Ever since AOL acquired TechCrunch for somewhere between $20 and $45 million, the editors of the Silicon Valley news blog vowed to maintain TechCrunch's independent editorial voice. It was the provision that "really sealed the deal" during acquisition talks, promised TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington.
Well this week, that tension was tested and it appears that TechCrunch is all too willing to give its parent company a black eye. In a blog post titled "AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down," Alexia Tsotsis explains a confrontation she had with a representative from Moviefone/AOL Television. She had just finished an article about how Summit Entertainment was trying to market the film The Source Code to techie filmgoers. It wasn't by any means a scathing review but it openly discussed the film's marketing objectives. As a result Tsotsis received an e-mail from an AOL representative who she says was pressured by Summit Entertainment. Here's the e-mail:
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.
Well that's all it took for Tsotsis to sound the alarm bells to TechCrunch readers and call foul on the bid to tone things down. She explained her frustrations as such:
a) We’ve made a loose promise that if Aol ever asked us if we could change our coverage in any way, that we’d immediately publish it. Moviefone is part of AOL, so here you go.
b) It highlights a key difference between the Hollywood and Silicon Valley media ecosystem. Granted, it’s common for the press to trade access for positive coverage across all industries (eh hem, Apple), but nowhere is it more prevalent than in the stratified environs of the movie and television industry. It’s almost like a petri dish for media manipulation.
c) What I didn’t understand when writing my candid opinion about the movie and its marketing strategy was that Summit thought that by inviting me to their party they were basically buying a puff piece. The thought never crossed my mind, mainly because I cover startups, and startups, unlike Hollywood stars, want to talk to the press.
The editor-in-chief of Moviefone, Patricia Chui, has responded to Tsotsis's allegations:
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.
Meanwhile, new media critic Jeff Jarvis isn't buying it. "This Moviefone post [is] tone-deaf BS," he tweets. "Pressure on editorial is pressure on editorial. Full stop"