Archive for Journalism

‘That’s What He Said’: WhatCulture, Australian Poetry, and Plagiarism

Posted in art, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2013 by drayfish

Odysseus and Suitors

IMAGE: Odysseus Confronts the Suitors

There’s a sign on my office door that depicts Odysseus in his moment of merciless slaughter.  It’s an image taken from an ancient Greek vase.  There’s no gore or viscera, or even facial expressions, merely rudimentary silhouetted shapes against a stark burnt umber backdrop; and yet the ghoulish subject of the scene is wholly unnerving nonetheless.  It takes place at the conclusion of The Odyssey.  Odysseus stands in front an exit that he has just locked shut, towering, unyielding, as he rains down a barrage of arrows upon the throng of suitors that have plagued his home for years.  Seen in profile, Odysseus towers on one side of the picture, a man whose mettle has been tested, the bow in his hand flashing as his victims squeal and gnash their teeth in a wild clamour, their desperate pleading only cut short by the cold reprieve of an inexorable death.

Beneath the image I have written:

‘Dr Dray Explains His Policy On Plagiarism.’

I put it up as a playful warning to my students, situating it about eye height for anyone who would come to knock on my door.  It’s an image so hyperbolically visceral and ferocious that it would elicit chuckles, and that will (hopefully) stick in their mind once the gag subsides.

The only thing is – I’m not really joking.

Okay, sure, when I encounter plagiarism I don’t string a mighty bow and block up the doors, but I do find it inexcusable.  And if it proves to be methodical, and not accidental, it becomes unforgivable, and the slaughter – metaphorical or no – begins.

Because, both as an academic and a writer, the idea of knowingly thieving another person’s work, claiming ownership of thought and creative practice without even attribution or acknowledgement, strikes me as the most vile act anyone who claims to be a writer can perform.  An act of arrogance and laziness and shamelessness, it forever tarnishes the perpetrator, proving that they have no regard for their victims, their readers, or even themselves.

While I wish this post were just an arbitrary listing of things I hate (aren’t they always fun?), it is, sadly, motivated by two recent grotesque and glaring examples of such fraudulence within circles I have frequented.

So journey with me, won’t you, as we take a magical ride through the tragically proliferating culture of flagrant plagiarism…

Firstly, at the WhatCulture website.

For those unaware, I actually used to write for WhatCulture.  Well, when I say ‘write’ for them, I should clarify: I would write articles for my Themenastics blog, but would later contribute some of them to be republished there.  There was no payment or expectation of first-publication, so I didn’t feel conflicted in repurposing my own work.

(It has since been discovered that WhatCulture was, for a period, openly misleading potential contributors by advertising paid freelance writing positions through agencies such as the Mandy website, in order to attract writers to whom they would only offer unpaid work.  This misbehaviour  was completely unbeknownst to me (I had offered to contribute my pieces unpaid from the start), but Paul Martinovic, a freelance writer and blogger who was a victim of this deception, spoke of his experience having taken the WhatCulture editors’ bait.)

When I started submitting to WhatCulture, well over a year ago, it seemed a promising little start-up.  The mission statement, to give a voice to fans of popular culture – film, television, music, comics – that would allow them to speak to the aspects of these fictions that they loved, ideally putting them into some kind of critical context, seemed worthy.  Like an AV Club with more readership participation, it seemed inspiring that the editors were so eager to provide a platform for  those enthusiasts who might otherwise have their opinion languish unseen.

As time went on, however, the quality of WhatCulture steadily declined into something that – even with my relatively superficial familiarity with the site – I scarcely recognised.  It seemed to happily wallow (in many cases seemingly as a direct influence of one of the writers I am about to denounce) in a snide, click-baiting swamp of cheap titillation and contrarian bickering, repeatedly sacrificing editorial substance so as to chase minor controversy for page-hits by whatever means it could.  Articles with little more than a thousand words of copy were suddenly being split into several pages that needed to be clicked through, literally just to artificially inflate the page traffic, and the site started running progressively more pieces such as ’10 Awful Movies You Only Watched For the Nude Scenes’ (with screen grabs and clips!  Yay!), fan boy lures like ‘PS4: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over Xbox 720’ and ‘Xbox 720: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over PS4’, each of which was written by the same author (again, more on him in just a second), merely days apart, with only the names of the consoles swapped around.  And who could forget the journalistic high water mark of See The Newcastle City Wall Sex Picture Taken From WhatCulture’s Office’.  An article that is exactly as pathetic and puerille as you might suspect it to be.

whatcultureshadow3

So despite continuing to happily produce columns for Themenastics (and now to contribute pieces to the online journal PopMatters), as time has gone on I have been less inclined to make my writings available to WhatCulture.  It wasn’t an act of protest, or judgement – I am under absolutely no delusions that my work was in any way missed – I simply lost interest in their new unspoken mandate, hoping that they might pull out of this disheartening nosedive, but continuously discouraged by the material that I instead saw them promote.

And consistently, to my mind, the worst offender amongst this race toward mediocrity was WhatCulture’s senior (and therefore paid) film reviewer and contributor Shaun Munro.  I had been struck by the inanity of some of Munro’s work – it was he who had copy-pasted his Xbox One vs Playstation 4 article with the names flipped – but as time wore on he seemed to use the site as his own toilet wall, listing actresses who, in his opinion, ‘desperately need to go nude’ in future (as opposed to his desperately needing to get a personal life), salivating over every scrap of Scarlet Johansson’s flesh he could track down before his (apparently highly anticipated) opportunity to see her naked in the film Under the Skin, and offering a breaking ‘Special Report’ after seeing said film, providing a detailed list of every body part and crevice he had personally spied with the kind of obsessive, lecherous specificity you would scarcely find outside a legal deposition testimony.

‘Let me tell you about the full frontal nudity I just saw…  Cwwooaarrrrr…’  Truly, journalism at its finest.

It was therefore something of  a surprise to learn, two weeks ago, that my opinion of Munro actually was able to sink even lower, as it turns out that these masturbatory jaunts were apparently the only material he can comfortably produce without resorting to theft.

Garfield Plagiarism

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (21/4/2008)

As was revealed by a blogger named Sr. Mxy in an exhaustive Tumblr that still only catalogues a portion of his innumerable plagiarisms, Munro, along with another WhatCulture writer and associate editor, T.J. Barnard (also a paid contributor), had been stealing work from the Cracked website and passing it off as their own.  What made it an even more pernicious act was that the material they were helping themselves to was in a draft form, and had therefore not yet been published.  Part of the Cracked editorial process apparently involves submitting outlines and edits into an online workshop system that can only be accessed by contributors to the site and its editors; Munro and Barnard, who each had access to this site, had repeatedly fished through this raw material and taken it as their own, frequently with little, if any, alteration (the blog buydemocracy has a far more thorough account of the process in their discussion of this sad debacle).  As successful authors on the Cracked website are paid – but only for work that is original – this therefore meant that Munro and Barnard were literally robbing these writers of their rightful earnings; and as WhatCulture was able to publish this stolen material faster than it would have travelled through the Cracked editorial process, there is a very real chance that even if the victims of their plagiarism were able to go on and publish their own hard work, they would have been doubly mistreated, forced to then fend off accusations that it was they who ripped off Munro and Barnard

It appears that these acts of plagiarism were pointed out to Munro, Barnard and their editors at WhatCulture repeatedly, but aside from such comments being unceremoniously deleted from any pages on the WhatCulture site, little to nothing was done until Sr. Mxy assembled his incontrovertible evidence, other writers with past experience of Munro and Barnard’s wrongdoing came forward to give their accounts of similar experiences in the past, and the issue was unable to be quashed any further.  WhatCulture – once the issue became unavoidable – published an apology to their readers and the Cracked writers who had been wronged.  The statement has already been buried by their daily feed and is not linked to their front page, but it can be found here.

A writer by the name of Ali Gray at the website The Shiznit offers a fantastic personal account of the worrying implications of WhatCulture’s blasé editorial and business practices, and what, by association, it might mean for the online blogging community.*  Indeed, Ali even, seemingly, has personal experience with what is revealed to be Shaun Munro’s long history with serial plagiarism, an act he will seemingly employ for paid work, for unearned esteem, or even just to try and win a free videogame.

If true (and given the wellspring of evidence and personal accounts now surfacing I am very much inclined to believe that it is), it gives the lie to Munro’s ‘unreserved’ apology for his actions, and rather puts in context his repeated censoring of people’s comments when they would point out his fraud.  He seems to have been well aware of his actions for several years – his entire career seemingly cultivated from this knowing, ongoing theft.  And given that he will soon be continuing his work with employers who have seen this history, perhaps even been complicit in perpetrating it themselves, there is little to indicate that anything substantive will change.

Some have commended WhatCulture for finally admitting that something was wrong, for apologising to the writers whose work was stolen, offering to pay them $50 each in damages, and for even asking forgiveness of their own plagiarising employees, Munro and Barnard, who they claim were under too much pressure to produce material.  Others who have read the statement have pointed out that this admission was a shamefully long time coming, particularly given the amount of evidence provided, that $50 dollars is considerably less than those writers would have earned had their work not been ‘misappropriated’, and that by apologising to people who have openly misled their employers, fellow writers, and readers, by choosing to temporarily suspend rather than dismiss them, they are tacitly endorsing their actions and inviting more such misbehaviour in future.

…Well, when I say ‘others‘ have said this, what I mean is: I am saying this.  I am saying this rather adamantly.

After all, Munro and Barnard (the editors of WhatCulture assure us) ‘apologise unreservedly for their actions’ – but so what?  They’ve not done anything of substance to rectify it.  They’ve not resigned.  They’ve not been fired.  They have simply been shelved until the heat dies down, and will be welcome to return to paid duty soon enough – presumably to do more of the same now that they know it has no real consequence, and that they are victims too…

Ultimately, all they have done is offer words of regret (in truth, they have only offered second-hand words of regret through their superiors; neither one, in any format I am aware, has themself addressed the issue directly).  But words are the problem here.  They’ve already proved that words come far too easy to them.  Both have already shown that they think words and ideas can be ‘borrowed’ and plucked, used and discarded at will.  Words from these two mean nothing.  Words reported by proxy through their superiors mean even less.  That is, and should always be, the consequence of plagiarism.  You rob others of their work, yes, but you also rob your audience of their trust, and yourself of your integrity.  Your work and your name are undone.

Curiously it is an issue that has even emerged in the literary circles of Australia, where one can hardly imagine financial profit to be the primary motivator.  This past month (September) a Newcastle poet named Andrew Slattery – winner of several major Australian poetry prizes over the past three years – was likewise revealed to be a serial plagiariser.  Slattery had just won the Josephine Ulrick poetry prize for 2013 with a verse titled ‘Ransom’, but a quick Google search of the lines and turns of phrase he had employed revealed that the piece was an amalgam of the work of several other poets stitched together like an imagistic Frankenstein’s monster.  In the aftermath, another successful Australian poet, Graham Nunn was also implicated for doing the same.

canyon by andrew slattery

IMAGE: Canyon by Andrew Slattery

A fantastic write-up of the whole affair is offered by Justin Clemens in Overland, ‘”Of borrow’d plumes I take the sin”: Plagiarism and Poetry’, and as he makes note, what is extraordinary is just how ubiquitous and celebrated Slattery and Nunn’s output has been up until this revelation.  Both have won prizes, both have had their work printed widely in respected literary journals such as Meanjin and Best Australian Poems, and both seem so comfortable with their theft that it has gone unamended for years.

For his part, Graham Nunn has attempted to explain away his direct, unattributed and unindicated quotations from other writers  as a form of literary homage; but somewhat contradictorily for a man professing his innocence and poetic license, he has also swiftly taken down all evidence of the poems in which he performed this ‘homage’  from his blog.  It seems strange that if (as he claims) his intent was always to draw attention to these poetic connections with work that he admires, he has suddenly chosen to hide this work away from the world now that those (apparently intended) allusions have finally been illuminated…

But of course, that was never the point.

Pastiche, allusion, quotation, these are all legitimate poetic devices, but (as Clemens likewise observes in his commentary) it is amusing how plagiarists decide to reveal that this is what they were doing all along only after they are caught.  Until then, when they must scramble to retroactively re-write their mission statements, they are content enough to have all of the plaudits for other people’s work go only to them – prizes, publishing, money – buoying their name while the artists from whom they have thanklessly harvested the trappings of their success remain in the dark.

But that has always been the problem with plagiarism – and why it is such an egregious sin for writers.  It reduces words – the application of words; the work of the author that brought them into being – to vapour that can be stolen freely, repurposed and not attributed, claimed and discarded without consequence.  It abuses the power of language, reduces it to an egotistical play-act – the proverbial crow dressed up in another’s feathers – hiding behind the indulgence of a readership that they assume is too ignorant or besotted to bother calling them to account.

The reason that it is unforgivable is not that it is a theft equivalent to driving off in someone’s car; a stolen DVD player can be replaced; the money in a wallet can be payed back.  Plagiarism, in contrast, irreparably debases everyone in its little sphere of influence – victim, reader, and writer.  It belittles the victim’s hard work, insults the reader’s intelligence and trust, and proves how egomaniacally hollow and devoid of individuality the writer has been in thought and practice.  It is narcissism made manifest; and as it their own name that plagiarists are trading on at the expense of all others, then by their very own actions they render it worthless.

That’s why Odysseus – renowned in this world and the next as the greatest teller of tales who ever lived – knew the mighty price of attaching a name to your deeds.  When escaping the Cyclops he said his name was ‘Nobody’, wise enough to know that there is power and danger in taking ownership of your actions.  Indeed, when his pride and ego led him to rashly blurt out his name, he suffered dearly.  And when he finally returned home to find a gaggle of usurping thieves, villains who literally intended to steal his kingly title while growing fat on his property, convinced that he would never know of their imposition, he knew well enough to board up the doors, count his arrows, and in the most pitiless, righteous wrath, reclaim his name.

ChainSawSuit Good Artists Copy by Kris Straub

IMAGE: ‘Good Artists Copy’, chainsawsuit by Kris Straub

* Ali’s piece is also a response to the proliferation of lecherous and tasteless articles on websites that heretofore have purported to offer legitimate cultural and critical substance – articles listing which teenage actresses are ‘hotter’, cataloguing where to find the best full-frontal nudity in film, etc.

The Newsroom: ‘The Best Possible Version of the Argument’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Newsroom (HBO)

For a writer who specialises in drawing inspiration from the details of real life – who employs the known facts of recent history, utilises sharp biographical research, and explores the machinations of complex, identifiable institutions as source material – Aaron Sorkin somehow manages to write truly beautiful dreams.

In The West Wing Sorkin presented an image of a sitting American administration filled with honourable, hardworking, ferociously intelligent people, all fuelled by a longing to leave the future world a better place than the one into which they were elected.  His fictional government was overstuffed – on both sides of the partisan divide – with people who faithfully believed in serving their constituents to the best of their ability; people who used integrity, compromise, and reasoned debate as the cornerstones of their decision making process.  In The Social Network, a screenplay for which he won an academy award, he made even the most emotionally stunted and narcissistic characters ring true with identifiable (if not always admirable) aspirations and motivations.  In A Few Good Men he celebrated military service and the tenacity of truth (even if you couldn’t handle it!) in a culture that at times necessitated secrecy.  In Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip he…

ah…

Well, to be honest, I really don’t know.  Although, as a television narrative set behind the scenes of a late night sketch comedy show (one that screened on NBC), he seemed to be laying the metatextual groundwork for his hilarious ‘walk-and-talk’ appearance with Liz Lemon, years after his own show’s cancellation, on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock – the show that did in fact successfully carry the premise Studio 60 was loosely built around to its fruition.

In truth, I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work in the past – found it worthy and intriguing, been struck by its loquacious elegance – but previously I’ve not been swept up in the raptures reported by many of his fans.  It’s certainly not that I don’t care for his work – merely an acknowledgment that although there are many people whose opinions I greatly admire that have told me of their adoration for Sports Night (which I have not seen at all), or of their fervent belief that The West Wing (into which I have only dipped) is the best show ever made for television, so far I have not joined this enamoured throng.

But then I watched the first season of The Newsroom – the series he created and wrote for HBO – and okay.  Okay, I see it now.

Because wow.

Sure, I can happily leave aside all the tortured will-they-won’t-they back-and-forth of the ensemble’s principle younglings, Jim and Maggie, who have circled each other all season in a progressively tedious square dance (particularly when, by the last few episodes, the gravity of their emotional cowardice has now pulled Don, and bystanders like Lisa and Sloan into the well…)  I can overlook some of the more fantastical beats (for example: anything Bigfoot; confusing Georgia the state and Georgia the country; the general slapstick) that, in an effort to enliven the mood, can risk tipping into comic contrivance.  And I can even forgive the moments when characters inch perhaps a little too close to sermonising.  I can ignore all of that, because at the heart of this narrative, underneath all that might superficially appear to be political and social commentary, is a celebration and defence of language that is utterly inspiring.

Yes, as is often noted of his work, Sorkin’s dialogue is rapid and rhythmic.  It skips along like a Frank Capra film; playful and lively, with characters leapfrogging each other’s verbal play with snappy rejoinders and witty retorts.  These figures speak like you wish human beings could – sparring and riffing and speckled with playful snark.

More than that, however, Sorkin argues over the application of language, of the beauty of rhetoric and its potential abuse, of the influence this misappropriation can have upon the validity of discourse.  He explores the misuses of grammar: he ponders the difference between ‘whom’ and ‘which’; over the worrying semantic blur in defining corporations as individuals; over arbitrary definitions, such as referring to all undocumented immigrants with convenient, blanket terms like ‘illegals’.  Sorkin implores the viewer to be mindful of the expressive potential of our language, and the semantic shift that can swiftly occur when one is not observant of its casual misuse.

And oh, those speeches…

Pleas for a return to intelligent discourse in political debate (no matter what your affiliation), for meticulousness and determination in journalism.  Petitions for an audience hungry for comprehensive information and reasoned analysis amongst the frantic, hyperbolic cacophony of the twenty-four hour news cycle.  Appeals for a moment of digested respite amongst the daily pursuit of the sensational for ratings, and each network’s desperation to break news first, no matter how ill-informed, specious or riddled with speculation.  A battle cry to discard the farcical pageantry of journalism – from Fox News and its slavish devotion to pundit talking points, to CNN and its addiction to techno-porn like electronic graph salads and holograms.  Sorkin’s characters rail against the vulgarity of giving soapboxes to the most extreme, unsubstantiated viewpoints simply because it makes for explosive (and trivialised) entertainment.

The first scene of the series literally depicts the central character, Will, sandwiched between one such barrage of reductive rhetoric at a university forum.  He sits between two extreme caricatures of the bipolar spectrum in American politics – the vapid liberal and the belligerent conservative; each feeding off the other’s spite to validate their own indignation – and as he hears them rail against each other in their predictable, bullet-point oversimplifications, his head is buzzing.

Finally, irked by all this impotent rage masquerading as political debate, and goaded by the host into picking a side, Will eventually erupts, unleashing an impassioned screed.  He rails against such self-perpetuating victimhood, and the fruitless divisiveness it cultivates, even berating a student who had naively asked – in the midst of all this petty squabbling – what makes America the greatest country in the world.  It is that presumption that so infuriates Will, it seems, that willingness to just leap to a presumptive surety before even bothering to consider the facts.

Indeed, in the final moments of the first episode it is revealed that despite his proffered excuse that he had suffered an adverse chemical reaction, Will had not in fact taken any vertigo medication before his meltdown – he had simply overdosed on all this mindless vitriol.  In truth, his mind, like the media discourse at large, had been in slow process of atrophy, numbed by the arbitrary maelstrom in which he was being buffeted.  The clichéd cycle of needlessly bipartisan oratory, the thoughtless phrasing of redundant questions that invite only pabulum regurgitation as response – his mind was choking in a haze of apathy, and it responded instinctively, purging the air in a flourish of Sorkin’s signature resplendent verbiage.

It is likewise fitting that this episode – and therefore the whole fiction of The Newsroom – starts with a momentary eruption of truth that was caught and distributed virally (captured by a hall filled with mobile phones, streamed through YouTube, dispersed through Twitter, disseminated in blogs; all mediums that are referenced in some way or another in the first episode).  After all, never before has the world been so inundated with platforms through which society can express itself with immediacy and freedom (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing this very spiel in blog form), yet at the same time, it has never felt so acutely that the voices at the centre of that maelstrom – those traditionally tasked with the pursuit and curation of objective truth beneath all the empty rhetoric – have completely abdicated their role as the watchdogs of social discourse.

Between reporters so desperate to break stories ‘first’ (even if only microseconds before their competitors) that they risk spewing inaccurate speculation onto the air (to use but one example, after the tragic massacre in a Colorado cinema last year, ABC journalist Brian Ross named an innocent man as a suspect for the crime); or commentators blithely spinning fabrication to suit their narratives (again, to use but one example, conservative pundit’s ludicrous parroting that President Obama’s trip to India cost upwards of 200 million dollars a day, and involved a 3000 person strong entourage with a third of the navy along for the ride – a nonsense addressed directly in The Newsroom); or where celebrity scandals saturate screen time daily while ongoing foreign tragedy or social inequity at home gets comparatively peripheral attention.  In a world where it seemed to take satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart screwing around with a Super PAC in the run up to the election for many in the media to start concentrating upon how repugnantly and uncomfortably intermingled such unpoliced attack groups can become with candidates pursuing higher office.

Amongst all of this speculative, subjective noise, The Newsroom, and its central protagonists, pleads for a moment of introspective calm – a cherishing of objective truth, and an interrogation of fact, in order to allow for rational debate.  As the executive producer of the fictional News Night program MacKenzie McHale states:

‘That studio is a courtroom.  And we only call expert witnesses.  Will is the attorney for both sides.  He examines the witness and reveals facts.’

It is a pursuit in search of – and offering a defence for – context.  They refresh the grammar amongst the hyperbole, theoretically allowing for a space in which debate, stemming from impartial truth, can prosper.

The recurring textual touchstone of the series, referenced repeatedly throughout the season’s run and cited at the inception of the new News Night journalistic mission statement, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  At first, Will is inspired to reclaim his journalistic integrity through an appeal to this ironic heroic quest; later he will proudly declare Don Quixote’s mission as his mantra.

In the original novel, a nobleman named Alonso Quijano falls in love with the tales of chivalry and justice he has spent years absorbing.  He becomes besotted by a nostalgic fiction, a ‘Golden Age’ of man that he longs to preserve.  It is a highly self-reflexive work – a metatextual self-inspection of fantasy and Romanticism* – one that inspires Quijano, emboldened by the tales of valour and virtue in Romantic fiction, to change his name to Don Quixote, and set out upon a misguided attempt to ‘civilise’ the world – a knight errant believing he can restore a corrupted social disorder.

… But he was mad.

The piercing ironic comedy of this work comes from the realisation that Don Quixote, stirred into action by beautiful fantasies, heads out into a world filled with dangers he neither understands nor can recognise, blind to the debasement that stares him in the eye.  And so, on his journey, he is routinely physically and psychological beaten down.  Most famously, he ’tilts’ at windmills; literally mistaking windmills as giants, he attacks them in a self-destructive charge that risks devastating himself on what it revealed to be an utterly foolish errand.**

The Newsroom too embraces this kind of romantic sensibility.  The show name-checks Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, remembering them fondly as exemplars of an age in which the news was a bastion of reason and independence.  And again, perhaps that’s the great appeal of Sorkin’s writing.  His work (and in this particular text, his characters) are enflamed by nostalgia, by a longing for a better time, perhaps remembered more vividly and idealistically than it ever truly was.  They take that nostalgic impulse and hone it to a razor’s edge on the millstone of their hope; defying the odds, arguably flying in the face of present reality, they yearn to recapture the best of what we believed ourselves to be.

There is a recurring gag in The Newsroom whenever someone cites Don Quixote.  Frequently when Cervantes’ character is mentioned, it is noted that he was never wholly alone in his quest.  People refer to themselves as his companion and aide Sancho Panza, or even his fantasised lady love, Dulcinea – but no one, ultimately, is willing to be his horse (or donkey, rather.***)

But I want to be the horse.

(Or donkey.  …Whatever.****)

Damn looking silly.  Damn tilting at windmills.  I’ll be the horse.  To carry such a noble madman?  To be filled with such wondrous hopeful intent?  It would enrich us all; would prove the dream of reasoned argument and an end to empty rhetoric a glorious reality.  Or at the very least, something worth trudging toward.

Now, in the interests of living up to this narrative’s own demand for responsible counterargument, one might respond to Sorkin’s pleas for an obstinate impartiality by observing that he himself, in the service of creating an engaging fiction, utilises highly persuasive rhetorical techniques.  There are times when the dialogue borders on diatribe, and the prescience these characters exhibit over the unfolding events in which they are embroiled might read as a form of narrative sanctimony.  One might observe that these flourishes in his writing are themselves manipulative stylistic choices that give a rather ironic dramatic flourish to his calls for objective judiciousness…  However, as a tremendous fan of hyperbole myself, I would respond to such criticism by saying, respectfully, um… shut up.

Please?

It is a beautiful dream.  One worth passionately defending as Sorkin – through his fictional band of tenacious believers – does.  And as an alternative to the undigested parroting of fear-mongering, scapegoating, obfuscation and accusation that too often passes as discussion in modern broadcasting, it presents a much needed respite from the daily erosion of our analytical soul.

As Jack McCoy says (okay, I know his name is Charlie Skinner, but Waterson will always be the astonishing McCoy to me):

We can do better.

All of us.  We just have to decide to.  And Sorkin’s The Newsroom is the beautiful dream that proves we still long to do better – even if we currently fall short of the goal.

And personally, I would rather be moved by a dream, to yearn for something better, than to wallow in the cynicism of a reductive bipolarity that too often masquerades as news.   Thankfully, Sorkin’s is a fiction that proves there is still hope for rational intelligent discourse, even if only in our fantasies.

File:Don Quixote 6.jpg

IMAGE: Don Quixote Fighting A Windmill by Gustave Dore (1863)

* A textual self-reflexivity that the extraordinary writer Jorge Luis Borges would later explode outward even further in his prose with the short fiction ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘.

** Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter VIII.

***And no: this is not a Democrat reference, by the way).

**** For the record: it’s a horse, named Rocinante.

Advertainmentorial: Blurring the ‘Journalism’ in Games Journalism (a rant)

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by drayfish

Image

IMAGE: Advertisement for Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

The unprecedented fan backlash that emerged following the release of Mass Effect 3 early last year had a number of unforeseen consequences in the world of videogame journalism.  Most immediately it revealed a stark and needlessly hostile division between the gaming press and a subsection of their readership; but it further exposed some rather complicated interrelations between those critics and the publishers they are tasked with reviewing.

In the wake of the negative fan response to Mass Effect 3, many in the press condemned those unhappy with the ending presented by Bioware as ‘entitled whiners’, describing them as indulged consumers who, in their opinion, threatened to irreparably damage the legitimacy of videogames as an artistic medium.  In the opinion rant offered by Colin Moriarty (Playstation editor for IGN), his ferocious, infantile attack even refused any fan even the basic right to express their dissatisfaction once their purchase had been made.  You either admit you liked it (as he did), or shut the hell up.

Frequently, these arguments boiled down to a variation of one rhetorical plea: how can games be considered Art if the audience dares to question the absolutism of its creator’s vision?  It is a premise that embraced a reductive, narrow illogic that fundamentally misunderstood the whole history of art; but more than that, it revealed a self-righteous indignation at the heart of the gaming press itself.

After all, it was they in the press themselves who had spent years hyperbolically parroting the promises of Bioware’s publicity machine, ensuring player’s that, yes indeed, their choices would matter, that they would help shape the ending that they chose.  Indeed, in an extraordinary amount of cases, it was they themselves that had repeated these very sentiments in their reviews of the game (your choices matter; you define your ending; you decide your fate), and yet they immediately sought to discredit the fans who wanted to question those statements after making their purchase and finding it a distinctly different experience from the one promised.

But as many in the games media shook their collective heads in disappointment, lamenting that their audience was failing to live up to their expectations, the heightened scrutiny that this controversy stirred soon revealed some rather glaring omissions and conflicts of interest – few of which had been previously disclosed – all of which left the moral high ground from which they clucked their tongues a little unstable beneath their feet.

After all, Jessica Chobot, one of the principle representatives of gaming site IGN (one of Bioware’s most vocal supporters throughout), actually appeared as a character in Mass Effect 3, muddying the journalistic distance one might hope for in a publication’s criticism or review.  Indeed, it was a decision that made the ferocious screed Moriarty spewed at disgruntled fans appear a little personal.  (At the very least it threw a glaring suspicion over his ugly, and weirdly wounded vitriol.)

Similarly, the majority of reviewers of Mass Effect 3 were sent copies that could not import decisions from previous save games (here) meaning that they had no way of speaking to what is arguably the central conceit of the game experience (a fact many did not disclose in their copy), with consequentially few (if any) speaking of the face import issues that spoiled the experience for a great number of players.

And amongst innumerable other such examples, the publication Game Informer was happy to publish pre-release quotes such as Case Hudson’s promises of no ‘A, B, or C ending’ in expansive, gushing advertorial articles (here), while going on to not only fail to question the hypocrisies in such promises in their 10/10 review, but actively dismiss fans who questioned such contradiction after the fact.*

Sadly, however, incidents such as these have proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that appears to lack the necessary objectivity that a word like ‘journalism’ necessitates.  As even a cursory exploration of the medium’s press reveals, in just the past several months a startling amount of evidence has surfaced that suggests that the relationship between publisher and reviewer has become, at times, uncomfortably cosy, with the average reader left unable to disentangle what is unsolicited analysis, and what is coerced, encouraged, or influenced by the very publishers who are supposedly being critiqued.**

* Jeff Gerstmann gave a negative review to Kane & Lynch and was summarily fired by Gamespot who caved to Sony’s threats to pull their advertising and exclusives.  The reasoning offered for his termination was that he ‘couldn’t be trusted’ to be an Editorial Director (here).

* At the most recent GMAs, gaming journalists were offered the chance to win a Playstation 3 console if they Tweeted advertising for the upcoming Tomb Raider game.  When a Eurogamer’s Robert Florence questioned whether or not such a practice was above board considering that they were meant to be the critics, not the cheerleaders of these products, he was fired (here).

* Publishers routinely send swag to reviewers as ‘gifts’ to accompany the review copies of their games – things like pens, clothing, crazy expensive chess sets (here), and offer expenses-paid ‘preview’ excursions to hotels and events.

* Activision blackballed Gameplanet, refusing them interviews with the makers of their games, because they wrote (extraordinarily briefly) about one such junket in which Activision invited a bunch of gaming journalists to an exclusive all-expenses paid hotel event, questioning the legitimacy of such an advertising technique (here).

* Sony felt comfortable threatening Kotaku with blackballing when they tried to report on an upcoming Sony service, even emailing them some borderline extortion menace that included the lines:

‘I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor…. I can’t defend outlets that can’t work cooperatively with us. / So, it is for this reason, that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum.’ (here)

* Electronic Arts seemingly sought to manipulate reviews of Battlefield 3 in Norway by withholding review copies to reviewers that gave bad reviews to previous installments, and forcing reviewers to fill out questionnaires about what they might score it (here).

So to summarise: confirmed cases of obscuration, extortion, enticement, coercion, all in a systemised ongoing blur between advertising and criticism…

Many in the games industry claim that such actions are uncharacteristic and minor aberrations in an otherwise ethically sound field.  They would argue that it is unjust to look upon such incidents as anything more than the misbehaviour of a misguided few who stepped way over the line and were swiftly corrected; but to me, dismissing them as isolated events completely at odds with the standard practice of this field is highly disingenuous.  Rather, these events are evidence of an ongoing systemic pattern of behaviour that has shown no signs of cessation or legitimate regulation.

The firing of Robert Florence happened only months ago – and that decision has not been reversed.  Sony’s and Activision’s bully tactics appear to be ongoing – or at least have adapted over time.  Game publishers continue to send swag to reviewers along with copies of their game; still preview their games in exclusive expenses-paid junkets; and utilise their marketing divisions to determine which outlet will be provided what level of access and which exclusives.

While I agree that people need to exercise reason and personal assessment in their purchasing, to pretend that the division between PR and critique in this industry has not been inextricably blurred, to dismiss the reality that there are few (if any) places to seek out analysis that has not been clouded by the uncomfortably close relationship of publishers and reviewers, is wilfully naive.

While it is not (and is never) as simple an arrangement as ‘I will give you this ludicrous, expensive chess set and you will give me a great score for my game…’ it is instead a system of comingled marketing and analysis has become so engrained – indeed, so expected – that the discerning consumer looking on is now incapable of reasonably drawing a line between what is unsolicited, honest review, and what has been swayed by an undisclosed familiarity with the publisher.

There are innumerable means of influence and persuasion – and yes, they are a part of every business that employs advertising to survive – but when it is common industry practice to ply games journalists with merchandise to invite them to linger longer upon, or think better of a game***, and then those very same people are later tasked with the analysis of that finished product, a line has been crossed that I believe must be considered with reservation.  (And again: the recent game-journalists-tweeting-publicity-to-win-a- PS3 scenario is a worrying product of a system that currently appears to be functioning without strict regulation.)

Indeed, the fact that the ‘reviewers’ of games are thought of as potential advertising opportunities in such a manner – potential billboards that can be won over and utilised to spread product awareness – is precisely the issue that makes trusting any opinion offered by these figures suspect.  Roger Ebert may get free tickets to the films he reviews, but he is not pictured wearing a Spiderman 6: Rise of the Arbitrary Sequel hoodie at the time; he won’t be denied access to interviews with directors and programmers if he slags off a movie (because publicity is not part of his purview); and the advertising that keeps his job afloat comes from a more diverse field of companies than merely the makers of those film themselves.

When I disagree with Roger Ebert – and I frequently do (the man loved Speed 2) – I do so because it is his personal perspective that I conflict with, not the entire perpetuation of the publicity/critique system that he works within.  At present those divisions have not yet been established firmly enough in this medium – and until they are, until such gratis gifts and payed, wooing previews are the exception rather than the rule, such scepticism will, by necessity, always persist.

So no, this is not a field swimming in fraud and dishonesty, but it is hardly a paragon of incorruptible principle, either – and when onlookers of the whole Mass Effect saga see two facts: ’75 perfect scores’, alongside a player Metacritic score of 1.5, I think a little more scepticism on both sides is healthy.

* And Game Informer (a publication owned by GameStop) announced that Mass Effect 3 was their Game of the Year for 2012 on the very same page that they advertised the release date and details of the ‘New Wii-U edition!’

** And an article like this one by Erik Kain at Forbes is an extraordinary (and rather disheartening) place to start (http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/10/26/all-the-pretty-doritos-how-video-game-journalism-went-off-the-rails/)

*** Ninja Stan, a moderator on the Bioware forum who has previously worked for Bioware (and with whom I had the original discussion that evolved into this rant), confirmed that Bioware, like innumerable other publishers, has routinely employed techniques such as supplying free beer to games journalists at events like PAX in order to entice them to linger longer at their booths and think more favourably of their games.

%d bloggers like this: