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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Do you worry about the independence of online film bloggers/writers/critics/journalists/fanboys?

This whole to-do over the FTC’s new rules regarding disclosure for bloggers who review products has me deeply puzzled, as it does many others who write online for a living. The Associated Press sums up the new rules, which go into effect on December 1:

The FTC will require that writers on the Web clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products.

Though some of what the AP asserts is total bullshit:

Bloggers have long praised or panned products and services online. But what some consumers might not know is that many companies pay reviewers for their write-ups or give them free products such as toys or computers or trips to Disneyland. In contrast, at traditional journalism outlets, products borrowed for reviews generally have to be returned.

I promise you that books, DVDs, and other products offered for review to traditional publishers are most certainly not returned as a general thing, and there’s typically no “have to” about it: the companies pushing products on magazines, newspapers, TV shows, etc., in the hopes of getting coverage want the outlets to keep the items, as a sort of bribe, and not even necessarily in return for positive coverage. (It’s true, in many instances, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.) In fact, the keeping of products offered for review is so much a regular practice that an outfit such as Consumer Reports has thrived on making a virtue of not accepting products for review from the companies that sell them.

I used to work for a major women’s magazine, and my boss, one of the editors, was constantly going off on gratis cruises, which she got to take because the cruise companies hoped she’d write about them in the magazine. How do you return a luxury trip? (Steven Hodson at The Inquisitr has an excellent rundown on the many issues of double-standardry involved in required “bloggers” to make disclosures while not requiring traditional media to do so.)

Now, I’ve always made a point of noting how I saw a movie — at a private screening for critics, at a public multiplex showing, and so on — but not because I thought anyone would be concerned about whether I was feeling indebted to a studio when I wrote my review, but because the audiences are different and I felt that was a bit of information readers might want to know in order to decide whether to accept my opinion in each instance. It’s why, when I note that I saw a film at home on a small screen, I don’t feel the need to disclose whether it was over cable TV that I pay for myself or on a DVD I bought myself versus a screener or DVD I was given for free. I don’t think it matters.

But maybe you do, though.

Do you worry about the independence of online film bloggers/writers/critics/journalists/fanboys?

What’s sorta funny and sorta ironic is that readers of film writers online seem to know when there might be some beholdenness at work — see the reactions to the oeuvre of Harry Knowles. On the flip side, when my friend and fellow critic Eric Snider wrote a couple of years ago about his experience as a first-time junket whore, including complete disclosure of all the luxuries that were showered upon him by Paramount in return for his coverage of the film World Trade Center, there was uproar from the online press and retribution from the industry: he was banned from Paramount screenings.

So I wonder what Hollywood will make of it if we online film journos suddenly start blabbing about the goodies we receive in the course of our work. (Full disclosure: At a press event for the film An Education the other day, I received two books by Nick Hornby, a bottle of water, and an apple. And also a smile from Peter Sarsgaard. *swoon*)

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • bitchen frizzy

    I don’t think these rules are targeting bloggers that review movies and keep the discs.

    This has to do with people that review computers and washing machines and big stuff like that, but don’t disclose that they are a shill.

    A shill isn’t independent to begin with, so it doesn’t worry me that outing them will make bloggers less independent.

    The intent is to make the rules for blogging consistent with the rules for other media. What applies to print movie reviewers – whatever those rules may be – will apply to movie bloggers.

    I see no evidence of a conspiracy to silence bloggers.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think these rules are targeting bloggers that review movies and keep the discs.

    Just you wait…

    The intent is to make the rules for blogging consistent with the rules for other media.

    Except, this ruling does not do that. It demands more of bloggers than it demands of other media. See the Inquistr link in the OP.

  • MC

    I’m much more amazed by the reviewer-whores who say something amazing about the most god-awful movies made, I assume to see their name on the print ads & trailers. Or maybe there’s more “payoff” than that going on.

    After years of reading reviews, you tend to find the authors who have a good track record of steering you to (or from) films – reviewers you “agree” with to some extent. It’s probably clear to anyone with decent intelligence if a review is legit – at least for media reviews. For specialized products sold to a focused market (say, golf clubs, professional music gear, high-end cooking products) it seems pretty simple to judge if a review is honest. For general consumer items, seems like it should be clear as well. The thing is, in many cases consumers use packaging, ads, and reviews to convince themselves to buy something they already want and perhaps with that blind “I must buy many things” mindset, you deserve what ya get.

    Maybe this is another instance of the law protecting the, umm, shall we say, “gullible”? With a little brainpower, isn’t it possible to know what’s legit and what ain’t? My guess is this will affect writers more than readers.

  • Leslie Carr

    I received … a smile from Peter Sarsgaard. *swoon*

    I hope you returned the smile.

  • Paul

    If they make bloggers do it, they should make the mainstream media do it, too. That way the American public can see how the sausages are made.

  • Paul

    While I wrote the above comment, I was also chatting with a writer friend of mine. I told her about this, and she told me that individual blogger book reviewers who receive a free advanced reader copy, just as reviewers for newspapers do, now have to put up a disclaimer saying they recieved a free copy as a gift and are therefore biased, but the reviewers who work for a newspaper do not have to put up that disclaimer, supposedly because newspaper reporters are paid by the newspaper and everyone knows that. The very stupidity of that excuse makes me even more paranoid.


  • chuck

    The FTC guidelines are wider in scope than just bloggers, they affect Radio, TV and print as well.

    Most of the stories on the internet focus on bloggers, but as usual the journalist’s filter the news so our pea brains can understand. So instead of reading a journalist’s take on what the guidelines are, read the real thing here:


    If you can’t stomach actual reading of government documents then apply this filter, go to page 57, it starts with Example 1 – Film critic. There are 8 total examples here which cover far more than bloggers or film critics.

    Hey, it’s change you can believe in! :)

    (Yes, I know this was started under the Bush administration)

  • chuck

    I forgot to answer the original question.

    Yes, I worry. This is one of the biggest intrusions into the generally lawless wild west of the internet.

    I like the lawless internet.

    Who knows maybe someday there will be a “Fairness Doctrine” for internet critics. You can’t write something bad about a film without also having a guest writer write something equally good about film. Because after all there are no absolutes right? Nothing is absolutely evil and bad, nothing is absolutely great.

    That would be special.

  • Guido

    The subject of journalistic independence is a bit arcane for the average news consumer. I think of product reviews as journalism, whereas I don’t see product endorsements as news. My problem is that it’s hard to tell the difference. For example, I have a non-life-threatening but incurable medical problem. The internet is absolutely polluted with “blogs” by so-called experts on the subject, many of whom tout the benefits of some “breakthrough” treatment or cure. I would love it if these assholes had to disclose how their palms are being greased.

    Borrowing the term from the above commenter for another purpose, I believe a “Fairness Doctrine” or other reasonable exception clause should be articulated in any regulations. There are always exceptions to the rule, and overly prescriptive laws seem to invitation litigation.

    On the journalism side, I presume that the field has some kind of ethics that covers malfeasance. If so, then say it loud, say it proud. Regardless, now seems like a good time for all journalists (regardless of medium) to declare their unity and raison d’être. A shill could declare membership in such a guild, but would quickly be found out.

  • Guido

    I meant to say “invite” [litigation], and “code of” [ethics]. If only commenters had copy editors!

  • iakobos

    What ever happened to caveat emptor? If I’m researching the potential purchase of an item on the internet I’m not going to trust just one person’s opinion. I’ll look for multiple reviews on the same item and make my decision accordingly.

    These new rules are wholly unnecessary. It’s just another example of big government getting bigger. Anyone who believes everything they see, hear or read is a fool who will soon be parted from his money.

  • RogerBW

    Complete garbage from lawmakers who have no conception of what makes the internet work, but would like it to be a safe playground for big media companies. (Or do you really think, say, the NYT-sponsored “bloggers” are going to be subject to the same rules?) Lobbying at work, as always.

  • uzwa
  • I know that this is targeted more towards those bloggers who try to act like “normal people” and then post “Wow look at this.”

    Seriously I know a few people who do this and they get enough stuff that they could probably make a real living at it, I don’t mind the law to be truthfull as these guys keep me away from most blogs.

  • MaryAnn

    I hope you returned the smile.

    Of course!

    I think this makes it all quite clear

    Eric’s not wrong in the details he mentions, but there’s a forest-for-the-trees thing at work, too. The FTC wants to regulate individual bloggers who get free crap? Fine. Where’s the push for transparency and objectivity when it comes to, say, news networks that are reporting on wars and other military issues that are owned by the same global conglomerates that also own weapons manufacturers? It’s the same shit we’ve seen for years: when Joe Schmoe does something like pull a con, it’s a crime, but when a big corporation does it, it’s just good business.

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