By: Allan Wolper
The student journalists flew into Las Vegas to sample The Junket Life, to mix with the corporate chiefs they may someday chronicle or assist as public relations operatives. They were members of General Motors’ First College Journalists Event. It was not as lavish a trip as the ones enjoyed by some of their older colleagues who write movie reviews and travel pieces. GM paid for the students’ round-trip airfare, a single night at a hotel on the strip, and allowed them to test-drive some of its sleek new sports cars and SUVs.
The Sept. 9-10 weekend excursion drew journalism students from
Duke, Hofstra, California State University (Fullerton), Howard, Penn State, the University of Florida, Missouri, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wayne State, among others. GM, in the midst of a campaign to market customized cars to the under-25 market, knew it was risking a media backlash from ethics-sensitive journalism departments and student newspapers. So Diedra Wylie, a GM public relations rep, telephoned many of them before sending out any e-mail invitations and did not distribute any press releases promoting the junket ? or anything afterward boasting of its success.
Still, the e-mails caused a mini-stir. Chris Roush, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, posted on the Society of American Business Editors & Writers online site that he felt the only thing students would be “learning” was how “to take a free trip and meals from one of the country’s largest corporations. I hope that wasn’t GM’s intention, but it’s not how we train future business journalists in the 21st century.”
Kevin Schwartz, adviser to University of North Carolina student paper The Daily Tar Heel, told me he saw no evil intentions behind the junket invitation. “It gave students a chance to form their own opinions about junkets,” he said. But Joseph Schwartz, the Tar Heel’s editor, wasn’t buying that analysis. “It smells of bad journalism,” he said. “I am surprised that any journalist would take a trip like that.”
Schwartz grumbled when I told him that a writer from The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, had gone on the trip. “I guess they don’t have the same ethics courses in their classes that we have in ours,” he said.
Which made Duke’s Brian McGinn, the Chronicle movie reviewer who went to Vegas, chortle with delight: “They just don’t have a sense of humor on that campus. The GM junket wasn’t nearly as good as the ones I get from the movie studios.” McGinn published an imitation-Hunter Thompson rant on the city of Vegas, and also wrote of his experience at GM’s drive course without mentioning that the car maker paid for it.
Neither did Karl Funman, a photographer for The Daily Titan at Cal State Fullerton, who wrote a flashy pro-GM piece for his school newspaper. But it weighed on his conscience. “Things like that are always an ethical problem,” he said with a sigh. “I couldn’t have gone if they hadn’t paid for it. It’s hard to get the other side of a story when that happens ? like the trouble that GM was having adapting to the new, youth markets.”
The ethical cloud hovered over the paper. “It could have been a conflict of interest,” said Titan Editor Julie Anne Ines. “That’s why we put Kyle’s piece in the features section with a bunch of other car stories, including one on illegal driving. We would never put it in news.”
I’m sure GM didn’t mind. The purpose of the conference was to brainwash student journalists, persuade them that GM was an old company with fresh, young ideas, using the credibility of the newspapers as economic Trojan horses. And despite the ethical grumbles at some campus news organizations and concerns from journalism professors, GM got more than its money’s worth. Aside from a short piece in PRWeek, the Las Vegas event flew under the ethics radar.
Many student newspapers ignored GM’s invitation. And no one wrote about what could have been a national ethical debate on the debasing of student journalists. But GM did manage to win some converts.
“It inspired me,” said Chrystal Johnson, a writer for The South End, Wayne State University’s student newspaper. “I’m going to suggest we run a page on cars.”
Johnson, who is black, said she was livid over comments made about the GM event on a Web site for young African-American journalists: “They were saying, ‘Oh God, how unethical it was.’ But they never said anything when GM sponsored events at the NABJ convention.”
But Lance Speere, president of the College Media Advisers, hopes GM will stop polluting journalism schools with its propaganda: “That junket flies in the face of what we teach in our ethics classes.”