NEW YORK -- Quaff free beer. Play pool. Stretch out for a complimentary massage.
Though political conventions may conjure up images of delegates being wined and dined by lobbyists or attending wild parties thrown by special interest groups, there were plenty of perks last week at the Republican National Convention just for journalists -- at least those unhampered by ethical concerns.
For the thousands of reporters in town to cover the Republican National Convention, free stuff from food to facials was only a short stroll away. Sponsored by Barneys New York and dubbed "the Oasis," a journalists-only mini-spa offered drink, pampering and serenity in the midst of the political melee. The temporary media center, across the street from Madison Square Garden in the Farley Post Office Building, was part of a city-driven charm offensive.
Barneys, like many other companies, wanted to make sure that in future months, when the visiting journalists remembered their stay in New York City, they recalled luxury goods and happy times, said Kevin M. Dyson, senior vice president and general manager of the Manhattan department store.
Though in recent years, many media organizations have adopted ethics policies banning journalists from accepting items of any appreciable value, the spa nonetheless was crowded as reporters received facials, and received rub-downs. A few hundred yards away, at a concierge desk, others took advantage of discounted tickets to Broadway shows.
The Sun currently has no formal ethics policy, though it is negotiating with the Newspaper Guild on the final language of a proposed policy. But the newspaper has long discouraged its journalists from accepting any items of value or discounted services from people involved in the stories they cover. (For the record, this correspondent did not accept any such goods or discounted services.)
Better than Boston
The reasoned journalistic verdict on the caliber of convention graft? The hospitality and freebies offered in New York were a cut above those handed out in Boston during the Democratic National Convention. Even some reporters who routinely take Washington-based public servants to task for accepting favors were lining up for perks in the Big Apple.
"Apparently, all the backrubs are booked -- because all the men are doing it," groused Judy Holland, congressional correspondent for Hearst newspapers. "Now, nobody can get in."
After filing a story to her bosses, Holland strolled over to the makeshift spa and got a 15-minute facial, during which time, she said, she explained to the young woman assisting her how deadlines helped reporters focus their thoughts.
Most of the time, she said, "I don't really wear makeup beyond lipstick."
But some members of the media expressed concern that journalists were accepting any gifts or services whatsoever.
"I'm violently opposed to the very idea that they are making your life so comfortable when you are covering the news event that you may be inclined to ignore any harsh realities about the event itself," said University of Missouri journalism professor Judy Bolch, who was a longtime editor at the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
"Perhaps a reporter will say, 'Oh, I can't be bought by the idea of a free massage.' But he shouldn't even have time for a free massage if he's doing his job."
And yet, the freebies were often hard to avoid.
Many reporters found in their hotel rooms "goodie bags" that included a box of elephant-shaped macaroni, a calling card with 60 free telephone minutes, a week's pass to an athletic club, and a synthetic shoulder bag.
The spa is above a temporary gourmet cafeteria that catered specifically to the journalists for the week. (The fare, which included roasted eggplant, arugula and poached salmon, was not free.)
"There's not a single person who's not walking out of here with a smile on their faces," Dyson said. He arranged for donated services and products from vendors who have boutique shops in Barneys -- such as a spa, makeup artist, barber -- as well as a city association of liquor distributors. Members of two major organizations of hotel concierges contributed their time to help reporters schedule dinner plans or book theater tickets, travel and other entertainment. It was all arranged by a high-powered group of the city's merchants, encouraged by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to make the week seem as seamless and diverting as possible for journalists during the convention.
Not for everyone
Cindy Barshop, co-owner of Completely Bare, a high-tech spa located within Barneys, said her company provided massages and micro-dermabrasions (a type of exfoliation) to as many as 60 journalists a day. "It's a fun atmosphere -- it's been really upbeat," she said. According to a store brochure, facials typically range in price from $135 to $450.