By W. Blake Gray
I'm a blogger, and I take freebies.
The Federal Trade Commission considers that practice so wicked that it created a new rule. Soon, I will have to publicly pronounce that I take free samples; it's as if my blog contains trans fat. Well, you can't get much more public than this.
But are they planning to tell newspapers and magazines the same thing? If not, why not?
I spent much of my life working at newspapers, and while all have ethics policies, I've never heard of one that takes absolutely no freebies.
Example: Did you know The Chronicle has a wine cellar full of free samples? (Actually the cellar is being remodeled, so the free wines are sitting in boxes in the main newsroom building.) When I worked here, The Chronicle never sent back a sample of wine or liquor. We donated some excess bottles to charities, but we trusted ourselves to make ethical use of most of the hundreds of bottles of free wine and liquor that arrive every month. And while the wine industry knew we took samples -- because we sent them emails requesting freebies, sometimes with specific instructions and deadlines -- we rarely if ever announced it to the general public.
Now that I'm a blogger, I'm supposed to report every time somebody sends me a single bottle?
Don't get me wrong -- I strongly supported The Chronicle's sample policy for the three years that I worked here as a wine writer, and still do. I tasted more than 1000 bottles a year here without paying for them. There's no way, on journalists' salaries, that we could afford to compare 75 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, or convince a struggling newspaper company to pay for those wines. I believe we provided a service to readers by blind tasting and reporting our favorites.
That said, how much harder is it for me, now, without a journalist's salary, to compare even 10 Napa Valley Cabs unless they're freebies? Samples make bloggers more professional, not less.
It's not just wine. How do you think movie reviews appear on the day the film is released? The critic either saw a free screening or was sent a DVD. How is that different from a blogger taking a free DVD?
Is The Chronicle going to be asked to print "The writer saw the game for free" on every sports story? Aren't 49ers tickets a significant freebie?
Moreover, the FTC is missing a more important point: it's not how you got the goods, but what you do with them.
The New York Times presumably isn't scalping its seats in the press box for Yankees playoff games. But the Times did recently run a profile of Gary Vaynerchuk, who has a popular online wine video blog, calling him a "critic." Vaynerchuk's family owns a wine shop, which means he can directly profit from wines that he praises. He's not alone: other retail websites run "reviews" by their employees, or the products' distributors. But the FTC is apparently unconcerned about this.
Mainly, it's a fairness issue. The Chronicle doesn't have to announce that it takes freebies, but I do. Or do I?
Currently I sell freelance articles about wine to newspapers and magazines. I blog. I tweet. I write a regular column for Wine Review Online. I wrote a book about wine in Japanese and might soon write another.
Much of that writing, from 140-character tweets to my book, is based on free samples. So tell me, FTC, do I have to divulge that I received freebies if I blog, but not if I manage to sell an article here, to my former employer? (Not so likely after this op-ed, I admit.)
Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne writes a blog and a column in the Sunday paper -- both of which can be read online. Does he have to tell about free samples in one, but not the other?
I'm not sure what the FTC is trying to protect consumers from. Let's say Hershey's sends a bunch of bloggers free chocolate bars. Some of them tweet: "OMG Hershey's chocolate is awesome!!!" Does the FTC believe US consumers are so stupid that Valrhona chocolate lovers will immediately switch? Give us some credit, Washington. We grew up with media and we're used to filtering it.
Wine Spectator (which gets far more expensive freebies than The Chronicle), the New York Times, The Chronicle and other print publications earned their influence because many people respect their opinions, not because they were favored by government regulations. I don't believe the FTC should be in the business of deciding which critics are legitimate. You either trust us all -- 49ers pass-taking Chronicle columnists and over-enthusiastic Hershey's twitterers -- or you don't trust any of us.
The rule is scheduled to take effect Dec. 1. I call for all newspapers and magazines that accept samples of any kind -- CDs for review, sports playoff tickets, et al -- to join with the blogging and tweeting community in solidarity. We are all writers, regardless of our medium. Let's protest this unfair intrusion of the Federal Trade Commission into the marketplace of ideas.
A Chronicle wine writer from 2004 to 2007, W. Blake Gray now writes The Gray Market Report wine blog. And he takes freebies.
To my fellow bloggers: I also submitted a version of this to the New York Times. They also refused to run it, but they did run this editorial haughtily supporting the new rule for us and not them. The editorial concludes thus:
But disclosure is a reasonable demand to make in any medium. It protects consumers and bolsters the bonds of trust between writers and their audience.
Yet the Times doesn't think "disclosure" should apply to its writers; only to print advertorials. I guess the Times buys all those books they review, right?