By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
So which will it be, wiping your butt with leaves, or having your prostate removed? Don't forget, the Damaged Man always wins.
It all started innocently enough on March 16, when six men stationed themselves outside the Convention Center in Washington, D.C., handing out bags of literature to people attending the trade show inside. But by midday, March 17, those plastic bags had provoked a battle royale reportedly involving screaming, threats, and frantic phone calls. Now, the company that hired the distributors is accusing show managers of using intimidation tactics to shut them down.
The adversaries in this story are two publishers competing for the attention of the U.S. government, which spends $40 billion a year on information technology. The company that hired the distributors, FCW Government Technology Group (FCW) of Falls Church, Virginia, publishes an up-and-coming magazine called Federal Computer Week, which competes with a magazine called Government Computer News, published by Post-Newsweek Business Information (PNBI), of Vienna, Virginia.
FCW is an established company, but in this equation, PNBI is a Goliath that brings to bear all the resources of its parent, The Washington Post Company. In 1998, PNBI acquired both Government Computer News and the annual event at the Convention Center, known as the FOSE trade show. Now, The Washington Post is doing its part to promote the trade show. In a March 18 article, the Post endorsed FOSE as "the yearly candy store for the world's biggest computer customer, the federal government." A March 15 Post article called FOSE a "high tech Super Bowl."
Given the Post's push to corner the market, it's no surprise that PNBI president Andrew Jacobson was furious when he heard that a street crew was handing out bags containing copies of Federal Computer Week. Somehow, even though FCW had not purchased a booth at the convention, thousands of visitors were streaming onto the floor, holding bags emblazoned with the FCW logo.
According to the FCW employee who was managing the street crew, the trouble began early Wednesday morning, when a man came out of the convention center and offered one of the distributors $40 to get off the street. After approaching a police officer "screaming and yelling and accusing us of taking the bags inside," the same man allegedly came back and offered the distributor $60. The distributor refused.
Then PNBI found a new scapegoat. Inside the building, one of the booths had been leased by IDG Books, which is owned by the same parent company as FCW. Around noon, an IDG employee called FCW circulation director Agnes Vanek, saying, "You have to stop doing street distribution, or they're going to throw us out of the show." "The poor guy was in a panic," Vanek recalls. "They must have been bullying him."
Barbara Lee, who runs the trade show for PNBI, got on the phone and told Vanek to stop the distribution, because IDG was violating its contract by handing out literature outside its booth. (In addition to FCW material, the bags contained a flyer for IDG books.) When Vanek resisted, Lee put PNBI president Jacobson on the phone. "He was rude," Vanek says. "You could just tell he was furious."
But Vanek held fast. First she got her business manager on the line, who informed Jacobson that this was a legal issue and provided the name of FCW's lawyer. Then she orchestrated a call between the IDG representative and her own trade show director, who concluded that IDG had done nothing to violate its contract.
Finally, she spoke to the manager of the street crew, and found out that her target of 5000 bags had been handed out. "We told IDG Books, 'Fine. Tell them we'll be done within a half hour,' " Vanek recalls. "We let them think they shut us down."
Asked about the alleged bribery attempt, PNBI's Lee says, "I don't know if that happened." And she denies the charge of intimidation. "We did have a discussion with IDG Books," she says, citing the alleged contract violation. "We asked them to do what they could to get the people to stop distributing outside, and they did. We never shut them down. We would never do that."