Wine Advocate on Capitol Hill
As a member of the decadent coastal elite, I naturally take my marching orders each morning from The New York Times. For all the talk about the death of old media, I think that the Times is as good as ever and more vital than ever. But like any newspaper, it has its share of missteps. Monday’s front page featured an article about Congressman Mike Thompson, a California Democrat whose district includes Napa Valley and who also happens to be a vineyard owner himself. The piece, written by Eric Lipton, examined the ways in which Thompson has sought to help the local wine industry, and it suggested that because Thompson is a grape grower—his vineyard is in Lake County, north of Napa—there is an element of self-interest involved in these efforts. But “suggested” is the operative word here: Thompson has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and Lipton offered no proof that the seven-term Congressman has personally benefitted from advocating on behalf of his winemaking constituents.
Instead, Lipton served up a bunch of speculation and innuendo. He twice noted that Thompson “could benefit” from a proposal to grant appellation status to an area that includes his vineyard and said that the winery that buys most of his grapes pays a “somewhat higher” price than the Lake County average. Lipton wrote that Thompson’s relationship with the local wine trade “was, at a minimum, complicated” and reported that some of the Congressman’s best friends work in the wine trade. Craig Wolf, the president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, was quoted as saying that Thompson’s activities violated Congressional ethics laws. As economist Brad DeLong pointed out in a scathing blog post yesterday, Lipton repeated Wolf’s charge but apparently made no effort to determine its validity. And it’s not hard to figure out why he neglected to do so: he was more interested in putting the accusation in print than substantiating it. That’s shoddy journalism.
Let’s set aside the facts that Thompson’s vineyard is a mere 20 acres and earned him just $18,000 last year. It seems to me the key question is this: if Thompson had no involvement in the wine business, would he be acting any differently? The answer, clearly, is no; the wine industry is a major player in his district, and with or without his own vines, Thompson would surely be advocating just as forcefully on its behalf. That’s what legislators do. Show me a Member of Congress who doesn’t vigorously represent the interests of local industries, and I’ll show you a Member of Congress who is probably going to be out of a job shortly. So why did Lipton and his editors think that Thompson’s conduct merited a front-page article, and why would they raise doubts about his integrity on the basis of such flimsy—non-existent, really—evidence? I don’t know the answer, but it was a deeply flawed article that shouldn’t have been published.