It started innocently enough. Alexia Tsotsis, a writer for TechCrunch, was invited to interview director Duncan Jones and Jake Gyllenhaal for their new film Source Code (presumably by Summit Entertainment or a rep of the studio, though that is only implied). Despite not working for an entertainment site, Ms. Tsotsis took the opportunity and did what any good writer does: She found an angle relevant to the overall thematic content of her outlet: She discussed how Summit is incorporating a Facebook game to market the film.
Ms. Tsotsis was entirely upfront in her piece that the movie itself is not a high priority to the site (Note the inclusion of “the” to the title, and watch her interviews: She lets Gyllenhaal talk about the movie and asks about Twitter and the Facebook game), instead finding an angle that her readers, who probably are more interested in how new media is being used for marketing than a plot summary or review, will appreciate. That, again, is the sign of a good writer.
Three days later, Ms. Tsotsis posted another article, this time relating an e-mail she received from a “Moviefone/AOL Television representative” stating that Summit had a “concern” with the tone of her piece (too “snarky”). The key sentence in the e-mail: “Let me know if you’re able to take another look at it and make any edits.”
Any writer knows, this is dangerous territory.
In response to the fallout, Moviefone’s Editor-in-Chief Patricia Chui issued a response to the response to the response. A half-hearted non-apology if there ever was one.
There are far too many things wrong with this picture, so let’s just go through them.
First off, whatever “Moviefone/AOL Television representative” (an AOL sister site to TechCrunch) e-mailed Ms. Tsotsis about the studio’s problems with the piece should not have done so in the first place. Anyone with any basic writing experience (or who’s seen a movie set at a newspaper) knows the chain of the command: publisher, editor, writer. Who should have been contacted (if anyone, and we’ll get to that point later) is Ms. Tsotsis’ editor.
Next up, there’s Ms. Chui’s response. The key sentence there: “A publicist at Summit reached out asking if we could convey the studio’s feedback to TechCrunch. We did so.” She insists the person who contacted Ms. Tsotsis “was not acting in an editorial capacity” (Of course, though, there’s the “Let me know if you’re able to take another look at it and make any edits,” which kind of contradicts that). That’s fine and dandy, but where is the person or people who are acting in an editorial capacity over there?
A good editor would have thanked the rep (publisher, sort of) for the feedback and said, “I stand by my writer’s work.” That is the sign of a good editor.
It should never have gotten to Ms. Tsotsis (except maybe as a joke from her editor).
Finally, of course, is the biggest problem at all: That a studio would have the nerve to contact an outlet suggesting editorial changes. As Ms. Chui states: “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.”
Yes, because I’m sure a studio would shut down all access to AOL, which has so many outlets that I don’t even know what the difference between Moviefone and Cinematical is, and if you add the recent addition of the Huffington Post (which, despite receiving $315 million, can’t quite find the revenue to pay its writers, but that’s a different story) and its entertainment section, well, let’s face it, that kind of media shutout isn’t going to happen.
They can start claiming fear of a shutout once they drop their corporate affiliation. When you’re a fully independent writer, then you’ll know the real possibility of a studio just deciding to drop you from their invitation list because they don’t like something you wrote, didn’t write, or just the cut of your jib (You’ll notice I didn’t write anything about Source Code because I’m under embargo (in spite of the fact that anyone who saw the film at South by Southwest is free to write as much as they want about it), and me breaking an embargo would probably mean a very real total shutout).
The dangerous territory has always been studios expecting us to be further marketing for their product. We’re not marketing tools. But at least we’re used to that. What this situation brings to light is how more treacherous that territory can be when those who should have your back are more concerned with a bottom line other than content.
That kind of thinking transformed the old media into the shadow of its once proud tradition that it is now; it is set to do the same to the new medium–the one that used to have the freedom to have a snarky attitude about this kind of crap.