Press freebies and the rule of journalism DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

July 16, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

NEW YORK -- I sit in a brightly lighted and cheery bar on the second floor of Madison Square Garden watching the Democratic National Convention on a wall of television screens.

I could go upstairs and watch the convention in real life, but real life has one large drawback:

In real life you have to pay for your own beer.

Here, the beer is free. As is the food. Just as long as you are a credentialed member of the press. And this week, 8,000 press credentials were handed out.

Here, the press feeds like swine at a trough. There is roast beef and turkey and ham. There are hot dogs and potato chips and pretzels and sauerkraut. There are brownies and pie and fresh fruit.

Coca-Cola pays for the soft drinks; Molson's pays for the beer. Bell South, a giant communications company, pays for the sandwiches and all the rest.

I'd like to emphasize that this is all perfectly ethical.

I'd like to. But I'm not sure I can.

Every four years, the press scrutinizes the presidential candidates (and their spouses and children) as if they were bacteria on a microscope slide.

We demand their financial records and ethics statements and tax returns, and we print, with some glee, anything that we deem "questionable" even if it is not illegal.

And then we go off to the political conventions and glom onto all the freebies we can get.

Nor are our feeding habits limited to consumables. Upon arrival here this week, every member of the Fourth Estate was presented with a very large box of goodies.

The names of the corporations picking up the tab were printed on each box: AT&T, American Express, New York Telephone, Time Warner, Coca-Cola, Delta, CNN, bonjour, A&S Plaza.

Inside the box were guidebooks (some retailing for as much as $10.95), two-for-one dinner coupons, a credit card good for $1 worth of telephone calls, a nylon tote bag and a canvas tote bag.

How do we justify taking this stuff from some giant corporations that we might have to write about someday?

Simple practicality: We need those tote bags to carry around all the other free stuff we are getting this week.

On Saturday, the City of New York, various restaurants and more large corporations threw a huge bash for the press in a public park.

There was an inexhaustible supply of free food, drink and live entertainment. Hundreds of uniformed police ringed the park to make sure nobody without press credentials could get in.

New Yorkers stood outside the police barriers like children with their noses pressed up to a toy store window and looked on as thousands of reporters grazed.

They could not join us. They did not deserve such special treatment. They were merely our readers and our viewers and our listeners. And for them there are no freebies.

Since one person could not possibly plumb the depths of this subject, I recruited Amanda Timberg, 17, and Matthew Horine, 18, to help me.

They fanned out with their press credentials and came back loaded down with pins, pens, books and coupons, to say nothing of what they ate, drank, watched and listened to for free.

"Estimated total value: $750," Amanda said. "And that includes three potato knishes."

"Estimated total value: $753," said Matthew, counting free breath mints from UPS that Amanda had missed.

I praised them for their work and told them that they could keep all the stuff. I figured it would be good training in case they ever became journalists.

I realize all this might sound wrong to you. And you might wonder why journalists get to do stuff they wouldn't let politicians do.

DTC L But you have to understand the essential rule of journalism:

If you make the rules, you don't have to follow the rules.

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