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D.C. has gotten used to the New York Times discovering—seemingly for the first time, every time—that D.C. is home to more than just sharp-elbowed lobbyists and crack-smoking mayors. (If we’re doing our job, D.C. has also gotten used to City Paper giving the Grey Lady the bird.)
Yesterday morning, it looked like Gothamist, a New York-based news website, had fallen into the Times‘ well-worn trap. “5 Reasons You Should Actually Spend A Weekend In D.C.” is a shallow, condescending (“After surveying a few friends, it seems shunning the capital isn’t abnormal”) listicle that reduces D.C. to a few blocks around Dupont Circle and, despite its breathless revelation that “there’s legitimately a lot going on” outside of politics and the monuments in this metropolis, manages to cram in two House of Cards references.
You don’t have to be a journalist to recognize that Kara Cutruzzula relies on stereotypes more than research in her reporting of this piece. She claims that D.C. has a “dearth of rooftop anything,” but anyone who’s walked a neighborhood or two in the District on a nice day could find nearly as many rooftop bars, concerts, prix fixe restaurant gardens, yoga classes, and dog agility courses as there are roofs. “[D.C. is] Home to Underground Artists,” one of the article’s subheads reads, only to qualify, “Well, sort of.” No qualification required—there are scores of independent artists doing imaginative, highly skilled work in the District, and if you want to get literal with the underground thing, there are plenty making art in basements, too.
But the fishier part of Cutruzzula’s piece is its preoccupation with the Embassy Row Hotel, where she suggests travelers stay, and its environs. The (gasp!) rooftop venue she recommends is a not-yet-opened bar atop the hotel. One of two food options mentioned is the hotel’s small-plates restaurant; the other, Union Kitchen, partners with the hotel to source local food vendors. Dupont Underground, another listed attraction that’s not yet open to the public, is one of the hotel’s promotional partners. In fact, out of five reasons to “actually” visit D.C., the only one not connected to the Embassy Row Hotel, as far as I can tell, is the Phillips Collection. Where’s that, by the way? “Right around the corner from the Embassy Row Hotel.”
Turns out, Cutruzzula attended a paid-for media junket that the hotel hosted last month after its extensive renovation. According to Sarah Vining, Embassy Row Hotel’s comms director and “Chief Culture Engineer,” the hotel paid for journalists’ travel, lodging, and other expenses.
So it appears Cutruzzula has regurgitated an Embassy Row Hotel promo tour instead of doing any real travel reporting in the city. So what?
Service journalism often rides an uncomfortable line between offering readers useful information and giving free publicity to businesses and vendors. The boundary between the two rests on honesty, research, and critical thinking. Smart, ethical travel journalists disclose, at the very least, if they were compensated with free hotel rooms, food, and transportation. They do actual reporting in the places they visit to help them make well-informed recommendations. They question claims fed to them by PR reps and don’t accept their proffered angles as truth. When they’re told, for example, that a rooftop bar “is one the most popular places in the city—and it’s not even open yet” (how is that even possible?!) their B.S. meters ding. They would hesitate to include attractions that aren’t set to open for months, like the Dupont Underground, whose launch date is far off and tentative at best.
The current version of the piece—which has been updated since I contacted Cutruzzula and Gothamist for comment (neither responded) and after some mocked the post on Twitter—includes a parenthetical disclosure: “I was invited [to the Embassy Row Hotel] on a press trip with other travel writers with no promise of coverage.” But the original post offered no such disclosure as of yesterday afternoon, and the current post makes no mention that the original piece was edited to add it.
This Gothamist piece does an even grimmer disservice to D.C. than the nonsense we’ve come to expect from the Times. If it had been a story about the hotel’s renovation and reported and packaged as such, or a “5 Things to Do Around the Embassy Row Hotel” listicle with a disclosure about the hotel’s junket, I might have been inclined to roll my eyes and give it a pass.
In the end, as much as I detest dubious travel reporting about my home city, I mostly feel sorry for Gothamist. The site got all the useless editorial content of a sponsored post without, apparently, netting any sponsorship dough.
Vining couldn’t understand why folks got all aflutter about this post; she pointed out that a nearly identical piece ran in Jaunted two weeks ago and no one made a peep. (That post, for what it’s worth, disclosed that the author was a guest of the Embassy Row Hotel.) As we ended our phone call, Vining, an excellent hotel rep, invited me to come see the place for myself. “If you’re ever interested in cocktails or rooftop day passes,” she said, “we’d be happy to set some aside for you.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery