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August 16, 2007

Boeing blogger junket builds support for tanker bid

Posted by David Postman at 2:07 PM

Boeing is getting "buddy-buddy" with influential reporters as its campaign against Northrop Grumman/EADS heats up to see who gets to build the Air Force's new aerial tanker. David Axe, a D.C.-based military writer, tells all on his blog about a recent Boeing press junket for influential bloggers.

Some military news stories are the result of careful study of leaked internal documents. Some come from stomping around places like Iraq and Afghanistan in a helmet and body armor. And some stories are handed to you on silver platters. This is definitely the latter. Boeing is flying around a dozen bloggers out to Everett, Washington to schmooze with corporate big wigs and see the 767 assembly line. Food and transportation are covered. We bloggers pay only for one night in a moderately priced hotel.

Axe says Boeing spends $2 million a year on its media campaign around the bid for the new tanker. The recent D.C.-to-Everett trip included Axe, writing for Defense Technology International, and reporters for NPR, Reuters, The Hill, The Weekly Standard and a couple of military blogs. Some of those news organizations, he said in an addendum, donated money to charity to make up for the cost of the trip. Boeing said it could not accept reimbursement.

The Hill's Roxana Tiron included mention of the junket in her story.

The rally at Boeing's Everett facility was meant to bring awareness to the program and the job creation not only in Washington but also around the country. Part of Boeing's aggressive PR campaign was to fly a group of reporters based in the national capital to Everett for the event and a tour of the facility.

And the paper said in her tag line that she was one of the reporters invited on the trip.

The media outreach reflects a chance in the politics of military procurement. From the Harper's blog, where I found the link to Axe's work:

Traditionally it was a fairly small circle of defense insiders and key figures in Congress who influenced how federal military contracts were awarded. But in recent years competition for big contracts has grown more heated and that circle has widened. Now, many more members of Congress are part of the process, and today defense contractors routinely run media campaigns in order to influence lawmakers and the general public. (Hence those full-page ads for various weapons programs that are regularly placed in Capitol Hill publications like The Hill and Roll Call.)

The Everett trip was also part of an effort to improve Boeing's image in the wake of the scandal that erupted when the Air Force initially considered letting a contract for new tankers. A former Air Force official, Darleen Druyun, was convicted of showing favoritism toward Boeing in the competition while she was talking to the company about a job. Axe says Druyun's name came up during the bloggers' visit to a home of Boeing's vice president of communications:

Mary Foerster's lavish second home overlooks beautiful Lake Washington near Everett. Pleasure craft bob in the crystal-clear water; sea birds wing overhead. On the street, a small army of valets park just half a dozen cars. Inside, the caterer has set up a tidy little bar next to a table heaped with grilled salmon, fried chicken and corn bread. It sure is good to be Boeing's vice president for communications.

But then things take an unsettling turn. Foerster describes an encounter with Druyun in the ladies' room. Druyun, she says, wouldn't say good morning even if you greeted her first. A reporter chimes in, saying that Druyun had a reputation for being cold — a "dragon lady," the reporter says. The implication seems to be that a reserved personality means a corrupt person. By that line of reasoning, are nice people always ethical?

Shame on Boeing and its supporters for appealing to some Americans' jingoism — and for continuing to heap personal scorn on Darleen Druyun in hopes of somehow making the current generation of Boeing execs look saintly by comparison. Emotions shouldn't decide this contest.

Axe told Harper's Ken Silverstein that there didn't "appear to be much journalism taking place" at Foerster's house. It doesn't sound like there was much journalism during any part of the trip.

Then it was time to fly home on the Boeing jet, with a meal of beef cutlet and potatoes and chocolate cake for dessert. "The whole thing had a buddy-buddy atmosphere," Axe said. "There was a sheer shamelessness to the whole thing and I willingly participated."

Silverstein couldn't figure out why Boeing bothered to fly out the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb since he "long ago made his decision clear regarding the tanker matter."

"Airbus is a European company, and worse, it's closely connected to the French government," Goldfarb wrote earlier this year. "[T]he folks in Congress can find a way to award the contract to Boeing without the appearance of any impropriety. But how could they explain sending our tax dollars to France?" Truly, this is a man who knows the taste of freedom fries.

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