Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Patricia Smith, and Janet Cooke were former journalists that did the worst thing any respectable reporter could ever do. They lied. My name was almost added to that infamous list, not for fibbing or embellishing, but for something some folks in journalism consider an equally despicable act. I was an active and willing participant in a press junket. A press junket is a promotional event paid for by an organization or company in which members of the press are invited to attend, participate and write about. Critics contend the practice is equivalent to accepting a bribe and compromises journalistic integrity and objectivity. However, it is a common practice today and has been for decades.
It was May 1987. I was a young reporter working for a large daily newspaper in the Midwest. I was assigned to write a local story about a luxury car—the Rolls Royce. During my reporting, I reached out to the U.S. Headquarters of Rolls Royce, which, at the time, was in New York. After several discussions with the marketing manager at the company, he offered me the chance to fly from Chicago to London to tour the company and interview the CEO and some of the workers. I would be 1 of 4 American journalists chosen to participate in the all-expenses-paid and week-long press event. I eagerly accepted the offer and agreed to write several articles about the company in exchange.
I landed after a perfect 7 or 8 hour flight on a British Airways flight from O’ Hare Airport in Chicago to Heathrow Airport in London. I had stuffed myself with an endless array of food, snacks, and several glasses of champagne, and watched movies while comfortably stretched out in the First Class cabin. A sleek black Rolls Royce pulled up in front of the airport. A chauffeur stepped out and politely asked me, “Are you Mr. Townes?” I nodded. At about the same time, three other name-tagged journalists joined me. The chauffeur asked, “Are you all part of the press from the states covering Rolls Royce Motors?” We nodded. After the chauffeur and an assistant loaded about a dozen pieces of luggage in a different car, I got into the Rolls and was whisked away to a downtown London hotel.
We all stayed in private suites at the posh hotel. A chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce would pick us up and drop us off throughout our stay. On one of our tours; our car drove past a Motorcade of the British Monarchy. Someone pointed out that it was the Queen Mother—or the Queen Mum, as some called her. I recall glancing over and seeing this elderly and regal woman dressed in a powdered blue dress and wearing a large and stylish hat in the backseat of a limousine. The image remains an unforgettable memory. We took a train from London to Crewe, which, at the time a central headquarters and factory for Rolls Royce Motors. It was about an hour ride. I remember looking out the window and seeing the beautiful England countryside. When we arrived a Rolls picked us up at the station and took us to the headquarters. We spent the day touring the factory, interviewing workers, and an afternoon interview with the CEO.
After a whirlwind week of tours, interviews, fancy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that occasionally included tea, caviar and champagne, I flew back to the states. I wrote a handful of articles about the trip. However, everything came crashing down when I was summoned to the managing editor’s office a few weeks later. The managing editor and the executive deputy editor greeted me with scowls and smug smirks as I sat down. I was told my trip to London was a violation of newspaper policy and journalistic ethics. It was suggested that my participation in a press junket was equivalent to accepting a bribe. I tried to offer a feeble, “I didn’t know or I don’t understand.” No dice. My fate was sealed.
As I look back now, I probably felt the same way former Washington Post writer Jill Nelson did in 1988 when Post executive Ben Bradlee admonished her. Nelson was accused of forging a travel voucher—a story she shares in her bestselling book, Volunteer Slavery. However, while Nelson was suspended for a week without pay, I got the ax. Due to other circumstances at the time, I had to spend at least two weeks riding public transportation and look for a new job. I had gone from riding in a Rolls Royce to riding on the city bus!
Years later, I interviewed a popular Washington DC-based motivational speaker and author named Willie Jolley. He said something profound. “Glenn, a setback is a setup for a comeback.” And come back, I did. I’m firmly entrenched in a profession I have aspired to achieve success since childhood. Over the years, I’ve shared the details of this story about my momentary plunge from journalistic nirvana to professional pariah in several speeches to audiences across the country. At one event, someone asked me, “If you had to do it all over again, would you have still gone on the trip?” I took a deep breath and said, “A setback is a setup for a comeback and I’m still here 30 years later and stronger and better than ever!”