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Parsing Out the TechCrunch/Moviefone Debacle

News

After Summit Entertainment complained that a TechCrunch article on Source Code was too snarky, a publicity liaison for Moviefone conveyed the message of the studio’s displeasure to the article’s author. She then proceeded to post the email request online and ball out Moviefone and AOL for dictating editorial to TechCrunch at a studio’s behest. Then Moviefone responded with a post that didn’t help their case all that much. It’s a very sticky situation, and many parties screwed up here. Let’s take a look at who screwed up what.

Summit Entertainment

Summit should never have asked for an article to be changed. However, I work with publicists all the time and this is par for the course. They put critics and writers on the spot all the time. They are not journalists. From the perspective of a publicity company, the press is simply a marketing outlet, a place to get their client’s name in print to help sell tickets. It’s taking it too far to say they have no ethics, but they are certainly not bound to any ethical code as journalists are (or are supposed to be). So while I find their action here reprehensible, there is no real recourse. Should Summit have requested the article to be changed? Nope. Can I fault them for trying? Nope. Their’s is a dirty business and it’s up to us to keep our business clean.

Unnamed Moviefone Liaison

If there is a patient zero or smoking gun in this mess, this person is it. Parsing out the e-mail he or she sent, the language is actually extremely careful. They’re not telling the writer to change the piece, they’re politely asking if they would consider changing it. This is what Moviefone is using as its defense of this person’s actions. TechCrunch is claiming that AOL is dictating editorial to them through Moviefone, but since this person wasn’t working in an editorial capacity everything is kosher, right?

Wrong. No one at any outlet should be looking out for a studio’s best interests. It was out of line to suggest that TechCrunch take any action on the post whatsoever. There are a few ways to respond to Summit in this situation. You could flat out say “no way”; you could lie and just not convey the message; or you could direct them to TechCrunch’s equivalent liaison. Had that happened, we’d never have heard of this.

TechCrunch Writer Alexia Tsotsis

In Alexia Tsotsis’s post, AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down, she splits hairs by linking Moviefone and AOL so directly. She has every right to be pissed by that e-mail, but citing the unwritten arrangement that if AOL ever steps on TechCrunch’s editorial toes they would publish any such correspondence doesn’t make a lot of sense. Moviefone does not act as an overlord of TechCrunch, and in fact they are closer to being on the same level in AOL’s family. This could have been dealt with internally. Someone screwed up (see above), but that didn’t necessarily have to result in the loss of credibility of an entire film site. The post’s headline is patently false and Alexia knows it. TechCrunch loves to fear-monger if it results in clicks, but this should have been an exception. AOL didn’t ask them to change anything.

Moviefone’s Official Response by Patricia Chui

Pure, unadulterated horse-shit. Here’s the steamiest bit (boldface hers):

The reality of our situation is that, as a movies site, we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them. Staying on good terms with studios means that we will relay information if asked. It does not mean that we would ever force a writer or an editor to edit their work for the sake of a studio – or anyone else.

I believe Patricia’s conviction in that last sentence, and as she points out earlier in the piece, technically, no one was telling Alexia to change her copy. But that’s splitting hairs. I’m more concerned with the bit about the reality of Moviefone’s situation, about staying on good terms with studios. No embargoes were breached, no arrangements upended. I can’t imagine how not conveying this message would have injured the site’s relationship with Summit. Moreover, her case is basically that keeping a relationship with Summit is more important than journalistic integrity. It’s a dopey statement to make at best. If it were a smaller film site perhaps no one would be surprised, but given the size of Moviefone’s audience, it sounds weird to think they would need to bend over backwards to keep a single studio in their Rolodex.

Conclusion

This all really comes down to the balance of journalism versus publicity, or as Alexia Tsotsis would put it, Silicon Valley versus Hollywood. What Moviefone forgot in this situation is that there is a balance of power between the press and the movie studios. They may have the access to screenings and movie stars, but we have the audience they want. We don’t have to bend to them for anything because we don’t have to stay on good terms with the movie studios any more than they have to stay on good terms with us. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

It’s funny that this went down not 24 hours after I attended a panel at SXSW called “The Blogger Centipede: How Content is Eroding Credibility”. The room was full of elite film journalists (including current and now former Moviefone writers) all discussing plagiarism and credibility in the blog age. Towards the end of the session, the conversation moved to some of these issues, specifically dealing with publicists who are using you for good clips. It took almost no time for a situation to present itself which illustrates, at least, how not to go about working as a film journalist.

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