Earlier this week my newsfeed was filled with news of the unthinkable: Disney had banned the LA Times from all screenings of the company. One of their critics had been banned from a critic screening of Thor Ragnarok. The media community rallied behind the Times, and decided that they would boycott reviews of Disney’s films. This filtered into the critics organizations. The reason for this; Disney had been reported in the Times for doing what companies are want to do — manipulating local governments for tax breaks. The only real reason this was an issue is because of the nature of Disney’s image. They present themselves as a family friendly company, while also simultaneously being a corporate Goliath in the entertainment industry (They own their own island after all). Disney has since rescinded this ban, but the incident has exposed a tragic flaw in the media system. The media has become entitled.
The whole reason this was an issue is that by Disney choosing to exclude the LA Times from early screenings they’re essential choosing winners and losers; the idea being that by getting your review out earlier the more views you will get on said article. The media is trapped in a click based economy, as ad revenue and subscriber revenue can essentially boil down to percentages of your overall clicks. The media doesn’t like to discuss this, but it costs money to pay people to write. By receiving early access to content it presents a competitive advantage versus outlets that don’t have that access. Even at Nerd Union we have to fight to receive access. For instance, in the last year we’ve received press passes to various conventions (Gen Con, Star Wars Celebration — which is a Disney property, and Capitol City Comic Con), but there are times when I wonder if that access causes us to lose objectivity.
We’ve received review copies of games (such as from Nintendo), and we’ve received gifts from game publishers when we arrive at interviews (like a dice bag or a miniature or custom dice). This is the nature of the dance between creators and the media. Its a wine and dine. The objective is for the creator or company to put the media into a place to favorably report on your product. Movie screenings, or premiere parties, press conferences, and conventions are useful tools for cash strapped and overly caffeinated writers to suck in material to meet a quick deadline. Companies are aware of this and therefore create these environments. Ryan Holiday, the marketeer, wrote a fantastic analysis of this game in the book Trust Me, I’m Lying. He called these things psuedo-events. Although I think he was a little harsh, the point still stands that these are controlled environments for companies to control their message. A great example of how a no expense spared red carpet event can effect a critic’s views is the premiere of Star Trek Discovery.
If you looked at Star Trek Discovery on Rotten Tomatoes after the premiere, it had received a critics score well into the the 80s, but the audience reaction was much lower, in the high 50s. As I listened to my various podcasts reviewing the premiere (you can see my take here. I was none too impressed with it). Those who attended the premiere liked it, and those who didn’t attended weren’t too impressed. Part of this is because the form of the singular episode being chopped inelegantly into two halves, but I can’t imagine writing a terrible review of something when the people who made that thing make you feel special. This is why for years journalists were taught not to accept gifts. Though this is certainly followed in the more serious areas of news, such as political news or investigative journalism, the ethics within entertainment journalism have eroded. The same writers who take your gifts might very well stab you in the back with a unsubstantiated hit piece, or that gift might cause them to say your game was great. What’s far more important, especially to small outlets, is access. The thing is, access is the way in which companies can control reviews. You see this all the time in the video game or tech community. If a publisher didn’t like your take on their game, they might blacklist you. This sort of business approach isn’t new. Another example of this happened with Unboxed Therapy.
For those who don’t know, Unboxed Therapy is a popular Youtube channel centered around tech products. Lewis Hilsenteger has been a fixture in Youtube for a long time. He’s one of the most prominent and visible Youtubers out there. About a week before the iPhone X came out, Youtube videos starting hitting the internets … except the one from Unboxed Therapy. He hadn’t been sent a review unit. This sort of thing isn’t unusual, especially when Jobs was running the show, but this instance felt especially like a snub, since Apple had favored Youtubers in sending out units and they had snubbed the biggest tech Youtuber out there. Eventually he ordered the iPhone X and published the review after buying the device himself. It’s telling that in the video Lewis states that “in a way [receiving these devices] tints your perspective. It feels so great, feels so special to have it in front of you in the first place.”
So he basically articulates what I’m saying, having this access affects perspective. Sometimes it’s unconscious. Sometimes you decide you aren’t going to be mean because these are nice people. Yeah, they made a terrible product, but they’re nice people. Not only does this access endanger objectivity, but now media outlets are becoming dependent on that access to get an early jump on competition. The job of the journalist is to tell the truth. They have to be objective, and different people have different tolerances for being influenced, but the objective of the company is to influence the media to the message they want the consumer to hear. This might not seem like a big deal on the entertainment front. In most cases, this kind of influence might cause a person to spend a small amount of money they would have otherwise not spent, but by large companies controlling access to their entertainment content they can effect coverage on a number of levels. This type of pressure no doubt helped predators like Harvey Weinstein remain in power. In this instance, Disney relented, but as the company grows ever bigger, the message from them remains.
Disney giveth, Disney taketh away.
It would be a mistake to believe they are the only ones to do this. It would be an equal mistake for the media to think that they are entitled to the product of a company’s labor. The only thing the media ought to do is serve their readers, and not let the privilege of access cloud their judgment.