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Saturday, February 4, 2017

When writers get a free ride, can they be objective about sad state of auto industry?

On an all-expenses-paid trip to the nation's capital to cover The Washington Auto Show, I couldn't have been happier with my lavish seafood dinner at Cedar Restaurant, including this appetizer of Pan Roasted Diver Scallops prepared without butter or cream -- or what the kitchen called "kosher."
The auto writer on my left, a freelancer for The New York Times, tucked into Texas Wild Board Loin Chops with sweet potato duchesse, stewed cherries, seasonal vegetables and bacon vinaigrette.


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I started covering Mercedes-Benz, BMW and other auto importers nearly 30 years ago as a business reporter for a respected daily newspaper in northern New Jersey.

The paper had strict rules against taking anything of value from news sources -- you were not even allowed to accept a free cup of coffee.

But covering cars presented special challenges, because automakers routinely took writers on junkets to unveil new models, and wined and dined them at lunches in the private dining rooms of expensive restaurants in Manhattan.

Now that's Italian

I recall reading about a trip to Sicily for writers from Car & Driver and other publications to drive cars shod with a new Pirelli tire, and how one of them described a beautiful robe in the gift bag they found in their hotel room.

Media preview days at the dealer-sponsored auto show in New York were -- and are -- a heady mix of press conferences and parties, some with restricted invitation lists.

And when my paper decided to publish monthly road tests of new models, I was able to borrow cars for a weekend or week at no charge -- delivered to my home or office, and then picked up.

I could even arrange to drive a so-called press car on vacations in California, and two years after retired, I had a blast in Italy driving an Alfa Romeo turbo diesel sedan from Milan to Venice and back.

The question I've been asking since I retired is how do auto writers remain objective?

Most of the major foreign and domestic automakers are climate-change deniers who spend millions of dollars in lobbying and legal fees fighting higher fuel-mileage standards.

Plus, they continue to drag their feet on marketing zero-emissions vehicles while ramping up production of bigger gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks.

None of this fazes the vast majority of auto writers, who still judge gasoline cars by how fast they accelerate from zero to 60 mph, and get off on loud mufflers.

I rode in a special Amtrak rail car with about 30 other auto writers from Newark to the nation's capital on the morning of Jan. 25 and returned the following night. Describing some of the writers as "journalists" is a stretch. IMPA is the New York-based International Motor Press Association, and WAPA is the Washington Automotive Press Association.
We had beautiful weather, with temperatures in the 50s and plenty of sunshine. On Jan. 26, the highlight of my trip was driving the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt for a few miles through the streets, but the new all-electric car was just about the only good news for the environment presented at the auto show.

Fast train to D.C.

After I bought a 2015 Tesla Model S and started an EV blog called Shocking Car News, I rejoined the International Motor Press Association, and started attending monthly lunches, paid for by automakers; a media preview day at the auto show in New York, and ride-and-drive events.

Last week, as a member of IMPA, I was invited to attend media preview days at The Washington Auto Show, and rode a special Amtrak rail car to the nation's capital along with about 30 other auto writers.

The auto dealers who sponsor the show paid for everything -- transportation, a night in a hotel near the convention center, two parties, a lavish dinner with wine; and even two $25 gift cards, one of them for rides with Lyft.

But for an EV owner and green-car enthusiast like me, the only good news at the show was my being able to drive a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, the first long-range all-electric car from GM.

The convention center floor was filled with far too many gas-guzzling pickup trucks and hulking SUVs as manufacturers rush new models of these high-profit vehicles to market to exploit low fuel prices. 

As if the streets and highways of northern New Jersey, where I live, aren't already clogged with far too many over-sized Nissan Armadas (14 mpg city) and Land Rover Range Rovers (17 mpg city).

Just looking at one of these monstrosities reminds me of what Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the unveiling of Model 3 last March:

Auto emissions are killing 53,000 people a year.

Dizzying schedule

During the media dinner at the award-winning Cedar Restaurant, a writer for a men's lifestyle blog, who sat on my right, ordered the Ribeye Steak with roasted purple potatoes and onions, red-wine reduction and seasonal vegetables.

He cut into the large steak, ate only a few pieces and wearily put down his fork and knife, noting he's gained 30 pounds going on media trips.

As I enjoyed plump sea scallops, seared red snapper and a few spoonfuls of passion-fruit sorbet, he described a dizzying schedule of six upcoming junkets, including a flight to Hawaii, to see new and slightly revised car models.

He recalled one trip to Italy, where he and other writers were given rides around a racetrack in a Ferrari supercar.

He said he was floored when he climbed into the car and the driver turned out to be none other than four-time Formula 1 World Drivers Champion Sebastian Vettel, who was paid $50 million plus bonuses last year.

See earlier coverage of the auto show:

The food served at the Global Automakers Reception included a terrific version of Shrimp & Grits, above.
Global Automakers, the lobbying group for foreign car makers in the nation's capital, laid out a terrific spread for members of the media and other guests, but the noise level drove me to eat and run to the next party, below.
Guests entering the Automotive Rhythms Cadillac Reception at an art gallery, where auto writers received a gift bag.
Courvoisier VSOP Cognac and other premium liquor flowed freely at the Cadillac reception.
A Cadillac sedan was parked in the art gallery, above and below.

The interior of the Cadillac presented a confusing array of switches, dials, steering-wheel and touch-screen controls, as if the American automaker is vying with German performance sedans to be crowned most difficult to operate.
Earlier in the day, a bus took me and other auto writers directly from Union Station to lunch and a Capitol Hill panel discussion on self-driving cars. One of the participant was Rep. Debbie Dingell, second from right, a Democrat from the 12th Congressional District of Michigan.
The next morning at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the so-called Newsmaker Breakfast for the media, sponsored by IMPA and WAPA, was missing eggs, yogurt and fruit. 
Yogurt and snack bars showed up later in the press room.

The architecture in the nation's capital is a fascinating mixture of classic and modern buildings, above and below.

The Walter E. Washington Convention Center is the venue for the 2017 Washington Auto Show, which closes on Sunday.