During my time in the army I once witnessed a familiar micro-drama play out in a fellow lieutenant’s platoon. One of his soldiers fell asleep in a patrol base during an exercise one night and the opfor– the guys who play the role of enemy fighters– lit them up with all kinds of pyrotechnics. The platoon had to conduct hasty response drills, make a break for it, and reconsolidate. To teach the group an object lesson, the opfor kept hitting them all night. The next day a very unhappy platoon sergeant asked the group who had fallen asleep on watch. No one owned up to it. So, in traditional army fashion, the platoon sergeant punished everyone by running a two-hour physical training session that makes the Crossfit Games look Richard Simmons reffing a church kickball game. Later that day, while the rest of the group was passed out, a corporal approached the platoon sergeant and copped to snoozing.
As he wiped off his sunglasses, the sergeant looked at the young corporal and spoke with a cool evenness totally incongruent with the tone and language he’d used just hours earlier.
“Well, son. I appreciate you owning up to it. But the thing is you could have said something back when it would have dealt with the problem. The reason you’re telling me now is to deal with your guilt. See, guilt is like a bag of bricks. If you screw up, you’re picking up that bag. And if you tell on yourself after you’ve had the opportunity to make things better, you’re basically saying ‘here, these bricks are heavy and I don’t want to carry them anymore.'”
“But sergeant,” the corporal replied. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others because they would have lost respect for me as a corporal.”
“Well,” the sergeant said. “There’s a way to deal with that problem, too.”
The trooper lost his corporal rank that day.
I thought about that corporal a lot as I read Tom Demerly’s “confessions of a corrupt bike reviewer” blog entry this week. He would like you to know that he also has some bricks. A lot of them, in fact, and he’s been carrying them in a bag since 1977. They’re getting pretty heavy and he’s tired of lugging them around, so… well, here.
In short, his confession goes like this: “In 40 years of writing product reviews in the endurance industry I’ve told the truth on maybe like half a dozen. The rest were mostly just industry-speak and platitudes I heaped onto products ranging from mediocre to dubious, all in the interest of financial gain for myself and whatever magazines I wrote them for. This is an insidious practice that runs rampant in the endurance sports press except for maybe four or five guys. I’d like to say I’m sorry for being part of a machine that stamps out lies to you on a daily basis, but instead I’m going to tell you, my paying readership, that you can’t handle the truth. That said, the truth is that it’s all driven by the revenue from advertising paid by the manufacturers of the very products we review. Don’t hate me, I’m a product of my upbringing.”
In shorter form: “I thought about asking you to take my bricks, but I think instead I’ll just throw them at you.”
Not once does Demerly say “I’m sorry” or “I’d like to apologize.” This is significant because he almost reaches the point of doing so right before he pivots to the “everyone does it” narrative. He makes a second confession without realizing it. You the readership should forgive him for his sins because his publishers, editors, and the manufacturers stuffing money into his pockets all forgive him. I want readers to pay special attention to this, because here is the truth Demerly himself can’t handle. So many writers and editors out there have engaged in collusion with advertisers for so long that they’ve forgotten the distinction between the audience and the sponsors. The manufacturers pay them to sell stuff and you pay them for honest content.
I’m not saying that triathlon magazines should be printed in the Hall of Justice or that the quest for truth needs to be a pyrrhic one. I am saying that the competition between the interests of advertisers and the reading public has been a daily existential crisis for news publications ever since La Gazette first hit the streets. Managing that conflict is one of the greatest duties entrusted to editors and writers. Demerly thinks that telling you the endurance sports press has almost wholly abdicated that responsibility makes it okay. He thinks that because it’s been ingrained in him over his last 40 years of writing. And now he’s passing that message along to you by tying it to his bricks and throwing them at your head.
But what is most upsetting in all of this is the support Demerly has received. Slowtwitch publisher Dan Empfield (a man Demerly as well as I uphold as “one of the honest guys”) has defended him in the website’s forums as a man with profound understanding of how bikes work and even said he would still bring Demerly on as a staff writer. To Empfield’s mind, his experience and expertise make him a superlative candidate. It’s understandable that he did what he did, because the industry is the way it is and we’re all stuck with what we’ve got.
Here’s what I’d encourage you to do with Demerly’s bricks and Empfield’s message: Throw them back. In Empfield’s case, tie a new note to the brick with a proverb he likes to use. “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” I say this with utmost respect for him, but it’s shockingly disappointing that the man who brought Slowtwitch, Quintana Roo, and the triathlon wetsuit into existence would ever issue a statement amounting to “I guess we’ll just have to run with what we’ve got.” A guy whose career has been defined by refusal to compromise with substandard products shouldn’t entertain the idea of hiring substandard writers.
Demerly is woefully substandard. There’s a difference between telling a lie and being a liar. Demerly has spent 40 years writing lies. It was deliberate, practiced, and repeated. He’s a liar. Why would you give him a nickel for anything he publishes? That’s a very important question to consider, because that’s essentially what you do every time you click on a webpage or buy a magazine featuring his work. He might have all the technical and industry experience in the world. He has zero credibility. I’m sure he can spot a wretched bike product from 200 yards. I have no confidence he’d tell anyone if he thought it would benefit him to hold silent.
If I sound passionate, it’s because this is an issue near and dear to my heart, and has been ever since I started my writing career. I gave up a column at Triathlete magazine because I refused to write a positive review about a piece of junk bike product for a holiday gear guide. I once walked into the editor’s office at another publication, where a new triathlon bike sat propped against the wall, fresh from a first ride for a review. I asked the editor how they liked it, and they told me point blank “It’s a crap bike. But I’m going to write a sterling review of it because they bought full-page ads.” I kept my mouth shut but I didn’t offer to write any product reviews.
I mention my personal experience because here’s the thing that Demerly, Empfield, and so many other editors ought to consider– I didn’t lose a dime. Holding onto my integrity didn’t come at the price of income. In the long run, it made me a better and more successful writer. The same is true of James Huang, Ray Maker, John Bradley, and Dan Empfield himself. These people know what it means to hold onto their integrity. They tell the truth and their stock rises. Editors at Bicycling and Road manage their publications with an ambition to set standards rather than chase markets and they stay in business. Bradley and VeloNews recently tested the idea that the media is beholden to the advertisers by going up against the biggest of them all. I look forward to clicking on their website for years to come.
I have never written an article that lied to my readers. I’ve published some factual inaccuracies. I’ve corrected them. I’ve annotated my errors. I’ve withheld information from stories because sources asked to remain confidential or because it would only have served to personally wound someone (the same reason I won’t name that editor or the crap bike). I’ve even stopped pursuing some stories I thought should be published because editors told me they’d never publish them. But I’ve never deliberately misled the readership. I still made money without selling my integrity to do it.
No person or publication in the endurance media is bought and paid for. There are only those people who have decided that they’re for sale. Demerly deserves the title that goes with it. No one forced him or anyone else like him to make that decision. The bricks are theirs alone to carry, and no reader should accept that a writer, publication, or editor has the right to throw them their way. Readers should let editors considering bringing him on that their money and readership counts as much (if not more) than advertisers, and they’re not going to pay for it.