Good artists create, and great artists steal. Right? About ten years ago, I read a few short pieces by Canadian writer Michael Banovsky regarding the incestuous ethical blind spots of the automotive “journalism” business. Those pieces resonated strongly with me because I’d seen similar, albeit much lower-budget, antics during my time racing, and writing about, BMX bicycles.
“Bano” gave up his crusade pretty quickly and went on to crank out years’ worth of fairly standard fare for various north-of-the-border news sites, but he’d inspired me to carry the torch without him. I wrote dozens of articles for TTAC, Jalopnik, and elsewhere about the revolving door between automotive PR and automotive journalism, about the back-slapping buddy culture in the business where the readers are viewed with naked contempt, about how the perks poison the product. It got me blacklisted, uninvited, slandered, and doxxed. Thankfully, the story didn’t end there because there have been a few people courageous enough to hire me and print my work despite the near-universal chorus of caterwauling disdain from the pimps and players in motoring PR. I’m grateful for those people and their courage, while also being aware that it won’t last forever. Which is okay. I’ll leave this game the same way I entered it: on my own merits.
There is, however, something sadly ironic about the fact that Banovsky has decided to return with a vengeance to the field of automotive meta-criticism just as TTAC, a once-fierce proponent of his original ideas, has finally collapsed into a weak-kneed regurgitator of press releases and public-relations drivel. The site that made its name with courageous reviews of everything from rentals to stealth drives at dealers now sends its top people on multiple first-class, five-star freebie trips every month to suckle uncritically at the engorged teat of manufacturer largesse.
Which doesn’t mean Bano’s bomb-throwing is incorrect, just that it’s tardy. And after reading his latest piece, I’m willing to suggest that we take his ideas to their logical conclusion.
“Automotive Exceptionalism Must Die” is the piece, and here’s the money shot:
For those in the automotive media: if the flight, the trackday, the buffet, the swag, the loaner car—the damage on the loaner car—is free, then you’re the product. You’re being used. Why? Your one story on one model gets forever attached to all copies of that car. Stories without any real perspective or criticism are the cover that allows this to continue, and what keeps the average person from being able to purchase a good vehicle.
They can’t talk to and criticize the people that build their cars: but you can.
I’m not sure I agree with Michael’s central premise, which is that automakers are deliberately refusing to build the minimalist, efficient, culturally-sensitive, ecologically-responsible cars that their customers truly want. Nor do I think that the “buff books” drive consumer perception on cars, except among a limited group of devoted reader/enthusiasts; I’m pretty sure, for example, that every half-decent autowriter in America has been extremely forthright about his disdain for crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Porsche Macan, but that disdain hasn’t done a thing to slow the pace at which crossover sales are accelerating. You’ll never read any kind of praises for the crew-cab short-bed luxury-trim pickup in a car magazine, but that’s the fastest-growing segment of the massive half-ton pickup business.
Which doesn’t mean that Bano is wrong about the unholy alliance between PR money and modern “journalism”. With the exception of Consumer Reports, which has ethical issues of its own, every other outlet in the biz relies on help from the automakers. Sometimes it’s access: can you get us a car to test before the dealerships get it to sell? Sometimes it’s assistance: can you rent out this track so we can run your car there and do lap times? And sometimes, sadly, it’s subsidy: Can you fly a few of our people to Europe so we can write a few features that also, peripherally, might include your product?
25 years ago, I became a subscriber to, and supporter of, the most ethical publication I’d ever seen. It was (and is) called Gun Tests and it worked like so: They buy guns and test them. Then they report exactly what happened, warts and all. There are no ads; it’s entirely subscriber supported. And unlike Consumer Reports, they don’t dabble in ethical grey areas, nor have they ever been caught rigging tests. In a perfect world, car magazines would be like Gun Tests.
Unfortunately for all of us, the numbers for a totally ethical car magazine don’t work out. Such a magazine would also run headlong into a major difference between car magazines and other enthusiast rags, whether the subject is guns, watches, or bikes: people don’t buy cars often enough to be constant subscribers to a no-nonsense car-testing publication. They want more out of their car magazines than that. They want escapism, in the form of Bugatti and McLaren tests. They want stories about roadtrips and races and adventures. They want interviews with engineers and designers. And they want all of it at a price somewhere between $5.99 a copy at the airport and totally free on the Internet.
For those reasons and many more, industry subsidization of automotive journalism is never going to go away. Yet I think I have a solution for some of its worst excesses, one that occurred to me after reading Banovsky’s rant and recalling a conversation I’d had with my wife, the infamous Danger Girl, some time ago. I’d told her about how some “mommybloggers” have managed to make a life out of luxury travel on someone else’s dime, and she asked,
“How come (INSERT NAME HERE) doesn’t get 1099’ed for that first-class travel?”
Now that is a good question. When an automaker flies you to Bahrain so you can goof around in a new luxury sedan, at a total cost for travel and accommodations of perhaps $25,000 or more, who’s paying taxes on that? The automaker deducts it as an expense, but the recipient doesn’t take it as income. It essentially disappears. It’s a transfer payment, and it is tax-free.
Let’s say, just for the hell of it, that the IRS decided to start taxing all benefits associated with automotive journalism. The cost of the flight, the cost of the hotel, a reasonable share of the costs involved with putting on the event. What would that look like?
I think a couple of things would happen. The first is that the social-media influencers and mommybloggers would be blown out of the business with the force of the Trinity test. I know of several people with no audience whatsoever and no discernible income from autowriting who are receiving perhaps $500,000 a year, or more, in travel and accommodations courtesy of the automakers. Given the choice between paying taxes on that or quitting the trips, they’d quit the trips.
That’s good news because your average social-media influencer and/or mommy/daddy-blogger is nothing but a PR mouthpiece and an active danger to customers who might not be able to readily discern the difference between, say, a Patrick Bedard review and one written by one of the many sycophantic travel-junkies out there.
What about the big magazines, including the magazines for which your humble author writes? They’d have to look at each trip as a business case. Will the inclusion of the Gorgonzola GT9RSR sell enough magazines to justify paying $20k in taxes on the trip? Or could we rent out Watkins Glen and do our own test for, say, $15k? Wouldn’t that make more business sense? If we don’t pay for our people to fly first class on the tests that we hold ourselves (and trust me, they don’t — I fly economy when the magazines pay the tab) then why should we accept first class travel for press trips? My last magazine-funded track test had us staying at a Hilton Garden Inn, because that’s all the magazine will cover. Why is the back-page auto writer for a local newspaper staying at a $1500-a-night resort in Hawaii on the automaker’s dime? What kind of weird incentive situation does that create?
If the IRS took an interest in the perks of autowriting, the list of people taking first-class flights to meaningless junkets would drop from 100-200 per new-car reveal to… zero, I’m thinking. Which would force the automakers to come up with more sensible, more affordable, and more democratic ways of introducing a car. Instead of flying private jets to Tenerife, you hold a rolling introduction across the country at racetracks, autocross-capable parking lots. You make the car available, to qualified writers, and that’s it. No free gifts, no five-star travel, no frippery.
Who would come to those dreary events, shorn of champagne and gold-plated pretense? I’ve been to a few new-car reveals like that, such as the one I attended for the Honda Crosstour many years ago. It was at a crappy Detroit hotel. You showed up in the morning and received two things: a bottle of water and a book containing facts about the car. Then you scheduled a one-hour slot to drive the car on local roads. Then you went home and wrote your story. Writers were responsible for their own travel and meals. It was miserable and boring and it felt like work.
It was also very lightly attended. Which should tell you something about how, and why, people get into this business. Some of us love cars and we’d do it even if we lost money at it; for example, last year I flew to Hethel at my own four-figure expense so I could drive the new Exige Cup 380. Other people just want the luxury and the bling and the butter. They can stay home. There shouldn’t be a place in this business for people who use it to subsidize a lifestyle that they can’t obtain on their own merits.
Taxing the proverbial shit out of luxury travel and freebies would significantly change the autowriting landscape, for the better. It would drive out some of the worst writers and worst outlets. It would help slacken the ties that bind autowriters to their secret masters in public relations. And it would force everybody to take a hard look at the cost/benefit ratio of automotive journalism, both at the magazines and at the automakers.
There’s one final benefit, and it’s petty of me to mention it, but here you go: I’m sick unto death of the $50k millionaires in this business who spend their lives Tweeting socialist talking points from the first-class cabins of Emirates A380s. Don’t babble to me about “TAX THE RICH” when 90% of your lifestyle is currently tax-exempt. I’ll make all of you jerkoffs out there in autojournoland a deal. I’ll happily pay Carter-era taxes on my real-world income if you pay Carter-era taxes on all your freebies. All the flights you take, all the places you stay, all the Rolls-Royces you drive to your high-school reunion. All of it.
Let’s level the playing field, once and for all. Forget about putting your own money where your mouth is. What about putting the public-relations money where your mouth is? Or are you too frightened of the moment when the clock strikes midnight and the fairy godmother disappears? What are you worth, to your readers, your family, or even yourself, when the party ends and you have to pay your own way? If a travelblogger fails to travel, does anybody really care?