There sure are plenty of perks that come with working in media in NYC. You get free shit slung at you from every direction! Why just the other week we were invited to eat for free at a restaurant where LAN Airlines was planning a surprise publicity stunt in which every customer would be given a free roundtrip airplane ticket to "a destination of their choice" in South America. We were invited to sit at the LAN VIP table and share this truly exciting news with our readers! Wouldn't you enjoy reading about people you don't know getting fabulous prizes?
It was tempting (free food!), but we declined because, honestly, shouldn't LAN just buy ad space on Gothamist? But other media outlets were eager to report this amazing story, including Jaunted (a division of Conde Nast Digital), Grub Street and Eater. The publicist who pitched us promised it would be an "exciting Oprah moment," and apparently it was, for everyone involved.
What we didn't realize is that the media who attended also got free airline tickets, too. Not that this influenced their decision to spread the news about this magical night, you cynic. Cynthia Drescher, the Managing Editor at Jaunted, wrote, "Have you ever been to a taping of The Oprah Show where she gave away something to the entire audience?" (Incredible how it unfolded just as the publicist predicted.) She also tweeted "It is the coolest thing to watch 200 people surprised with a trip of their lives. @LANAirlinesUSA just made it happen at restaurant in NYC." We emailed Drescher to ask if she accepted the ticket, and she said yes she did, "but it wasn't anything special from anyone else's." See, she got the same treatment as everybody else.
Eater's post was at least tagged "publicity stunts," and after we asked editor Amanda Kludt if she got a ticket, she later added this disclosure: "Media who were in attendance, including Eater and others, received the surprise tickets along with diners." Publisher Lockhart Steele told us that the story would appear later today on Yahoo! News, and thus the sausage gets made—interestingly enough, the Yahoo! News version does not include the disclosure. (Grub Street's Jenny Miller indicated she is not accepting the trip.)
Every media outlet has different policies, as one talented freelancer for the Times found out the hard way. Food writer Josh Ozersky was also chastised for writing about the food at his wedding reception without disclosing that he scored the catering for free. So here we go again. Joshua David Stein has written eloquently about this topic, pointing to the "slick iridescent veil which is so important for keeping the restaurant-blogging-journalism MMF fingercuffs humping."
Look, almost everyone in media feeds at the same trough, but at what point does writing about thousand dollar plane tickets you scored for free become, essentially, an advertisement? And setting aside whatever rules the FTC has about this sort of thing, isn't the most important question whether you, the reader, really give a shit? Please don't say you do—we have such fond feelings for you.
[UPDATE] Amanda Kludt from Eater has sent us a statement indicating that she will not be accepting the ticket to a destination of her choice South America. (If it were us, we'd be in Colombia seducing a donkey RIGHT NOW.) Kludt's statement:
I never really thought I'd have the chance to use the LAN ticket due to financial and time related constraints, so I didn't put a lot of weight on the issue. But in order to save myself (if I can be saved) from moral bankruptcy and the accusations of payola, I will officially and indubitably surrender said ticket to assure it doesn't get used.
As far as the Eater post is concerned, I would have written about the event regardless of my ending up with a ticket and did not attend with the expectation of getting one. It was a nice story about a lot of nice people getting a nice surprise.
And Jaunted has now added a disclosure about the free ticket. In the Gothamist comments, Drescher writes, "All words written were my own, I was not pitched this in any way except that it was happening and was a secret. I expected nothing and was promised nothing. I attended to connect with existing contacts, not because of any giveaways."