It's hardly a revelation to complain that we live in a shadowy world of vested interests and hidden agendas. All you have to do is turn on the TV to see the blur between entertainment and news and politics and propaganda.
And here, in our own little corner of the world, we have golf and travel writers.
The International Network of Golf is a non-profit, networking organization that brings together members of the media with golf-industry businesses. The ING has a lofty mission - "to enhance and promote communication and education in golf" - and hands out humanitarian awards, among other things.
It also has a writing awards program that some critics call "bogus."
One possibly disgruntled loser pointed out that the same ING members seem to win every year, that there are inherent conflicts of interest in the system and that the awards were the "good ol' boys system of awards."
Now, in and of itself, the ING writing awards aren't that big a deal. It's simply a nice way to honor media members who do "good work," in the words of Executive Director Mike Jamison. And the awards system appears to be legitimate: independent judging, removal of all identifying marks of the writer, etc.
"I can assure you, without question, there is nothing fishy going on here," Jamison
That may be true, but in a larger sense, it shows all that is wrong with golf- and travel-writing today, this tiny niche that embraces vested interests like no other.
In the past, I've complained about the cozy relationship between travel writers and public relations people who represent destinations, golf courses, etc. The ING awards take it to another level because in many cases, they are one and the same. Dove Jones is one of several examples.
"I do have PR clients as do half of the writers I know," Jones, who has won several awards, said via e-mail.
Hmmm. I've been a writer for 20 years and never had a PR client. Maybe I need to get into this game.
Jones has won two first-place awards and an "outstanding achievement" in the ING awards. Two winning articles she wrote involved clients and non-clients alike, she said, adding that she "mentioned" her clients' competitors as well.
Like many writers who take on all sorts of editorial work, Jones is a jack-of-all-trades. She works for herself and does PR, marketing and writing. You have to admire her hustle.
"I write a lot of advertorial (industry jargon for a cross between advertising and reporting, if there can be such a thing) for major magazines and I know the difference ..." she said. "Am I qualified to write on the subject? I think so. I make it my business to be factually correct, read constantly and have a reference library I paid for myself that is quite extensive. If I can factually persuade someone to hop a plane and enjoy the benefits of international golf then I'm happy."
There - right there - is the heart of the problem. The Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) makes the same claim: that its business is to promote travel.
The point is, readers cannot expect objective reporting if the inherent goal is to get them out of their easy chairs and buy an airplane ticket; in that regard, they are in cahoots with everyone with a business interest in the travel industry, including resorts, golf courses, travel agencies, airline companies, etc. Good travel writing is geared to the reader - painting an accurate portrait of a destination, the good and the bad, and letting the reader decide for himself.
It isn't geared to the industry. This is the central point most travel writers either can't seem to grasp or willfully ignore. And is it possible to make that leap from being a PR mouthpiece to an objective reporter, especially when you know you are financially dependent on those who have vested interests in seeing nothing but "positive" copy?
Jones thinks so: "I've spent the last 12 years building a good reputation on both sides as being honest and fair and, more importantly, knowing the subject matter," she said. "I have a reputation I believe as an honest PR person - I will tell you the weaknesses along with the strengths of any property."
Jones also is on several rating panels for various magazines and newspapers.
"I do not tread the line of conflict of interest lightly," she said. "I do not vote on courses I do anything with on the panels. There are a lot of conflicts of interest in this, as any business. I know where mine are and try to do the ethical thing."
I'm not saying Jones is wrong on a personal basis, but I would have an easier time believing all this on an industry-wide basis if not for several things. For one, the vast majority of travel writing is relentlessly and overwhelmingly upbeat. If you were an alien and wanted to get a good picture of Earth, you would think the planet is paradise if you did nothing but read travel stories by SATW and ING writers, among others.
Also, I have a little problem with the fact that Jones wrote comments to TravelGolf.com criticizing a past media column involving the shortcomings of travel writers. I have no problem with the critique - she was right, actually - but nowhere does she identify herself as representing the travel industry. Isn't that a little misleading? Isn't there a hidden agenda in there?
Jamison wrote, too, and had the integrity to identify his role. And he asks the central question: "So you think it's OK to accept free trips from destinations or resorts, then rip them in print or on the air?"
It's a loaded question - I don't know about the word "rip" - but essentially, my answer is: Yes, I do. I believe a writer is obligated to paint a complete and objective portrait of a destination, regardless of who is paying for the trip. I and many others do it all the time.
And it's a funny thing - you would be amazed at the places that want you to come and tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Those are the destinations that know they have something good to tell the world.
July 18, 2005
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!