AOL and the Fight for Editorial Independence

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Welcome to the AOL-TechCrunch Follies, brought to you by Moviefone.

Today's post centers on a silly feud between bickering members of the big, new dysfunctional AOL family -- TechCrunch and Moviefone -- now under the viselike embrace of headmistress Arianna Huffington. But it's also about who owns the news and what can happen as a result.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Cringely told you so -- hello AOL, good-bye quality content. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]

Our story begins with Alexis Tsostis, a blogger for TechCrunch who's been schlepping around SXSW for the past week scrounging up stories. She got invited to a screening of a movie called "The Source Code," which sounds like yet another truly lame Hollywood take on high tech. (Plot synopsis: Military guy uses computer "source code" to enter the brain of a terrorist and prevent him from blowing things up. Think "The Matrix" meets every other "thriller" you've ever seen.)

Tsostis did a video interview with the star of the film (Jake Gyllenhaal) and wrote a brief, less-than-reverent blog post about how the movie is being marketed to geeks, including an unbelievably silly Facebook "game" the studio concocted to promote the film.

The movie studio, Summit Entertainment, didn't like Tsostis's post. Summit contacted AOL's Moviefone, which had arranged for the blogger to view the film and spend quality time with movie hunks, and asked Moviefone to convey its displeasure. Tsostis received the following email:

First wanted to thank you for covering Source Code/attending the party, etc. But also wanted to raise a concern that Summit had about the piece that ran. They felt it was a little snarky and wondered if any of the snark can be toned down? ... Let me know if you're able to take another look at it and make any edits. I know of course that TechCrunch has its own voice and editorial standards, so if you have good reasons not to change anything that's fine, I just need to get back to Summit with some sort of information. Let me know.

(If they think Tsostis's post was snarky, one can only imagine what they'd think of this blog.)

That in turn led to every blogger's dream post -- one in which they can declare their unswerving loyalty to truth, justice, and the journalistic way while taking potshots at both obnoxious PR types and their own corporate masters. Really, it's the trifecta. You're lucky if you get a chance for one of those in a career. Tsostis came out swinging:

The most ridiculous part about this whole episode is that the post in question wasn't even that "snarky," whatever the hell that means. I mean it's not like I wrote "Movie Studio Creates 'Game' In Order To Get People To Spam Their Friends On Facebook" in the headline.

The issue is simply that Summit thinks it can pressure us, through an AOL sister site, into making a balanced report more glowing. And while it's inappropriate, it's not surprising. What is surprising, and sad, is that Moviefone/AOL actually tried to comply with their request and asked us to change our post. It's not just sad, it's wrong.

That resulted in a reply from Moviefone editor in chief Patricia Chui, which read in part (the boldface is hers, not mine):

First: I didn't know Moviefone had any editorial content, let alone an editor in chief.

Second: I'm not really sure editor in chief is the right title for Chui. Because every EIC I've ever met -- and there have been quite a few over the years -- would have told Summit Entertainment to take that request for more favorable coverage and perform an anatomically impossible act with it, perhaps politely, perhaps not. But they certainly would not have meekly passed it on. That's not an EIC's job, nor is it to stay on friendly terms with the companies it covers.

In the high-tech world, companies complain all the time about negative coverage. Sometimes they threaten to pull ads. More often, they play favorites, offering better access and more information to publications that tend to be friendlier to them. (Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, I'm talking to you.) But they don't send emails through corporate intermediaries asking to tone down the snark. If that were the case, I'd have been out on my assets and working behind the counter at Starbucks a long time ago.

Interestingly, Tsostis's second article accusing AOL of trying to manipulate coverage never made it into the email roundup of stories TechCrunch sends out each day. But a related post by the genuinely snarky Paul Carr, about how AOL was not really at fault and Tsostis owed them an apology, did. You make the call on that one.

So: a catfight between AOL sister sites, not the first and definitely not the last. Who gives a rodent's posterior, right?

Except that the who-owns-the-media-and-what-happens issue is much larger than that. Take, for example, the latest Pew Research study, which revealed something that shocked even your cynical correspondent: 7 of the 25 largest newspapers in the country are owned by hedge funds.

How has that influenced coverage? During the previous decade, dozens of Wall Street execs pocketed billions by pushing securities they knew were worthless, drove hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes, and nearly bankrupted our entire economy -- yet not one of them has spent a single day in prison. Ever wonder why? Maybe because there weren't any newspaper editorials calling for their heads. That might be one reason.

The media -- or what's left of it -- is rapidly morphing into just another public relations firm for mega-corporations. And if you see me at Starbucks, please take pity and leave a nice tip. I'll need it for my retirement.

Are there any uncorrupted media outlets left? (Aside from InfoWorld, I mean.) Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "When snark attacks: AOL and the fight for editorial independence," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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