When news organizations party with the political parties
By Paul Farhi,
At the HuffingtonPost’s “Oasis” spas in Charlotte and Tampa, delegates and VIPs at the Democratic and Republican conventions have been treated to free sleep consultations, stress-reduction advice and yoga classes. The politically connected can get back rubs courtesy of the media organization (with a choice of massage oils).
Over at the CNN Grill, an elaborate, fully functioning restaurant-turned-TV-news-set within the convention center’s secure perimeter, food and drinks are on the house for invited bigwigs such as Newt Gingrich and Tom Brokaw. Guests can receive souvenir photos of themselves.
Convention-goers can visit the vast Bloomberg Link lounge for the breakfast buffet or a quick nap, or pep up with a free cafe latte or cappuccino at Google’s well-appointed bar.
Media organizations aren’t just covering this year’s political conventions, they’re adding to the festivities, with elaborate hospitality venues and parties designed to capture attention for themselves and curry favor among the nation’s political elite. At a time of broad economic distress and retrenchment in many parts of the media, some news organizations have spent considerable sums on parties, freebies and showy extras during the gatherings.
Media executives say the investment is worthwhile, that entertaining political elites (as well as members of the media) pays off in intangible goodwill and favorable word of mouth. “It’s been incredibly successful” in raising awareness of the HuffingtonPost’s health and lifestyle coverage, said Arianna Huffington of her company’s massage venue, whose visitors on Tuesday included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), she said.
Given its traditional role as a watchdog of the powerful, the media’s desire to party with the parties raises a question or two. In particular, how does schmoozing the ruling class square with reporters’ supposed vows of neutrality and independence? Are news organizations much different in this regard from the corporations and trade groups that are rolling out social events for Democrats and Republicans?
The media’s coziness with its sources predates political conventions. Several organizations, including Vanity Fair and Bloomberg News, host invitation-only soirees during the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which has been criticized as an elitist and insider affair.
The conventions provide another schmoozing opportunity. Buzzfeed, a scrappy and popular news Web site, laid out $20,000 for a party at the Tampa Aquarium during last week’s Republican convention. The event featured women in mermaid costumes swimming in water tanks and live penguins being wheeled around in plexiglass carts. The aquarium party was virtually identical to one thrown at the same location two days earlier by the Distilled Spirits Council of America, the liquor industry’s leading trade group.
Buzzfeed will spend a similar amount on a party for Democrats at Charlotte’s Discovery Place, this one featuring turtles and iguanas.
“We want people to know who we are and what we’re up to,” said Ben Smith, the Web site’s editor in chief. “This is all about branding and marketing” the site to people who follow political news. Just as the political parties are shaping their identities at the convention, he said, so, too, are the media.
Buzzfeed’s investment is modest compared with CNN’s spending on its news set and diner for the conventions. Buzzfeed reported that the cable network forked over $2 million to outfit its CNN Grill in Tampa. Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, said he did not know the exact cost, but suggested that it was a worthwhile investment, given that the diner is used as a backdrop for convention programming. “The idea is that people talk politics over meals,” he said. “Politics and food and drinks naturally mix in America.”
The Washington Post’s extracurricular activities at the conventions are relatively modest. The news organization has been hosting panel discussions about energy issues at both gatherings and “newsmaker” breakfasts that are streamed on its Web site. It also scheduled trivia events called Politics & Pints at a supper club in Tampa and a bar in Charlotte. The trivia events are sponsored by Norfolk Southern Corp.
Politico, meanwhile, has been sponsoring a nightly “lounge” near the conventions with free cocktails and appetizers for its guests. The lounge, called the Hub, is “presented by” BAE Systems, Coca-Cola, Diageo and Intel, four companies with a big stake in Washington’s policy debates.
A potentially awkward melding of journalists, politicians and lobbyists?
Politico doesn’t see it that way. “Every activity of our newsroom is supported, through advertising or subscriptions, and in the case of the Hub it is through advertising sponsors,”John Harris, Politico’s editor in chief, said via e-mail. “The same principle that applies to everything we do — the newsroom’s editorial agenda isn’t influenced by the work of our business team — holds true here. Our advertisers understand that, and our business team respects these lines.”
Indeed, Buzzfeed’s Smith thinks it’s possible for journalists to party with the people they cover, as long as everyone remembers where those lines are.
“In general, I’m more comfortable buying a drink for my sources than a source buying a drink for me,” he said. “The reason people are paying attention to us at this point is because we’ve broken a ton of news. That’s the real coin of the realm.”