Two years ago, as I was preparing to give a presentation on conflicts between media and the travel industry at a gathering of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, that group's assistant secretary general, Geoffrey Lipman, told me a joke. "Question: What's a classic example of wasted resources? Answer: A bus full of journalists going over a cliff, with three empty seats."
If given a chance to vote for a journalist to occupy one of those empty seats, I'm guessing that Jeff Birnbaum would be nominated by the Travel Industry Association.
Birnbaum wrote the cover story in the Feb. 17 Washington Post Magazine (headlined inside as "Mickey goes to Washington") in which he documented, as an illustration of how lobbying is done nowadays, the TIA/Discover America Partnership's effort to secure "$200 million" from Congress for the promotion of inbound travel.
And in doing so, he painted a stark portrait of cynicism and manipulation, with TIA's chairman, Jay Rasulo, and its senior vice president for public affairs, Geoff Freeman, cast in the respective roles of chief cynic and chief manipulator. Rasulo, who is also chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, is given credit for little more than attempting to get a government subsidy for promoting Disney, and Freeman is painted as an ambitious (albeit hardworking) lobbyist who, to acquire the "Ask" (the "$200 million"), formulated policy positions based on what he believed were the most palatable arguments legislators might swallow.
[Editor's note: the effort actually asks Congress to approve a $200 million program, of which only $100 million would be government subsidy. The rest would be privately raised.]
I e-mailed both Birnbaum and TIA CEO Roger Dow to gain insight into the former's perspective and the latter's reaction.
Birnbaum told me that he never intended to pass judgment on the lobbying campaign. "This article was not about what I think should or should not happen," he wrote. "It is about what did happen, as an example of how lobbying works these days."
When asked if the TIA was sincere in its efforts to raise awareness about, say, the need for public diplomacy (vs. forwarding that argument simply to justify the Ask), Birnbaum replied: "I do not doubt the sincerity of the lobbyists or their arguments. But it's also true that the arguments serve the lobbyists' purpose."
Dow used a measured tone in his response, but it seemed clear he felt burned: "When [Birnbaum] approached us in June 2006, he suggested he wanted to write about a lobbying effort that was the antithesis of the unseemly tactics that are often covered in the press."
Dow contends that Birnbaum approached the TIA, but in a "live" Q&A that Birnbaum held on the Post's Web site following the publication of his article, he stated that he covered the lobbying effort "at [the TIA's] invitation. I had not known about the effort" before being approached.
Ultimately, who approached whom is less revealing than the fact that the TIA cooperated with a reporter who is not generally considered sympathetic to corporate lobbying efforts. According to both parties, Birnbaum had access for two years to the TIA's principals and their thinking.
That Birnbaum was given such access is a measure either of the TIA's belief in the righteousness of its positions and tactics or of its naivete (or, possibly, conceit).
It appears to me that whatever else may have contributed to the decision to cooperate, naivete about how Birnbaum would view its efforts certainly played a role. Even after the article appeared, Dow lamented that "the reporter missed some of the fundamental points behind the need for travel promotion."
In a brief conversation with Birnbaum last year (we sat together at Rasulo's table at a TIA function), it was clear to me that a zeal to talk about lobbying was what defined Birnbaum as a journalist. It would have been unrealistic to expect him ever to write about "the need for travel promotion."
Hand in hand with this naivete, however, is what appears to be Dow's genuine conviction that the cause of travel industry promotion shares the pantheon of pro-American virtues with Mom and apple pie.
Which leads to the question: Who's the cynic, Rasulo or Birnbaum? Birnbaum said he looked at the lobbying effort from his position as an outsider and simply reported what he saw. His focus on Rasulo, however, strikes me as strange. As one person asked in the Post's Web discussion: Why all the obvious vitriol toward Disney? ("I have no 'vitriol' against Disney," Birnbaum replied, "or anyone else in the story, for that matter.")
Though self-interest certainly abounds in any lobbying effort, I can see no evidence that Rasulo's efforts benefit Disney any more than other industry entities, except as a function of scale. Government-supported travel promotions would certainly benefit Disney commensurate with its size, but in the grand scheme of things, it seems misplaced emphasis to call the story "Mickey goes to Washington" and to spend so many unflattering words on Rasulo.
In reality, it's absurd to think that, for instance, Stevan Porter, the president of the Americas division of InterContinental Hotels Group and chairman of the Discover America Partnership, would put so much time, effort and money into the lobbying initiative if it were benefiting Disney disproportionately. Or, more to the point, that Augie Busch III, then-CEO of the company that ran Busch Gardens, a Disney competitor, would cough up $100,000 for the lobbying effort.
The disconnect between what Birnbaum set out to write (a description of how lobbying works today) and what the TIA apparently hoped would result (third-party validation of an honest lobbying campaign for funding of travel promotion) has, in the end, not served the interests of the industry.
It is, on one hand, fascinating to see the travel industry portrayed as a "player" in Washington. Three years ago, the idea that industry activists would be in the spotlight as a classic example of a modern lobbying effort would have been unthinkable. It is a credit to Dow, Rasulo, Freeman and Porter that such an article would even be considered.
The biggest problem with the article, in my view, is that it's dismissive of the TIA's efforts on behalf of speeding visa processes and in promoting public diplomacy, as just so much cover for the Ask.
At the risk of being voted into one of the two remaining open seats on the bus, I have to admit I do not like fundamental aspects of the final travel promotion legislation the TIA helped craft, particularly aspects that require visitors to fund the efforts. Had anyone but the TIA proposed yet another travel tax, I can't help but think that the organization would have firmly opposed it.
Still, over the past two years, I've been very impressed with the TIA's research and subsequent publicity supporting the notion that travelers tend to walk away with a good impression of the U.S. once they've visited; that the process to obtain a U.S. visa is onerous; and that the Transportation Security Administration's immigration procedures suppress interest in visiting the U.S.
I did not expect Birnbaum to extol the virtues of these efforts, but I hated to see him dis them as mere ruses designed to grease the Ask.
The story is a fascinating read (perhaps morbidly so), with many points of interest to anyone in the industry. (Among other things, it verifies that, alas, when it comes to lobbying, the airlines put the combined efforts of the rest of the industry to shame.)
To view the entire article, click here; for Birnbaum's "live discussion," click here. The full answers to my questions from both Birnbaum and Dow are below.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected]