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Ethics of Beer Writing

Alan over at A Good Beer Blog has a post today entitled More On That Code Of Conduct Idea, itself prompted by something written by Andy Crouch at his Beer Scribe website, called Media Draft: Anheuser Busch, Paid Travel, and the Ethics of Beer Writers…. Start with Andy’s thoughts and then read what Alan responded with before launching into what’s below here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

This is clearly an issue that’s not going away. Not everybody seems able to agree on what is acceptable behavior for a beer writer and as with most things involving morals and ethics, there really aren’t any hard and fast rules that can be applied to every situation. There can be guiding principles, of course, but they have to conform to the day to day working realities, otherwise they’re meaningless. Ethics is defined, according to my OED, as “the moral principles governing or influencing conduct.”

To me this debate is important because I had an idea last year to start up another Beer Writers Guild to replace the North American Guild of Beer Writers. This time around, I felt the right way to do it was to have a guild that was by writers, for writers, so I enlisted as founding members the help of five colleagues to get us off the ground: Stephen Beaumont, Lew Bryson, Stan Hieronymus, Lisa Morrison and Lucy Saunders. The idea was to set things up and then invite all of our fellow writers to join us. We’re all pretty busy, of course, and things have been moving forward, but at a snail’s pace due, at least in part, to my own lack of spare time to work on the project.

One of the things I noticed early on, talking amongst the six of us (and other writers as well) was that it is very difficult to agree on what rules of conduct should be set out for the group. Some wanted almost no rules, others some loose standards and I suspect from talking with Andy more generally about this in Germany that he would lean toward having some very rigid rules, possibly involving a prohibition or disclosure of any received from a brewery or beer company. The way he explained his position to me in Bavaria has softened somewhat in his recent blog post, but I still felt the same frustration when I read “[a]re you absolutely convinced the person wasn’t influenced by the free plane ride, shuttles, hotel room, day trips, beer, meals, and other activities?” (Full Disclosure: we had this conversation at an Anheuser-Busch beer dinner during an all-expense paid trip to Bavaria sponsored by the Bavarian Brewers Federation, an Agricultural Trade organization whose exact name now escapes me, and others.) I tried to persuade Andy then that his position was too rigid and unrealistic given that beer writing doesn’t really make anyone a comfortable living all by itself, but I don’t think I got very far.

In Andy’s post he quotes Ray Daniels from his own disclosure of paid travel, suggesting that if anyone had a problem with that, they didn’t really understand the reality of writing about beer for a living, as follows. “If you think that beer writing pays enough for anyone to bring you this kind of information without brewer support then your perception of the beer world is twisted like some M.C. Escher block print. Either that or Mad Cow disease has finally become manifest in America. In either case, you need to have a beer, read the piece and then decide for yourself what you actually think. Jumps to conclusion, knee jerk reactions and other un-pondered perspectives need not apply.” Amen, brother, and I credit Andy for sharing that perspective, too.

But as Ray so cogently points out, beer writing doesn’t pay the bills, for most of us it’s a labor of love. No one I know actually makes a living writing “only” about beer. Even ones that come close, Beaumont for example, also write about travel, food and spirits (and he also has a restaurant). Michael Jackson (who we know accepted travel and such) also wrote about whisky, and in fact was better known for that in his native England. It’s simply too narrow a topic to sustain a cadre of writers all by itself. So that means it’s utterly impossible for anyone to live up to a standard where no one ever accepts anything and also can make a living. To me, it’s academic ivory tower thinking that ignores reality. It may look good on paper or as a theory, but out in the trenches it just doesn’t work.

And I can’t help but think that trying to discredit everyone who does accept freebies does no one any favors, either? If everybody does from time to time accept a press junket or a free beer dinner, who then is left above the fray? I hate to suggest that something is acceptable just because everybody is doing it, but perhaps everybody’s doing it because it already is acceptable? Under such circumstances, to not ever accept would put a writer at a disadvantage in terms of stories he or she has access to. No one has ever insisted what I write about, only that I am encouraged to write about the experience.

At what point do we draw the line? Most would agree receiving samples to review is acceptable. But what about a case? And what about press credentials for attending events? I just got back from the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego. As a member of the press, I could attend any number of seminars that brewers had to pay for, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t cheap. Should I have had to pay my way to every event, to avoid the appearance of bias or being compromised in my opinion? As media credentials are also a time-honored tradition for getting news coverage, should they likewise be thrown out, too, since they might bias the journalist? My point simply is where does it end? Where do you draw the line between the legitimate and the unethical? And who gets to decide? Has getting into movies before they’re released for free made movie reviewers unable to pan a horrible flick? When I was a record buyer for the now defunct Record Bar chain, headquartered in North Carolina, a record label flew me to Chicago for the weekend to see a new band whose record they wanted me to buy. The band sucked and so did the record. They wanted end caps; I think I put in one record per high volume store. Was I influenced by the fact that they flew me to the windy city? Not one iota. I had a job to do, which was to make the best buying decision based on how many I believed the chain of record stores I worked for could sell. That’s no different from being a professional journalist. I believe I can separate the job from the perks. I’m an adult. That’s what the job requires. If I muck it up enough times, saying something bad is good, my readers will stop paying any attention to me. If I’m continually out of step with popular opinion, I’ll stop getting writing assignments.

So what to do? My wife, who’s an attorney like Andy Crouch, picks up the tab for me and my two children. In exchange, I take care of the kids and do stuff around the house, which is where I work from. In my writing, I personally don’t ask for anything beyond a sample I may need. I pay my own way almost all of the time, and on my taxes show a loss every year with more expenses than income from beer writing, primarily because of the high cost of air travel. I hope that will improve and change, but for now that’s the way it is. If someone offers me a sample, a t-shirt or yet another keychain, I will often graciously accept. If someone invites me on a trip or to a dinner, etc., if I’m available I will also generally accept. I take the position that I won’t ask for something, but if offered I will usually accept, provided there are no obvious expectations created that I find personally troubling. To hear Crouch talk about it, I may as well not bother writing about it because apparently I’ve sold my soul to the devil of bias, especially if I don’t follow his requirement that all disclosures must be in full and up front. Perhaps every beer writer should just start every article they write with a standard boilerplate disclosure, that will sure make for some entertaining copy guaranteed to really draw in the reader. I know in his blog post, Andy’s just raising the question and saying it’s something to be aware of and watch out for, but since I already know where he falls on the debate and what even raising it says, I think we can move past that to what he’s really suggesting, which is that he strongly dislikes the practice and appears suspect of anyone not walking the road as elevated as his own.

But unless you’re independently wealthy, why say no? Why create an ethical standard that only the wealthy can adhere to, especially when no one else is terribly concerned about it? According to Lew Bryson, Crouch told him “if you can’t afford to write about beer, you should do something else.” The full quote, from a comment posted on the Appellation Beer Blog is as follows.

I think I’ve been pretty clear that I acknowledge not having to make this entire leap due to an outside, full time job. And I’ve acknowledged that said full-time job allows me the fiscal freedom to follow a certain set of guidelines that I have described here and elsewhere. To those who say they cannot make a full-time living without crossing some ethical lines, I’m sorry to say, you should not be writing full time. Just as a lawyer (to take my trade) who cannot fiscally operate a solo practice without breaching a few conflict of interest rules should get a different job (either with a larger firm, a non-profit, or out of the legal trade). I think it’s better practice to write part-time and get a second or different job rather than cross certain standardized ethical guidelines in order to make an extra few bucks.

As Andy himself admits, his law practice far outweighs his beer writing in terms of income. Knowing that, how can that statement not be taken as class politics? Here’s what’s wrong with what he’s saying, at least in my opinion. Crouch suggests that a lawyer who can’t make a living, shouldn’t be a lawyer. I’m okay with that statement, since there are numerous examples of lawyers able to make a comfortable living. There are many, many people and organizations willing to pay substantial sums for legal services. Can the same be said for writing about beer? Of course not, and for that simple reason I don’t think you can compare the two. The occupational opportunities are vast indeed, especially when set side by side with that of beer writing. Even with the in roads made over the past few decades, the profession of beer writer is a struggling one with no clear career path, specific schools or recruiters waiting to snap one up. There is nobody that’s making a living writing full time only about beer. Give me one name of someone, anyone, who makes a living, decent or otherwise, ONLY writing about beer, with either no additional topics or a second or day job? Stumped? Me, too. That’s because there aren’t any. Even if you could find one, somewhere, that still suggests it’s a very difficult thing to achieve, impossible or nearly so. Beer writing simply is not a well-paid job. No one’s clamoring to get into the field as their ticket to fame and fortune. And quite frankly, this inflexible prohibition on accepting things would also deal one more blow to people writing about beer. It would make it much harder for new writers to enter the field or for part time writers to be able to compete with the more established among us. And that, I believe, would be bad for not only the writing community, but for the industry itself. There’s room for many more voices to talk about better beer. We should be making it easier for beer writers, not more difficult.

I really don’t want to sound insulting (and Andy I’m really not trying to be) but it seems easy to take such a black and white position with regard to accepting free trips and the like, when you already have a decent income that allows you to afford to pay your own way, and I acknowledge that you’ve said so. But it just feels a little like class superiority. I really don’t think that’s your intention, but I can’t help but hear this voice in the back of my head every time this argument comes up, saying “why don’t those commoners know their place, this profession is for reserved for those of breeding.” When you try to impose your ethics on the rest of us, suggesting no one can accept something of value as a part of doing their job, despite your acknowledgment that it’s a time-honored tradition (albeit one you disagree with), it’s like you think you get to decide who can actually DO that job by making rules very few people can afford to live up to, and I don’t think that’s realistic or, quite honestly, very fair. When you say writing about beer can only be done by those that can afford it, pip pip, you need to be wearing a monocle and top hat. The poor need not apply. That just fries my lower middle-class upbringing into a frenzy.

Andy, I think I can speak for the six of us in saying we hope you’ll be a part of the new Beer Writers Guild (once we get our shit together) but I can guarantee you that our code of conduct will not include a prohibition on accepting travel or other items of value, nor will we require a specific type of disclosure for any article we write. I believe that has to be a decision made by each individual writer. Perhaps you’ll think that will make our fledgling group a nonstarter from the get go, but I would argue that there are more important issues to tackle than a practice as common as the press junket, such as raising the quality of writing and getting us all better pay, more work and contracts that are more fair. That will go a long way toward creating an environment where beer writers could actually make a decent living. As Lew puts it, “give me fair pay for my work, and let the readers be a bit more demanding, and you’ll GET quality writing, and ethical writing.”


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