I’m a little out of sorts today. My family thinks I’ve actually descended into a deep cognitive hole. Here’s what’s going on. Early this morning I got out of bed, put on business clothes and really ugly, but comfortable shoes. In the dark I rummaged for a lanyard with some sort of badge attached that might have my name on it. I found one from 1998. Sure, why not. My name hasn’t changed although I’ve changed jobs four times since then. Who cares?
I slipped the lanyard over my head, got in my car and looked for a gathering of similarly dressed humans. I found them at a nearby Tim Hortons, although I didn’t know that’s where I was. Thinking otherwise, I held out the canvas shopping bag I toted and gamely asked the person behind the counter if they were giving out free lattes and danish, and maybe a press kit. Some sort of swag might be fun too. A tchochke I could later sell on eBay. Also…did she know where the free lunch was. I then started averting my eyes to the barista’s midsection. No, I wasn’t looking at that. I was searching for her badge because her name escaped me. Fact is, I never knew it. The bewildered young lady didn’t call the cops but the muscular manager gently led me to the door, quietly suggesting I was either lost…or deranged. Oh no…I protested. I’m at work. Right? Uh, no. The manager, being proactive, directed me to the Urgent Care Clinic across the street.
The on-duty shrink, Dr. Fucocktah, sat me down, asked pointed questions, some of which revealed I’m a long-time auto writer. I then went on to tell my story thusly.
My recent knee surgery is preventing me from covering the show for the first time since 1990 in the waning years of the last century. I begrudgingly gave up my credentials, thus breaking my 37 year string. My employer assigned them to someone else, which is like someone simply handing over your soul..or MoviePass. Some kid..by that I mean someone under 60, would use my badge to snag all the free cappuccinos, tote bags, finger sandwiches, pastries and dust-collecting swag I was totally entitled to. Cars? LOL! The stories have long been written before the show courtesy embargoed info provided by the automakers weeks in advance. The media preview days exist for grabbing an auto company bigwig for an interview in hopes of breaking a story, networking for your next job, catching up with old friends..in hopes they can help you get your next job and always, always, always, free stuff.
Without being there I would be confined to home, following coverage online and pining over the Maserati-shaped lasagna I’d be missing, along with the swell BMW backpacks stuffed with releases I’d never read. Doesn’t matter. It’s free. You just want it. But now I am bereft without my annual ordeal of attempting to find a parking space within seven miles of Cobo, breathing in the luscious propane fumes spewing from the forklifts whizzing down the aisles, playing chicken with photographers trying to get their shots.
I will miss the mind-numbing roundtables and endless scrums where, as a short guy, get a spectacular view of my competition’s asses.
But it’s what I do, and have done for so many years. Second, third week of January each year, it’s where I am. Doesn’t matter where I’ve worked, CNN, AP, Detroit News, FCA, Automotive News..I have my badge, my comfy shoes and 90 pound bag with my laptop and other reporting stuff. I’m ready to do battle…and win. It’s show time but not this time for this lame-kneed scribe.
He quickly diagnosed my malady.
“You, my pathetic patient, are suffering from a common condition we call COBO-NO-GO,” he pronounced. “It’s occurs when veteran auto writers, for one reason or another, aren’t able to cover the Detroit Auto Show but blindly go through the motions anyway. There’s no known cure.”
I know. I thanked him…and asked if he could set me up with a free espresso. He couldn’t…but handed me an attractive tote bag. It’s a first step.
Until next year.
Last day of the Detroit auto show and I needed to pop in one more time to shoot a standup for a story for Automotive News. Being a Sunday morning I wanted to get in and out quickly and go on with my day. I was accompanied by my wife who’s not only great company, but very helpful in carrying a light gear bag and hit the “record” button while I did my thing in front of the camera. Yes..one man band, with the help of one very good woman.
From where we entered the show floor, it was a long, diagonal walk to the location I needed in the upper right-hand corner, deep in the FCA stand near one of their concept vehicles. I’d seen all the cars before during my four other trips covering the show and the adult show-goers all looked like one amorphous ski jacket. What caught my attention was what I saw and heard from kids only old enough to be passengers. One kid breathlessly told his parents, “this stuff is unbelievable!” Another exclaimed, “So, so beautiful!”
In one very expensive car a little girl got cozy behind the steering wheel, touching it lightly, lest the stationary sedan suddenly veered off into the hot roasted almond stand. Perched high in the driver’s seat of a full-size pickup truck a young man whose voice has yet to change affected a confident lean as if, at age 10, he was ready to cruise for chicks in his manly beast.
At one point I could only hear joyful screams and shouts without seeing the sources of the oral wonder, but there was no doubt the children were imagining what it would be like to actually pilot the mechanical and artistic creations that would provide them with individual mobility and freedom, perhaps a little one-upsmanship among their pals, and yes, horsepower.
While the adults were there considering purchases based on need, budget and perhaps requiting a mid-life crisis, for the kids not yet able to reach the pedals or adequately see over the steering wheel and certainly not old enough to earn a license to drive, it’s all about simple dreams. Oh sure, they have their toys and smartphones and electronic time wasters, but there is no other toy that can provide the sheer joy of getting behind the wheel, firing up the engine, placing your hands on the steering wheel, grabbing the shifter, placing the vehicle in gear… and going wherever the hell you want to go. In time, sweet children, in time.
Photo credit: The Detroit News
I was busy shooting a soft little feature on self-driving cars at a backwater display below the main floor at the Detroit Auto Show. Then the text from the boss came through. “Biden’s in Chevy!” Chevy, as in the Chevrolet stand about a billion footsteps and an escalator ride from my current location. Boom. I schlepped my gear and went as fast as my short little legs would go. Keep that image in mind. It comes into play in a moment.
As I’m running, well, dragging my sorry butt, into Chevy I see….nothing. Crap! Missed the shot. Except I didn’t. A moment later a moving wall of shooters, reporters and security people swarmed into the stand, and I could only assume it was, indeed, the Vice President of the United States, or a special appearance by the current Miss Manifold.
Hopelessly stuck behind taller people, meaning anyone taller than my Lilliputian 5’6″, I got on my tippy toes while raising the camera as high as possible, meaning about nose level for normal human beings.
I get lucky and a former CNN colleague now working for General Motors offered me her spot in the mob and that got me a couple of feet closer, but of course, no taller. But it was enough to get a shot of Biden with a GM exec. Not a great shot, but something. Being a pesky little bastard I worm my way into a better spot and start to shoot..until a security guard steps right in front of my lens. “Excuse me,” I say. “You just blocked my shot.” Well, the SOB takes issue and stands his ground, even moving an inch to make sure I have nothing. I see another guard, not much taller than me who hears my plea, so I appeal to him. “Look, I’m a runt. I’m just trying to do my job.” He laughs. I instantly wish herpes on him.
But then providence intervenes. I take up a spot near a blue Corvette where no one else seemed to be. At once I notice a grey haired blur to my right. Biden’s brushing right up against me as he heads to the ‘Vette. I start rolling. He’s right there! Money shot! I won’t be short-changed!
I’ve worked every Detroit Auto Show since 1990 for four different employers: CNN, AP, The Detroit News, Chrysler, and its variations. Next week I’ll be back for a fifth. The difference is, for the first time since the 2005 show, I’ll be covering as a journalist once again, for Automotive News, after 11 years indentured as a PR guy for DaimlerChryslerChryslerFiatChryslerAutomobiles, or DCCFCA.
While at the Auburn Hills chameleon I headed the digital communications team, which handled social media, video production, webcasts and broadcast media for DCCFCA’s PR department. Oh, I’m sorry…Corporate Communications. I almost never left our stand, except to grab a mint from the young people just inside the show entrance offering them to obviously foul-breathed writers and flaks. I also hosted a broadcast-only session with our CEO. That was in another room far from the show floor. Soft drinks were available, but no mints. It was a fun job, for the most part but I quickly learned that asking an actual question of your own executives will earn you the same look I imagine Tippi Hendren gave Hartz Mountain birdseed ads. I simply asked a question that was on my mind and that any reporter might ask and got an answer that would make some news. My boss pulled me aside and barked, “Don’t you ever attempt to make news again!” Jeez…old instincts are hard to sublimate.
Well…..for 11 years I had to swallow my curiosity, or at least, not act on it. Not anymore. I retired from DCCFCA at the end of July and took a part-time job at Automotive News on their video news team. They bought me a tiny video camera and associated gear and gave me a list of important executives and analysts to interview…with the hope of making some news. They also told me to take my little camera and blast away at anything that catches my eye and turn it into a story. I’ve been flexing the part of my brain I wasn’t allowed to use for more than a decade to the point of asking anyone I see some sort of challenging question…just to get in shape. Questions like, “How long have you been shorting customers on french fries and skimming the rest for your own pimply self?” Or “I’ve seen you waiting at this bus stop every day for 3 weeks. What’s going on between you and the driver…are you having an a-fare?”
I think I’m ready now. I’ve been doing my homework, boning up for my interviews and I’ve made the mental leap from lobbing softballs to DFFCA execs such as “just how freakin’ great are we?” to firing darts at captains of the auto industry that will make them beg for mercy, or at least decaf coffee.
I’ll be so proud to wear a “Media” credential again and scam all the free food and coffee I can from the press room I was not allowed to enter as a PR guy. I’ll once again worm my way into scrums and lurch through the crowds of writers clawing their way to the automakers’ tables offering swag which will find its place in my basement, or eBay.
Yes, I’m excited to be back in the game again, returning to a profession I dearly missed on the best beat in the world. Now, who’s giving out free cappuccino?
The 2016 North American International Auto Show here in Detroit is now in the books for me and I’d like to offer some observations.
1-My company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has the best stand. I don’t say that to suck up, since a person of my age group has as much chance of advancing as a possum crossing the Jersey Turnpike, but I actually believe it. Check it out. I’ve made it easy by gratuitously posting the video I produced about the stand.
2-In order to park your car you must do one of the following:
- Work for a company willing to waste its capital on buying up every space in every convenient parking lot, deck or garage. Thankfully I don’t. But I wished I knew someone who did and would slip me his/her pass in exchange for murky promises of free pints of mead.
- Win the Powerball in order to pay extortion in exchange for parking at one of the lots actually opened that’s closer than Toledo. My expense report should be quite amusing.
- Don’t drive at all…and call in sick.
3-It’s a lot of fun mooching free cappuccinos and other free stuff from competitors’ stands while acting indignant and pouting, “what? no shrimp?” I learned that from being a reporter.
4-Indicative of the auto industry’s boffo year in 2015 every company’s stand had lights.
5-It was nice to see everyone in great moods since things are going well and there are so many very cool new vehicles being introduced. During the horrible 2008-9 recession those smiles were attributed to Xanax.
6-Unlike the last election cycle no Presidential candidates toured the floor hoping for some coverage from the 6,000 journalists attending. Perhaps they accurately figured out the reporters were more interested in self-driving vehicles, and not autonomous pandering.
7-One reporter about to conduct an interview with one of our executives actually asked, “Uh, what’s FCA?” I could have had fun with that but took pity on the poor thing who, I’m sure, wonders why acronyms are all caps.
All in all, it was the best Detroit show in recent memory. We’re all feeling good about the business, the new cars and trucks in the pipeline and how great all the displays look. I would have posted this sooner, but I had to find a place to park.
We’ve enjoyed an unseasonably warm winter so far, but more powerful than El Nino, able to leap stationary fronts with a single low pressure system, able to bend the patience of steel-minded journalists…it’s the North American International Auto Show! That means snow is on the way, along with torrents of news and a deluge of drivable dreams under the Cobo canopy in downtown Detroit.
Truth be told there aren’t many surprises since the automakers generally give away the news in advance on an embargoed basis so their stories will show up in the morning papers. What’s left to wonder is what kind of swag awaits reporters who will do their best impressions of Ronda Rousey to fight for a free logo-embossed pretzel they can sell on eBay.
I worked the show for four different employers. I spent the longest time with CNN as the Detroit Bureau Chief. For a few consecutive years we produced special programs with the titles of “Route 1992, 1993, 1994, etc.” Production teams would traipse up from Atlanta and spend most of the week crabbing about the cold weather and the fact there wasn’t a Krystal burger joint in site. When one producer who had helmed a couple of these shows was finally re-assigned he got on his knees and..stayed there.
When I was the National Auto Writer for the Associated Press it was me against everyone. I thought I had a scoop when the then head of marketing for one automaker (I won’t say which because I work there) spilled the beans on a new incentive program. I later asked the CEO about that and his face got very red when he sputtered, “well he didn’t clear that with me!” “He” soon cleared out his office.
At the Detroit News, where I was the GM beat writer, I was told I had to come up with a lead story for the next day. We were in one of those hated group sessions with the GM CEO. No one was getting anything so I pulled the trigger asking him to react to the fact that Toyota would soon overtake the automaker as number one in sales. Let’s just say he became very unhappy, but coughed up the quote and I made my nut for that day.
Now that I work for an automaker, my main job is to make sure our stuff wins coverage, particularly from broadcast and digital media. It’s fascinating to be on the other side of the battle lines. I’ve come to appreciate the skills professional PR people need to hone to do their jobs properly, although as a former reporter, I can’t help telling a reporter who asks if they can get an interview regarding the new “Chrysler Impala” the view must be very dark inside their hindquarters.
Indeed, I look forward to the most important auto show of the year…seeing old friends, eating new shrimp and smiling at the nice young ladies offering mints as I tell them, “No thanks. I’ve breathed my last breath.”
I had a friend in high school named Neil. He owned a brand new light green Pontiac TransAm, while I drove a ’62 Pontiac Tempest my dad bought for $25. No one loved my Tempest. Everyone loved Neil’s TransAm. One night, a bunch of us who were admitted “Neil’s TransAm Disciples,” gathered in his driveway and watched him install a set of Thrush mufflers that gave the car at least 5 extra sets of balls when Neil nailed the accelerator. Only Neil was allowed to nail the accelerator, or touch the steering wheel or deem to sit within the holy walls of of Neil’s TransAm…without Neil’s permission, of course. Besides, it had a white almost-leather interior and who needed the mortification of marring the chemically-produced cloud?
Honestly, I never gave much thought about cars after the gang scattered to universities across the country.
My first new car was a groovy red, 1974 Chevy Vega, which went through three transmissions in the three miserable years I owned it. Many years later, as the GM beat reporter for The Detroit News, I interviewed a union officer at the Lordstown, Ohio plant that produced my red lemon. He said to me “You owned a Vega? Well on behalf of all the men and women here at Lordstown, we sincerely apologize!”
As you can plainly see, I was less than an automotive aficionado…otherwise I might have settled on a Gremlin or Pacer, the Vega’s partners in the 1970’s Triad of Dreck.
My automotive ambivalence changed drastically when CNN transferred me from Atlanta to Detroit to be the bureau chief and correspondent there. Back then the bureau was in the basement of the PBS station, WTVS, two blocks from the former General Motors headquarters. I was told Ted Turner directed the bureau be located there because he wanted to be close to the biggest company in the biggest, most important industry in the country.
My education into the auto industry was swift and brutal. I was sent to interview Ford’s chief numbers cruncher for a sales story. He was three months from retirement and didn’t suffer newbies lightly.
“Sit your ass down, listen to what I say, learn from it and don’t ask any stupid questions. Got that?” How could I not?
I actually found the men and women of this great industry to be very understanding about my learning curve and as long as I didn’t act like a cocky dipshit, they were happy to help my learn the ropes.
Indeed, there I was, in a conference room with the great Lee Iacocca at Chrysler’s old Highland Park, MI headquarters. He strided into the room with a big cigar, handed the big, wet thing to his PR guy, shook my hand, smiled and asked “what’s on your mind?”
Yeah, I was starstruck because I had just read his memoirs before moving up north.
I told him I was new, and apologized if my questions seemed simple or naiive.
He gave me another big smile and said, “don’t shit your pants, ask me anything you like and I’ll make it easy for you…and welcome to Detroit.”
That was 1989. This is now. Detroit’s always been welcome to me and my family and I can’t think of a reason to hop in my jet black Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition and leave.