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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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