, had a messenger deliver a turkey club sandwich to promote a cover story on food critics.
Most major newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have strict policies against employes accepting free trips or entertainment. (Exceptions are made for public events where food and drink are already being provided to a large crowd.) Some, such as the Daily News, make exceptions for travel writers. But many smaller publications and trade journals, with limited budgets, have no such constraints, as corporate promoters are well aware.
"You look for some way to tell the story," Robert Dilenschneider, president of Hill and Knowlton, a major PR firm, told me. "A lot of people do things at restaurants or on aircraft carriers or planes." But, he said, "If it's a bad story, no amount of superstars or parties or hype will crowd it into a reporter's mind."
Determined to test this hypothesis further, I wangled an invitation to a major bash aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. A receptionist at Cunard Lines said I could come "as long as you promise to say nice things about us." I grunted non-committally.
Cunard had invited more than 500 VIPs and journalists to show off a $130 million renovation of its luxury liner, which had drawn a spate of bad press reports when passengers complained of leaks and other problems a few months ago.
Arriving at the dock, I was led three decks up to the grand lounge, where folks were nibbling on caviar, sipping white wine and listening to a stand-up comic backed by a brass band. Soon we were herded into a cavernous hall where, beneath mirrored ceilings, lay the most spectacular buffet I have ever seen, even by bar mitzvah standards. I confess: I sampled the sushi, swedish meatballs and smoked salmon; I pigged out on the prawns, proscuitto and pastrami. I did not, however, touch the hundreds of bottles of Beck's beer or Bass ale (hey come on, I was working!).
What does a company get out of this kind of $700,000 (the sponsor's estimate of the tab) affair? I asked one travel writer, who said she has grown accustomed to lavish parties and expense-paid trips to exotic locales. "They treat us like royalty," she said. "The message is pure pleasure. They give you a press kit so you don't have to take any notes."
While this doesn't always produce a glowing review, she said, her publication "won't write anything if it can't say something nice."
Another highlight of my probe was the annual Westin media luncheon on Fifth Avenue. I suppose I owe them something after scarfing down the hors d'oeuvres and chicken teriyaki, so I'll give you some of advertising director George Chambers' spiel about the new "super" Westin Kauai: It includes 580 acres . . . 847 rooms . . . two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses . . . eight tennis courts . . . 70 shops . . . 16 restaurants and lounges . . . and five jacuzzis. I haven't checked this out myself, you understand, but they did give me some publicity photos.
Allen Sheinman, associate editor of 50-Plus Magazine, won five nights for two in Hawaii. "When one of our editors accepts a junket, we make it clear that we're not promising a piece," he told me. "If we have a great time, we may say that it might be a good destination for 50-Plus readers."
In general, Sheinman said, "Writers will throw in such a brief and obviously obligatory nod to the hotel in question that they'd probably be better off spending their bucks elsewhere." Westin spokeswoman Dashiel Wham assured me that free vacations are "completely without obligation. We hope people will go and enjoy themselves."
As I left, I was given a Westin tote bag with hand-dipped Maui chocolate chips, macademia shortbread and Royal Kona freeze-dried coffee, plus a free pass for the San Francisco Westin.
A word to the media-wise: Next time you read a glowing brief about a brilliant new underwear campaign, stop and think for a moment about who may have paid for the writer's briefs.
As for me, don't look for the results of my investigation just yet. I'm still working on it.
Howard Kurtz is New York bureau chief for The Washington Post.