Yesterday I went ape-shit on Twitter (as I am wont to do) in response to a statement by another beer writer, with an insinuation about free rides and a lack of journalistic integrity masquerading as a plea for disclosure. Here’s the thing, Andy Crouch really, really cares about this issue and he has a history of trying to educate others about the importance of disclosure when a writer receives anything of value from the company they’re writing about. There’s not really an argument against disclosure to be had. Everyone should do it. We certainly do. But here’s why I thought it was a shitty thing to say.
When Crouch tossed out this Tweet, any good intent he may have had toward educating and asking for disclosure was completely buried underneath the insinuation that anyone of the trip would potentially not disclose, although there is no evidence to the contrary.
The reality is, that me and the dozen or so other folks here are required to sign a legal statement that says we will do exactly that, disclose, or else we’re not even allowed to come. It’s in no one’s best interest to do otherwise. Hiding it would invite due suspicion and put AB in an unfortunate legal situation, something that every professional standing in this barley field at the time of Crouch’s Tweet would like to avoid. Also, he has no idea who accepted a free ride, who paid their way, and what they intend to do with their experience. Some will blog about it, some will write articles for magazines, others will use the information they collected in books and magazines at a far later date if they ever write about agriculture in beer. And some may do absolutely nothing, simply using it for their own professional education.
But worse is the lack of tact in the statement. His undue finger-pointing throws a dark cloud over every word and photo one of us shares, and characterizing it as “AB love.” Anyone writing about beer in the current environment of craft zealousness is painfully aware that even mentioning the name Anheuser-Busch invites trolling attacks on our integrity and status as a beer lover. So the idea that a dozen beer writers are chomping at the bit to share a bunch of corporate shill about the most hated beer company in the US (unless your talking actual sales, in which case they're by far the most loved) is a completely flawed premise. Rather, each one of us is careful to document, capture, and articulate the truth about the biggest player in beer, for better and worse. And the world could stand to be aware of some of the better.
A picture or sharing of facts from a barley farm in Idaho is just that — and the only reason we have access to an operation this remote and of this scale, surrounded by farmers and barley researchers, is because AB made it possible, as they've done every year for a decade. Anything else is a willful mischaracterization.
The work that a dozen of Crouch's colleagues put in to sharing this educational experience with their readers, however they choose, is certainly the hope of AB. It’s how they keep a public focus on ingredients and agricultural initiatives, create a deeper consumer understanding and appreciation for their process and commitment, and absolutely hi-five each other back in St Louis when it helps them get the story of their brewery out into the world in a compelling way that bolsters their marketing goals. This is true of any brewery I’ve ever written a story about. Nothing new here. Just prejudice.
And finally, and perhaps the easiest part to miss, is that not everyone accepts the free ride to a remote barley field in Wyoming to drink some Budweisers and talk about barely. Some do. I did. But other traditional newspapers and magazines have a healthy budget for travel that enables them to exercise the editorial guidelines they impose upon themselves. For those that don't, AB foots the bill. And regardless of who's dime you were on to get here, everyone eats from the same table.
Regardless of your intent, status, paid or otherwise, if you were standing in that field yesterday, Crouch made you look like a corporate shill. He pointed at a diverse group of people from behind his keyboard and invited his followers to watch us with suspicion. So now, if one of these writers chooses to write a story, she’s doing so in the context of “this paid for.” If she did not accept the free ride, and does not disclose (because there’s nothing to disclose) then she will be branded a sell-out, or at least suspected as one. It’s a catch 22 for everyone involved. It's very difficult to make a living writing about beer, and no one knows this better than Crouch. And his comment makes it more difficult for anyone in that field on Friday to make that living doing something they love because he's branding them a sellout and telling the public to watch out for them.
The effects of that cynicism are important. It sucks the air out of every writer’s story, the education they’d like to pass on to their readers, and the glimpse into one of the world’s most critical operations in beer, for Budweiser and beyond. It casts a dark shadow over a narrative when every good writer is trying to shine a light. And it does this by reducing the value of a story to whether someone disclosed a plane ticket or not. So often in this world we attack a person’s right to say something rather than debate the content of their argument. It becomes a game of connecting the dots, looking for a questionable influence of any sort, in order to discredit someone. And that’s a damn shame. Because almost all of us can be connected to some sort of influence that would cast doubt on our character and content, whether warranted or not. And no journalistic rules of integrity can protect us from that cynicism.
Straight talk: People should disclose. If they don’t, they’ll lose your trust. And people like Andy can help new writers understand the value of that disclosure. At the same time, some of us perhaps have the job to do of reminding writers like Crouch that his colleagues deserve respect. That words, especially passive-agreessive insinuations, have power for the worse. And that cynicism has no place in beer.
P.S. Crouch made a very interesting point in a private conversation afterwards about whether disclosure belongs in timely social media content that gets shared before an article is ever written. This is a smart observation and worthy of exploration. Personally, I feel that using a company’s hashtag, in this case #BudweiserBarley, is clear and obvious to anyone. He disagrees, and I think the question is how can this be done better? The half-life of a Tweet disclosing a free ride doesn’t do much for an audience’s awareness later on, and really only serves to cover a journalist’s ass, giving them plausible deniability in the days that follow. Anyways, I’m keenly interested in this idea. Open to ideas.