On Advertising Versus Editorial Content

Following quiet rumblings last night, numerous reports this morning confirmed the firing of CNET employee Jeff Gerstmann, an editorial director at Gamespot, after he wrote a less than fully positive review of an Eidos product that had been heavily advertised on the site. Gerstmann was chiefly responsible for the site’s product reviews, and known for his willingness to critically evaluate even the most hyped releases—a practice that has regrettably become far less common amongst his peers over the past 15 years, one reason that game reviews have become so notoriously untrustworthy. According to the reports, Eidos was angered by Gerstmann’s review, and threatened to yank its pervasive advertising for the product; CNET subsequently fired Gerstmann, and removed his video review of the game from its site.

While it is possible that these reports are inaccurate—despite claims from other journalists familiar with the situation, Gerstmann and CNET are not discussing the circumstances surrounding the firing—I’m writing this morning for two reasons. First, like thousands of others who have been registering their anger through this Digg article, I wanted to add my support to the pool, and encourage you to do so as well. I may not agree with every one of Gerstmann’s reviews, but I respect him for repeatedly calling it like he sees it, even in the face of pressure to do otherwise. Second, I wanted to take the opportunity to explain iLounge’s take on advertiser influence in product coverage, and explain how situations like the one discussed above may have happened elsewhere in the past, but won’t happen here.

iLounge readers are well aware of our policies regarding advertiser influence on reviews or other product coverage: this is verboten. Some advertisers and potential advertisers have tried, and failed, to get us to toe the line on their products, often with the promise of an advertising campaign if we do, and when we turn them down, their ads wind up elsewhere—generally in places where the reviews are almost invariably chummy.

There is a reason that I don’t care. Within the iLounge organization, editorial coverage is entirely separate from our business side—advertising, giveaways, and other promotions. Our publisher Dennis Lloyd deals with business affairs, and our editors, including me, are completely independent in creating the site’s content. On the rare occasion that a company we’re covering tries to discuss advertising when Dennis and I are in the same place, I plug my ears and walk out of the room. Literally. As editor-in-chief, I could hardly care less whose ads are or aren’t running on the site on any given day, so long as they’re not misleading our readers or crashing browsers. My job is to keep our coverage of all things iPod, iPhone, and iTunes accurate and objective, not to find new and interesting ways to restate someone else’s advertising pitch. When a product deserves positive, mixed, or poor coverage, it gets it, and if what we say happens to agree or disagree with what the advertiser or someone else says, so be it.

This isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere. At some publications, the publisher writes the editorial content, so the same person who is writing “objectively” about a product is also being paid to run an ad for it, or handling giveaways of units to readers. Elsewhere, publishers lord over editors and contributors, so there’s an either implicit or explicit threat to their livelihood if they step too hard on advertisers’ toes, and thus, the publishers’ pocketbooks. According to the reports on Gerstmann’s firing, that’s what happened here: the publisher kowtowed to an angry advertiser and got rid of someone who didn’t agree with the official company line. Something similar happened with IDG’s PC World magazine earlier this year, when an executive refused to let the magazine’s editor publish an anti-Apple story on the grounds that it would impact Apple’s advertising. For obvious reasons, this is incredibly dangerous—at least, if you value the objectivity of what you’re reading. Things you’d otherwise dislike tend to look good when you’re being given incentives like freebies, cash, or continued employment if you like them.

From my personal perspective, what seems to have happened in the Gerstmann case is more than “dangerous”—it’s idiotic. Editorial content is not supposed to mirror advertising content. Any company that sacrifices a writer to placate an advertiser is not only undermining its credibility; it’s also making the incorrect assumption that people read the publication for what’s in the ads, not the writing. Getting rid of the writer, especially one who offers views different from what’s in the advertising, removes the only major differentiator between a publication and a catalog. The world doesn’t need more catalogs. But if readers don’t stand up and support writers, expect to see the advertising-as-journalism trend continue to grow—thankfully, not at iLounge.

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