On the House

Journalists have a long and essentially uncomplicated relationship with alcohol. “Between 1899 and 1904 there was only one reporter south of the Mason-Dixon Line who did not drink at all,” H. L. Mencken wrote, “and he was considered insane.”

The industry has changed a lot since 1904, but some things endure—and one is that while trade groups and PR flacks generally struggle to get reporters to their briefings, the liquor lobby can always count on a roomful of ink-stained wretches. And so I found myself, one December night in our nation’s capital, standing with several dozen other journos in a room where no news was being made, but the drinks were flowing.

The event was the annual reception hosted by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. WSWA spares no expense—they hired Sarah Palin to speak at their convention last year (her standard speaking fee is $100,000)—and everyone knows that the bars at their parties will be well stocked, the hors d’oeuvres gourmet. That probably explains how they persuaded news entities ranging from NPR to National Geographic, CNN, the Albuquerque Journal, the Slovakia Press Association, Mother Jones, and, naturally, Maxim to attend an event in which the main news was WSWA president Craig Wolf giving a $5,000 check to an organization that provides safe rides for people too drunk to drive. With at least six bars at the reception, it was pretty clear that check would be put to work immediately.

The U.S. alcohol industry comprises a vast network of producers, retailers, and wholesalers who don’t always agree on all issues. But they are united in one goal, the overriding quest to prevent lawmakers from raising liquor taxes. In this effort, the industry’s representatives in Washington have been remarkably successful. Their bête noire, the federal excise tax on alcohol, was last raised in 1991, and in 2009 they successfully fended off a proposal to use alcohol taxes to help pay for health-care reform (and spent a record $19.6 million on lobbying in the process). In addition, because the excise tax isn’t indexed to inflation, its value in real dollars decreases each year. But the industry remains wary, especially amid the current deficit-reduction mania.

Most threatening to the nation’s booze barons is the overwhelming scientific consensus around alcohol taxation: namely, that raising the price of alcohol is one of the most effective ways of reducing the enormous harm caused by widespread abuse of the drug. Higher alcohol prices, studies have proved, reduce harmful use not only among cash-strapped teens, but even among adults chemically dependent on alcohol. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control both recommend raising alcohol taxes. And polls show that Americans would rather tax alcohol than just about anything else except cigarettes.

Before the reception, WSWA hosted a sparsely attended “media briefing” featuring speakers from around the industry. When I asked the panel where it saw the biggest threats in terms of taxes, John McDonnell, the garrulous Bostonian who runs Patrón Spirits, a tequila company co-sponsoring the event, jokingly replied: “Everywhere.” He went on to praise the people of Massachusetts—“I’m so proud of them”—for scrapping a law that removed alcohol’s exemption from the state sales tax. A lobbyist for the Distilled Spirits Council, dressed like Christian Bale in American Psycho, then previewed the industry’s defense: Compared with other industries and their products, alcohol is already highly taxed.

But alcohol is not like other industries. How many other industries’ trade receptions, for instance, make such a big deal out of the last call? By 8:20, when a WSWA spokesman announced it, everyone in the room was looking conspicuously happy. I had missed the last of the Patrón-based sangria, which came in enormous glasses, and by the time I sat down with longtime D.C. radio host Josephine Reed, I was on to Wild Horse, billed as an “unbridled” pinot noir from California.

 Reed agreed that people outside D.C. might find the prospect of a roomful of journalists drinking and feasting on the alcohol industry’s dime a bit creepy. But there’s nothing new about it. Ronald Reagan was famous for making sure journalists were always fed. Journalists are people just like everyone else, Reed reflected, and food “puts you in a good mood.” Booze can put you in an even better one. Do sources try to take advantage of that? Of course they do. Can the media resist being played? I think so. And if that often makes our job seem like that of a lawmaker’s, well, as the incomparable journalist Molly Ivins liked to observe, repeating a raucous saying popular among state legislators: If you can’t drink their whiskey, take their money, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in office.

Published in the 2011-05-06 issue: 

Nick Baumann is senior enterprise editor at The Huffington Post.

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