Things are getting very interesting at AOL.
Last fall, before the massive news of the Huffington Post acquisition, AOL made another significant content acquisition when it acquired popular Tech blog Tech Crunch. Both parties made it abundantly clear that nothing would change on the editorial side of things at TechCrunch, as a result of the deal. TechCrunch would continue about its business as usual, in its usual style, even if that meant taking shots at AOL itself.
Since then, that has remained clear, as TechCrunch hasn't held back. Once TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington suggested someone at AOL (rather than within TechCrunch itself) might have been responsible for an annoying ad that readers were complaining about. The site also engaged in something of a blog war with fellow AOL-owned tech blog Engadget.
Now, TechCrunch is talking smack about another AOL property - Moviefone. TC's Alexia Tsotsis posted an email she received from a Moviefone representative, following an interview she had done at SXSW. The email said:
Hope you're having a good time at SXSW and that it's not been too crazy busy for you!
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? I wasn't able to view the video interviews but I think their issue is just with some of the text. 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.
Tsotsis positioned the situation as "AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down," explaining that the publication had promised to publish it if AOL had ever asked it to change its coverage in any way. "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," she wrote. "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."
Moviefone Editor-in-Chief Patricia Chui took exception to Tsotsis' article, posting a statement in the form of a blog post:
I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a few things.
1) The person who wrote that email was not acting in an editorial capacity. That person's job is to act as an intermediary between the studios and editorial -- not to dictate content, nor to weigh in on the content of Moviefone or any other AOL site. In fact, the presence of a person with that role is just one means we have of ensuring editorial integrity on Moviefone.
2) This is important: We never told TechCrunch to change the post in any way. A publicist at Summit reached out asking if we could convey the studio's feedback to TechCrunch. We did so. If the editors had responded that they declined to edit the post -- which, naturally, is entirely their call -- we simply would have conveyed that information back to Summit.
The reality of our situation is that, as a movies site, we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them. Staying on good terms with studios means that we will relay information if asked. It does not mean that we would ever force a writer or an editor to edit their work for the sake of a studio -- or anyone else.
We take editorial integrity seriously at Moviefone, and it's painful to be depicted as a pawn of the studios when that is emphatically not the case. You may think it unseemly for a studio to request changes in an article; that's certainly your right. But the accusation of pandering on our part or crossing an editorial line is, to my mind, completely unfair, and I would hope that a reasonable reader would be able to recognize the situation for what it is -- overblown and unwarranted.
Paul Carr wrote a TechCrunch article after Tsotsis', saying, "Actually, AOL Didn't Ask Us To 'Tone It Down' – Moviefone Did. And Their Editor-In-Chief Should Be Fired," and that "I kinda feel like we owe AOL an apology." Here are a couple excerpts from his article:
The problem is Moviefone is no more a representative of AOL Corp than we are. As such, the headline could just as accurately have read “Moviefone asks AOL to tone it down”. An employee of Moviefone sending a dumb email to a TechCrunch writer is not the same as Tim Armstrong sending it, or Arianna Huffington sending it. Yes, it’s a damning indictment of the kind of dumbass hacks that are still inexplicably employed by some of AOL’s content divisions (and who Arianna Huffington has her work cut out to replace), but it’s not an indictment of AOL itself. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous at best, dangerous at worst.
To suggest that a silly email by a staffer at Moviefone is the smoking gun we’ve all been waiting for smacks of boy-who-cried-wolfism, which will make it far harder for us to raise a stink if and when someone with a VP title or above at AOL HQ does ask us to “make a few changes”. Headlines like “AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down” might be good for clickthroughs but they’re bad for just about everything else.
He also responded to Chui's statement, saying:
Actually, Patricia, you only have two loyalties: one is to your readers and one is to the company that signs your paychecks. That's it. You do not – emphatically do not – have a responsibility to "stay on good terms" with movie studios. On the contrary, when a movie company asks you to try to strong-arm a colleague into dialing down her editorial voice, it’s in your best interests as a professional editor to tell them to go fuck themselves. The fact that you didn't do that is bad enough, the fact that you’re so bad at your job that you still believe you acted correctly is unforgivable.
Carr suggested that Tsotsis send Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington some flowers to apologize.
Arrington himself chimed in, saying, "So I'm guessing that Moviefone won't be asking us to write any more movie reviews for them going forward," and "Also, is moviefone the thing you used to call before the Internet to know when movies were playing? I loved that thing. Not sure why it still exists."
The whole not selling out thing on TechCrunch's part is commendable, but this all seems like a bit of an overreaction. Let's review this quote from the original email that was sent to Tsotsis:
"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..."
Is this really "strong-arming"? If you read the entire email again (which is quite polite too), it kind of seems like someone just passing along a message. My translation is something like this: "Hey, these guys want you to tone down the criticism, but I understand that you probably don't want to, and that's cool. Just let me know what to tell them. I just want to tell them something, since our entire focus of content is the movie industry, and I don't want to completely ignore them, and burn an important bridge, or put words into your mouth and try to take responsibility for your brand's editorial practices."
As AOL has lost high profile people (aside from its recent layoffs) in the content department including several Engadget editors (most recently, Editor-in-Chief Joshua Topolsky), it's interesting to see all of this internal (yet public) bickering and calling out of colleagues.