Yesterday in Penny Arcade’s news post, Tycho delivered a pretty outstanding smack down to a misguided op-ed piece on Kotaku. That article was “Gaming’s Biggest Problem Is That Nobody Wants to Talk” by Jason Schreier.
There’s plenty wrong with that op-ed, and it’d be pointless to try and go over every objectionable aspect of it.
But I’ll try anyway. First is that the justification Schreier uses vacillates between camaraderie and antagonism like a join me or die! villain at the end of an action movie. Here, it’s Information wants to be free! The people have a right to know! Publishers, tear down this wall of secrecy! There, it’s Hey, it’s all good! We just all want to get excited about your game! The truth is neither: he just wants to get the Hot Scoops.
Schreier starts right off the bat mentioning Kotaku’s exclusive leak of info for Modern Warfare 3. Was this a shocking expose of information that The People needed to know? Hardly. So then it must’ve been simply a case of drumming up excitement for a much-anticipated title. But if that’s the case, then why make such a big deal about making it exclusive, releasing it before the publisher was ready, and making sure that Kotaku was first on the scene? The answer, obviously, is ad revenue. It’s frankly offensive to see someone trying to pass this off as some kind of public service.
Then there’s the recurring theme of the op-ed: I want PR divisions to do my job for me, even more than they already do. Here’s a choice quote that was already pulled out for us to ponder:
Square Enix wouldn’t even say how many people worked on one of their games. Even though I can just go in and count the credits.
So is the size of the team working on a game relevant, or even interesting to anyone other than the HR and accounting departments of Square Enix? Again, I’m skeptical. But assuming that it was: why didn’t Schreier just go in and count the credits?
Professional Trust or Corporate Lapdog?
Of course, “someone wrote something kind of dumb on Kotaku” is hardly news. The only reason it’s worth mentioning at all is because the op-ed, while dismissible, does reflect this image of games journalism that’s pervasive among writers, readers, and developers.
Tycho’s response nails the most salient point: getting information from game developers and publishers requires having a relationship of trust that comes from mutual benefit. Games journalists rely on publishers to get review copies and information about upcoming releases. Publishers rely on games journalists to get word out about their game. There needn’t be anything antagonistic about that as long as both sides are professional.
But Schreier starts his own op-ed with examples of how his site’s violated that trust. He dismisses the severity of the Modern Warfare leak by saying that the game sold well regardless, as if that not only makes it okay, it’s something that the publishers should be happy about. That just shows a tremendous lack of respect for the team that spent months (if not longer) developing a PR campaign for the game. With rare exceptions, the people running PR departments aren’t stupid. And even when they are, they know the value of controlling what information is released and when. Kotaku obviously knows the value of it, too, or else they wouldn’t be slapping EXCLUSIVE on their articles and going to great lengths to be the first to release it.
Publishers and developers know what happens when screenshots get released. A single pre-release image from a game can spawn huge message board or comment threads full of people making wild assumptions based on the smallest detail of a UI element. Once that starts, it becomes gospel, and anything that the publisher says in response will be summarily dismissed. Word of mouth can kill interest in a game even before it’s released, or on the flip side, have people extrapolating wild ideas and then being disappointed when the reality doesn’t live up to that. (Take the XCOM first person shooter as just one example).
He goes on to mention the leak of Valve’s proprietary source code with another dismissal of “no harm, no foul!” I don’t know what’s worse: if he’s actually that ignorant of the economics of game development and how much money went into developing that code, or if he’s disingenuous enough to try and convince readers that it doesn’t matter.
All of it leads to the same conclusion: he’s got no respect for the time, effort, and money that publishers put into developing and promoting their games. If his site is showing the publishers and developers so little respect, why should they show any more than the barest amount of respect to him as a representative of the site?
Of course, when you describe the relationship between developers and journalists in those terms, the response is invariably the same: You’re saying that games journalists should become corporate lapdogs for the games industry, reporting only what the publishers tell them to and when, abandoning any pretense of journalism and just becoming extensions of publishers’ marketing departments!
And that sucks, because even if you don’t take it to that extreme, the idea is still so prevalent that it makes the relationship between developers, journalists, and readers needlessly antagonistic.
Enthusiast Press or Investigative Journalists?
The problem is not recognizing the difference between the “enthusiast press” — games journalists and tech/gadget journalists are the two areas I’m most familiar with — and the traditional press. There is a difference.
And right there, I bet I’ve already alienated several of my acquaintances who work as games journalists. Because there’s this pervasive idea that if there’s a difference, that necessarily means that one’s better than the other. I must be saying that games writers aren’t “real” journalists.
That’s absurd. If anything, professional games writing (and general tech writing) is a superset of traditional journalism, at least in breadth if not depth. Obviously, you’ve got to be familiar with the subject, no matter what you’re writing about. But especially with games, you’ve got to be entertaining in addition to just being informative. You’ve got to be insightful and not simply objective.
Unless you work somewhere that has rigidly divided departments, you’ve got to be able to handle previews of upcoming releases as well as reviews of existing ones, and you’ve got to understand how they’re different in tone. You might be writing something based on nothing more than a press release and your knowledge of the industry. You might be writing an op-ed or a feature, and even that is further divided into writing about the social/economic side of games, or writing about the creative and technical side.
And, of course, at some point you’re going to be doing investigative journalism. Writing about working conditions in the industry, discrimination in hiring, discrimination in subject matter, the financial health of companies, studio closures, hirings, firings, and the state of games journalism itself.
That investigative journalism is part of the job. And it is, quite simply, different from the other types of writing that the enthusiast press is going to be doing. I think a lot of readers and writers believe that making such a distinction harms objectivity. It doesn’t. It simply requires developers and writers to be professional enough to recognize the differences.
And it requires readers to maintain enough of a tie to reality so as not to be crying foul at every imagined lapse of journalistic integrity, the moment a writer doesn’t demonstrate exactly enough skepticism over a press release or isn’t quite critical enough of a quote.
Keeping Them Honest
The traditional press has a responsibility to keep the public informed on the issues that affect them. Obviously, it’d be a shitty journalist who just repeated without question anything and everything a politician or corporate representative said to them. A traditional reporter has to be always on the lookout for a hidden agenda.
Here’s a super-secret exclusive bombshell, reported first-hand by a 16-year games industry insider: game companies want you to give them money. There’s no hidden agenda. With few exceptions (reports of Bobby Kotick’s secret kitten-blood-powered doomsday device funded by profits from the Call of Duty series are strictly hearsay) they are blatantly obvious in their motivations: they would like it very much if you would get excited about this game and then pay them for it, and in the case of MMOs, keep paying them for it every month indefinitely.
Mis-representing financial reports? Layoffs? Manipulating review aggregators or online comments? Unfair hiring practices? That’s news; that’s the kind of thing that the public “needs” to know. The plot of an upcoming first-person shooter? No.
And one of the many things that Schreier’s op-ed fails to appreciate: that’s the kind of thing that you’re not going to get from a company’s PR department anyway. See the above bit about wanting people to give them money. Trying to take a Woodward & Bernstein “the people have a right to know” approach to them is just lazy. If you’re doing investigative journalism, the first step is to try investigating. Ask the PR department for a response, obviously. But don’t just leave it there and complain that you’re blocked by a wall of impenetrable silence.
You’re never going to get everything you need for an investigative piece simply by talking to PR. So for everything else: why insist on such a suspicious, antagonistic relationship? You’re working towards a common end. You want information about a game, they want people to have enough information about the game to want to buy it. You don’t have to be skeptical that they’re trying to sell you something, because everyone is fully aware that they’re trying to sell you something.
Even more than that, they’re selling you something that you’re already interested in. If they weren’t, then you wouldn’t be putting up with the unfairly low income that games journalists are stuck with.
There are lots of things that games publishers and developers don’t want you to know about. Some of it is because it affects their bottom line or their shareholders. Some of it is because they’re simply not ready to show it yet. A professional is going to be able to tell the difference between the two. An unprofessional or unethical writer is going to treat it all the same.
And really, games writers should just know this from experience. They’ve played review copies of games, so they’ve seen first hand how often games can be an absolutely unplayable mess right up until the last couple weeks of polishing. They’ve seen how many hits a site can get for having exclusive info about a game, so they know how and why embargoes work to keep things fair among review sites. (And how much it sucks when a publisher gives one site an exclusive at the expense of others). These sites know the importance of timing and exclusives, so why act like it’s simply arbitrary when publishers put so much value on their own timing and their own withholding of information?
There’s this insistence that if a journalist has a mutually respectful, non-antagonistic relationship with a publisher, then that compromises the journalist’s objectivity or integrity. That unless you’re always playing hardball with publishers, then that means you’re in their pocket. Nonsense.
As I mentioned, I’ve got a friendly relationship with several games writers (or at least, I did before I wrote this). Most of them have written stuff that’s been critical of my work, or of the companies that I’ve worked for. It’s not just that that’s okay; I wouldn’t expect anything less. It’s professionalism. My job was to make games, their job was to report on the games. The thing that we all have in common is the thing that makes this “enthusiast” press: we all love games.
Of course you’re always going to find some developer getting butt-hurt when a critical review bruises his ego, or a publisher threatening to pull review copies from sites that don’t meet the meteoritic average for a game, or a journalist writing an amateurish attack piece on a game or a developer, or thousands and thousands of readers crying “bias!” whenever they read a review that isn’t 100% glowing of a game they love. But those should be considered the exception. We shouldn’t just assume that that’s how things are supposed to work.
(For the record, I have done a pretty good job over the years of alienating certain gaming sites. But in my mind, at least, it was never the result of negative coverage. It was the result of lazy or unprofessional coverage: going to a press event and talking about nothing but the booze; accusing the studio of cutting corners or being lazy; accusing the writing of being racist or xenophobic; and comments to the effect of “the writers/animators/whoever should be fired,” which is irresponsible for a message board, much less a paid review).
If you’ve got a political writer who seems unnaturally chummy with a politician, you have a right to be suspicious. But when you’re talking about game development — not the industry side of things, but the games themselves — it’s just plain counter-productive to insist on suspicion instead of professionalism and mutual respect. It’s a shame a piece like Schreier’s insists that we’re all on the same side, but then goes on to make it clear that we’re only on the same side as long as it ensures link-baiting exclusives and scandal pieces for the site.
Because I think we are all on the same side. If it’s not clear by now, I love hearing myself talk, and I especially love hearing myself talk about games. I like being able to pick them apart and see what works and doesn’t work. I like writing about the thought process that went into certain decisions. I like being able to write about stuff I’ve worked on and speculate on how it could be better. I like being opinionated about them, and calling out what sucks and what’s awesome. I like being able to go on message boards and get into it with equally opinionated, long-winded players.
So far, obscurity and long-windedness have kept me relatively safe. It’d be even better to rely on simple trust. To know that even if you’re not one of the “unfirable” people that Tycho talks about, you can still be open and transparent without the fear that you’re going to get quoted out of context in a post somewhere, or that someone’s going to take something that you’ve said and try to turn it into news — or worse, a scandal — instead of just asking you directly to clarify. I’ll stick with obscurity, thanks.
So basically what I’m saying is that everybody needs to chill the fuck out. Unless you’re working for a company that cares more about profits than about games, or you’re working for a site that cares more about page views and ad revenue from exclusives than about games, then we’re all united in our love of something that’s ultimately inconsequential.
20 responses to “All The President’s Bad Dudes”
I’m not going to try to defend Jason Schreier, who you do a good job of tearing down (a much better job than Penny Arcade, although I think that’s a pretty low bar to clear). But let’s talk about the press, and about the Penny Arcade thing, because that’s where we disagree. Mostly I’m writing because I think the Penny Arcade thing is as shitty and misguided as the Kotaku one, and although there’s a lot we agree about in your essay, there’s virtually nothing I agree with Tycho about (except that Jason Schreier is probably not a very good journalist).
Film journalism has gotten along fine without having “the enthusiast press” and “the traditional press,” although I suppose movie magazines and things like Fangoria are the enthusiast press. But look at, say, the way the New York Times or L.A. Times cover film–why isn’t that a better model? Obviously studios do a lot of managing of the press the same way developers do, but they aren’t quite so naked about it, and they wouldn’t cut either coast’s Times out because they reported a story they didn’t like. The idea of offering a publication the exclusive right to break an embargo in exchange for a glowing film review would be appalling. I’m sure that offer’s been made, but anyone who accepted it would be laughed out of town, and they’d deserve it. My impression is that it’s pretty routine in the world of, say, IGN, and I don’t think it should be. And neither do you–you say so in your essay. But I you’re either missing or ignoring the fact that Tycho clearly wants more of that.
There is no “professionalism and mutual respect” in a relationship where publicists drip information to sites that promise to put their thumbs on the review scale. And yes, that means there’s no self-respect among games journalists who participate in this sort of thing–it’s on journalists, not developers. If I were running a games company and had the option to only talk to press I could control, that’s the option I’d take. But think about what the reaction would be if a film producer wrote, “[I] cannot, will not, and must not put the fate of multimillion dollar projects in your greasy fucking clutch.” It’s true, when studios have a dog, they don’t show it to critics. But they don’t behave as though journalists are out to take food from their mouths–it’s part of the deal. They can give information or not, but they can’t try to control what the press does with it. I’m sure Apple was way less happy about the New York Times stories about their factories than they were the iPhone 4 story–but they didn’t try to bar the Times from their events. I’m not talking here about the iPhone 4 story as being some great work of journalism, by the way, I’m just noting that Apple doesn’t blackball the Times because the Times won’t let them. (Celebrity journalism, of course, works the way games journalism does now, but I am not sure we would benefit from a better “celebrity press,” and I think we need good games journalism.)
There should be mutual trust, but not the trust Tycho is writing about. The trust that game developers should have in journalists is that they’ll protect sources, keep off-the-record information off-the-record, and quote in a way that conveys what the person was trying to say. There is certainly no shame in not trusting Kotaku or any particular journalist to do this–I wouldn’t. But this part of Tycho’s smack-down is way off base: “An errant – read, “honest” – word becomes your entire story. Speech in presumed confidence or among fellow professionals is fit to broadcast.”
If someone goes on the record and says something they shouldn’t have, and a journalist thinks that’s a story, that’s not a violation of trust. There is no such thing as “presumed confidence,” and a developer and a journalist are not “fellow professionals,” no matter how great a relationship they have. They should both be professional, but they’re not in the same profession, even if one writes for “the enthusiast press.” Obviously individual journalists can make decisions on things like granting anonymity, clarifying a quote, or pretending someone didn’t say something they said on a case-by-case basis, but a developer who expects that from the press is out of line.
I don’t blame the game companies for doing it this way; I blame the gaming press for letting them. And they do let them–Joystiq’s code of ethics is a good start, but read the disclaimer at the bottom of this page. The right thing to do here was take the hit and not review the game until they could buy it; that’s how film journalists handle it when a film isn’t screened for the press. Joystiq isn’t serving their readers by violating their ethics policy, they’re serving the game companies, and that is not their job. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to readers writing hate mail to critics who didn’t love a particular game (or movie, now), and to the general mentality that the press is there to help fans along in a stupid wank-fest whenever a big-budget game comes out. I guess that’s what readers want, judging from comment sections. But it’s not what I want.
I don’t want it because I think it makes for poorer journalism and poorer games. Think about it: there will never be an equivalent, in the gaming press, of Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” or Martin Amis’s “Brian De Palma: The Movie Brute.” No one would publish it. I’m sure that’s exactly how game developers like it, and again, I don’t blame them. But it also means there won’t be a games-journalism equivalent of “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” and I want to read that kind of piece. When legacy media write these sorts of profiles (e.g., The Atlantic on Jonathan Blow or Seth Schiesel in the New York Times), they are either explaining everything for non-gamers, or so slack-jawed amazed that a game developer would try anything different that the result is unreadable. Maybe as time passes that will change–but not if developers treat journalists like an extension of their marketing department, and not if journalists let them.
The side that we should all be on is not the side where developers and the press work together to get people to buy games while respecting the developer’s marketing plan. We should all be on the side that pushes developers to do great work, pushes companies to treat their employees fairly–or at least not break the law, and, yes, gets gamers excited about great games in the works. That doesn’t mean journalists should presume bad faith, or that people should be assholes to each other. Nor does it mean that publishing the plot of a Call of Duty game is good journalism (although, to be fair, developers have made that kind of story inevitable by treating each leaked plot development as a BIG STORY THAT ALL GAMERS SHOULD KNOW). But if you don’t think the gaming press has a problem (or that framing it as “the enthusiast press” lets them off the hook), I can’t agree. Like the man says, it’s not a progressive kindergarten.
To clarify a few of the on-the-record quotes you’ve so unprofessionally taken out of context:
1. I’m aware, of course, that film journalism hasn’t exactly led to the unquestioned reign of Werner Herzog. I wouldn’t expect a vigorous gaming press to lead to a gaming utopia. But I don’t think Herzog ends up with the career he’s had if the New York Times starts sending its film critics on junkets.
2. There are writers who are doing great work writing about games. You and Tom Bissell, for two. But neither of you are playing by Tycho’s rules–no one should.
3. No, this isn’t as big or important a crisis as political journalism is in.
4. And finally, yes, the Jonathan Blow profile in the Atlantic was as devastating as “Brian De Palma: The Movie Brute,” but for significantly different reasons…
The one thing I do agree with you on: film criticism and journalism is very different from games journalism. But while you say that’s a bad thing, I say it’s the best thing. I don’t follow blogs or articles about movies nearly as closely as I do games, mostly because film writing seems parasitic instead of symbiotic. That artificial wall between the people writing about movies and the people making movies doesn’t guarantee objectivity and insight as you seem to suggest. That’s all up to the individual writers — good writers still have to treat filmmakers as if they’re foreign creatures to be observed and studied as they go about their business on the mountaintops above Hollywood and occasionally descend to the red carpets. And it does nothing to keep people like Joel Siegel from providing movie poster-ready blurbs on demand.
Games tried the rock star thing back around 2000, and it didn’t take. (Much to the chagrin of Cliff Bleszinski). Part of that is because the game audience is just naturally skeptical — they still go absolutely apeshit over certain people who are good at self-promotion, but they’re also not going to build a cult of personality around, say, American McGee, just because games marketing departments say they’re supposed to. It’s also because the whole auteur idea never quite took hold in games, either (thank God).
And it’s because the “unfirable” people who do get name recognition tend to be pretty unassuming and focused on the games themselves, for the most part. Imagine if movie journalists had no one to write about except Wes Anderson; they’d likely lose interest in personality-based writing pretty quickly. Then imagine if Anderson did little except talk about f-stops, lighting, and editing techniques, the way John Carmack talks about loop optimization and the capabilities of video cards. And even then, you’ll see a stronger through-line through Andreson’s movies than you will through any one developer’s games. It’s the same reason the auteur thing never quite worked; there are too many variables in game development, and games simply don’t allow for as much authorial control as movies.
So that’s why you don’t see games writers talking about developers the same way movie writers talk about Brian DePalma or even Michael Bay. (And if you do want that, look around for articles about the Infinity Ward guys, or the Houser brothers of Rockstar, or Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear series. Just don’t expect gripping writing about Warren Spector, Carmack, or Miyamoto). You could make an argument that it’s because publishers want to keep the focus off of individual developers, but I’d say that’s pretty much bullshit. There’s no story there. And that’s good; keep the attention on the games.
There are a billion things you can find wrong with Ain’t It Cool News, but the one good thing, and the reason it got so much attention so quickly, is that it shook up writing about movies. It desperately needs more enthusiasm, and less business. Less talking about movies from a distance, more of an acknowledgement that a lot of people are making movies for the exact same reason that people are writing about them; they love them.
As for the rest, I think you’re still making inferences about the Penny Arcade post that simply aren’t there. You just started with the assumption of gaming sites being in the pockets of publishers, and heard everything as an extension of that. “An errant – read, ‘honest’ – word becomes your entire story. Speech in presumed confidence or among fellow professionals is fit to broadcast.” Is that really what you want to defend? Sites so desperate for page views that they’ll turn whatever they can into a scandal? Gabe Newell makes a frank comment about Windows 8, and sites are stumbling over themselves to be the first to get the headline? As Tycho said, that doesn’t result in objective reporting; that results in everybody who doesn’t have Newell’s status shutting up. That means that people like me shut up; I can’t go on message boards or make blog posts without the worry that somebody’s going to quote me as a representative of whatever company I’m working for. I am “playing by Tycho’s rules;” I take it for granted that I can talk about some of the problems I have with episodic development without the fear of seeing a post somewhere saying that I’m trashing Telltale.
I’d much rather have an environment where I can read Duncan Jones, Joss Whedon, or Wes Anderson writing directly and frankly about his own work along with all the other critics and commentators adding their take. As it is, I only see film journalists covering the film industry and filmmakers as if it were a nature documentary. There are even articles that say “celebrities are just like us!” for Pete’s sake.
For the other stuff: comparing Gizmodo’s purchase of a stolen phone prototype to the Times’ story about Foxconn is absolutely ridiculous. It’s not even just that one involves theft while the other involved actual investigative journalism. I’m going to assume that you never saw the part where Brian Lam sent an email to Apple that was essentially blackmail? “We’ll return the prototype if you just grant us more access to exclusives from now on.” Cheese and rice, is that what we’re supposed to be calling journalistic ethics and unreasonable secrecy these days?
And if Joystiq reviews a game at a press junket instead of getting a review
companycopy, that’s all on the publisher. I don’t see any problem with it. I’m not going to assume the review is compromised any more than I’m going to instantly assume that reviews from Sundance are automatically invalidated. (Studios showing at Sundance don’t generally pay for accommodation, but they sure as heck do tons of parties and give writers rare access to celebrities and the like).
And I’m sure as hell not saying that games journalism doesn’t have a problem. But the problem isn’t that people aren’t suspicious enough of each other.
I just wrote something like three pages, didn’t copy it to the clipboard before hitting submit, and got a page reading “invalid security token.”
Your next game will receive a review of negative zero.
Ugh. That exact thing happened to my treatise too, but I’d thought that disabling a different plug-in would fix it. WordPress keeps updating their do-everything plug-in to completely change how major things on the site work, without warning. MORE LIKE WORSTPRESS AMIRITE?
Okay, so I’m going to try to recreate what I wrote earlier.
First: film journalism/criticism: I think a large part of your disagreement here comes from misunderstanding the kind of pieces I’d like to see more of. It’s true that “Brian De Palma: The Movie Brute” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head” are built around some time spent on the sets of whatever the director was currently working on (Body Double, I think, and Lost Highway), and it’s true that they’re profiles of particular directors. But they’re also detailed, insightful assessments of what, precisely, those guys were up to artistically at the time, and that’s what I’m on about. The Martin Amis piece is, well, brutal, and the David Foster Wallace one is almost a fan letter, but although I appreciate the access they got to the directors and their sets, that’s not what I like about those pieces so much as I like their writing about the films themselves.
So I wasn’t pining for the rock star days or defending auteur theory, just saying that the kind of work those Amis & Wallace were doing will never arise from the relationship between developer and journalist that Tycho seems to be endorsing. Tom Bissell’s piece about L.A. Noire comes pretty close to this, but note that it says virtually nothing about the people who built the game. And I can’t imagine it being published on Joystiq, IGN, Kotaku, Gamasutra, or any site devoted to games. (I think Simon Ferrari is pretty good, too, although I wish he’d see the benefit of narrative.)
So I hope that’s a little clearer–I don’t want to read about someone’s weekend with the Houser brothers, unless they’re going deep on how their games work.
I don’t, by the way, think that film journalism needs or needed more enthusiasm. Or at least I don’t think that enthusiasm came at all from “Ain’t It Cool News,” which is emblematic of everything I think is wrong with film culture today. Those guys may be enthusiastic, but they’re bone-dumb. If there’s ever been an interesting thought on AICN I’d like to read it.
But on enthusiasm: you couldn’t find a more enthusiastic film critic than Pauline Kael, and yet her writing is genuinely insightful about how particular films accomplish what they do. And there’s never been as many people writing interesting things about film as now; to pick just a random example from today’s reading, here’s Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece from last night about Breaking Bad. Check out the “Odds & Ends” section: it’s very specific about exactly how the episode works, thematically, visually, structurally, and talks about specific decisions made by the writer, director, and actors. (It also shouldn’t spoil anything, if you don’t read the recap at the top.) And obviously he’s enthusiastic about the show. That’s symbiotic in the best way, there’s a lot of film writing that’s like that, it’s the kind of writing I want to read about games and almost no one is doing it.
I guess I’m not really clear on what you mean by film writing seeming “parasitic” or needing more enthusiasm. I think I get what you’re saying about the “nature documentary” approach that some writers take when writing profiles, but I think you’ve misunderstood what kind of work I’d like to see.
With Gizmodo, my point wasn’t that they behaved honorably–they didn’t. My point was that Apple didn’t really lose anything from that story, compared to what they lost and are losing from the Foxconn story in the Times, and yet they cut Gizmodo off and, as far as I know, left the Times alone. Some level of skullduggery was involved to put togther the Times piece:
“The reporting is based on interviews with more than three dozen current or former employees and contractors, including a half-dozen current or former executives with firsthand knowledge of Apple’s supplier responsibility group, as well as others within the technology industry.”
I guarantee Apple spent more time trying to figure out who the current employees were than they spent on Gizmodo. And yet Apple didn’t attack the New York Times, Steve Jobs didn’t call them personally, and there weren’t any reprisals. And I think that’s because Apple has to respect the Times and they don’t have to respect Gizmodo, because Gizmodo relies on the steady drip of free demo models and invitations to trade shows and junkets in a way that a respectable journalistic enterprise would not. And the same can be said of all the gaming sites I read. I’m not choosing Gizmodo or their behavior regarding the iPhone as a hill to die on, obviously.
It might be that any publication that focuses on one industry will suffer some level of regulatory capture, but you never hear about the New York Review of Books or Film Comment being caught in junket scandals.
Not that the film world doesn’t have its own problems with junkets. But it’s pretty well known which outlets send people to them, and it’s looked down on. I attended one myself, once, and it was just as horrible as you’d imagine. I’d like to read video game criticism written by a site that stood by something like this, and I suspect you would, too.
Joystiq has the very beginnings of this kind of policy, but obviously they’ll discard it as soon as a publisher whines enough. They shouldn’t. As far as I know, Gawker Media is 100% pro-junket. The New York Times fires people who go on junkets. Guess which policy I think will lead to better writing and more accurate, interesting criticism?
Finally, I think I misunderstood at least one thing Tycho said. The stuff about “presumed confidence” and “among fellow professionals.” If he’s lamenting that he can’t post on industry message boards, and not talking about an on-the-record conversation with someone he knows is a journalist, then yeah, that does suck. (Although it’s not exactly new; ask Aaron Sorkin.) And to the extent he’s talking about the way garbage sites like Kotaku will try to gin up a story over a very small thing so they can keep the news cycle running, that’s also shitty, and I wouldn’t want to be on either end of that transaction. I don’t know what can be done about it, though.
I still believe you’re dead wrong about Apple, Gizmodo, and the NY Times. I realize you said that you didn’t want to defend Gizmodo, but a) I’m still frankly astounded that anyone would try to present the two stories as being in any way equivalent, and b) I think that you’re basing everything on the assumption that a company as large as Apple is inherently not to be trusted, which is the part that’s relevant to game publishers & film studios.
One the one hand in the Times, you’ve got an article based on (as I understood it) actual field reporting along with reports from several named and anonymous sources, for the purpose of exposing dangerous working conditions. Apart from the needlessly inflammatory and link-baiting headline, that’s what journalists do.
On the other hand in Gizmodo, you’ve got the purchase of stolen property, with attempts to describe it as “misplaced” to cover their tracks, a blackmailing email from the editor to Steve Jobs, a subsequent post which gives out the name and home city of the employee from whom the phone was stolen to invite the internet and Apple to heap abuse on him (and presumably to defer blame from themselves), followed by accounts of their writer being “harassed” by local law enforcement, all for the purpose of getting continued ad revenue from page views. That’s what Gawker does.
I don’t even understand why Gizmodo is still in operation after that shameful debacle. Much less that people actually tried to defend them.
If you looked at both strictly from the perspective of Apple’s bottom line, then yes, you could say that the Foxconn report in the Times was more damaging for the company. You could even make the claim that Schreier tries to make — that it actually helped Apple by keeping the iPhone in the news.
And I suppose that if you were as cynical as possible — assuming that Apple is filled with darkened rooms full of executives sitting in high-backed chairs with steepled fingers, asking each other how far they can go to maximize profits — then you could be suspicious as to why they didn’t sanction the Times but came down hard against Gizmodo.
You say that it’s because Apple has to respect the Times as an established, independent free press, but doesn’t have to respect Gizmodo because the latter’s so dependent on press releases and access to trade shows. I say you’ve got it completely backwards: the Times earned that respect by not pulling bullshit stunts like that. I’ll point out that David Pogue writes a column that depends on Apple PR every bit as much as Engadget and The Verge do, but to the best of my knowledge, Apple hasn’t smacked them down or had to treat them like unruly teenagers. The difference isn’t the complete independence to ensure a free press in the tech realm; the difference is that they don’t behave like unruly teenagers.
No matter how many billions of dollars they have, I’m not going to assume the worst in Apple. (And not just because I like them, either; I don’t even assume the worst in Microsoft. Activision, I’m not so sure about). Of course they’re always concerned about their bottom line, but I don’t believe it’s the one thing that drives every single interaction with the press. Some things they do simply because they’re still human beings able to recognize when something is flat-out bullshit.
How this ties back into game & movie writing: it’s only when you start out with the assumption that any fraternization between companies and journalists makes the whole thing suspect, that you start to believe there either has to be 100% antagonistic, investigative journalism or it’s 100% corporate shills regurgitating marketing pitches.
There is absolutely, unquestionably, no doubt some bullshit behavior going on from both games publishers and blog/magazine publishers: game companies threatening to withhold review copies after a bad review, blogs insisting on conforming to the “7-9” review scale in order to make sure that they keep getting access. I still say that that’s bad behavior that should be brought to light and given the clear signal “we’re not putting up with that shit.” It would be a disaster to just throw up our hands and assume that that’s just the way things work.
The bit about Joystiq reviewing a game from a press event: if you could take exactly how much I care about that and put it into text, it would take the form of a three- or four-line blurb printed in light gray text and inserted at the end of a review. The reason is that they’ve built up a reputation and earned a level of respect from their readers; a respect I had before I was even aware that they had an explicit statement of ethics. It doesn’t demand that much digging or skepticism: it’s really, really easy to tell when a site is just posting paraphrased press releases, or doing insipid game reviews that might as well have been commissioned by the publisher.
Look at the flip side, where I suppose I’d be kind of the bad guy: the thing that first got Kotaku on my shit list was a Sam & Max press event at a bar in San Francisco. A bunch of the writers — like four or five of them — showed up at the bar, sat at a table and spent the entire night talking amongst themselves. I was keeping an eye out because I was trying to come up with clever things to say for an interview, but I needn’t have worried, because they didn’t get up and talk to me or anyone else. The next day, they put up a completely bullshit post that talked about how drunk they got, including a picture of the drink (the writer didn’t even know what a Blue Hawaiian was), and then at the end a passing mention that there was another Sam & Max episode coming out.
To this day, I don’t know if Telltale management cared one way or the other, or were even aware of it. But it bugged the hell out of me (obviously, since I’m still going on about it several years later). You could say that I was of the mindset “We paid for your drinks so give us some good PR, dammit!!!” But I didn’t pay for it. And I didn’t need to see a glowing preview for a game that they obviously didn’t care about; that would’ve come across as dishonest. I would’ve been almost as happy if they’d put up a post that complained about asset reuse or corny jokes or even ugh not zombies again! If they’d said something about the game itself, and not just about how shit-faced they’d gotten the night before because video games fuck yeah! It’s about respect. Matt, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — I’m talkin’ about ethics.
I don’t think that’s one thing Tycho said, though; I think that was his entire point. Don’t expect game publishers and developers to be completely forthcoming with you, if you treat every bit of communication with them as if you were just about to blow the lid off of a huge scandal. If you’re going to take errant quotes and blow them up into huge, link-baiting stories, and then cry “free press!”, don’t suddenly act surprised when people stop talking to you more than they absolutely have to.
Bloggers have taken the fact that objectivity is key to good journalism, and then mis-interpreted that to mean that controversy is the key to good journalism.
And what can be done about it is, in my mind, exactly what I’m talking about, and what he’s talking about: stop building up this wall of antagonism, to the point that companies & individual developers are so wary of saying anything controversial that they end up saying nothing of value. Build readership by writing articles that are insightful, not just controversial. Prove that you’re professional enough to maintain a good relationship with publishers & developers without sacrificing your objectivity.
The reason I assumed that you were talking about personality-driven pieces in film journalism is because I can’t imagine how games writing would be improved by insisting on no fraternization between the industry and the press. If you want to see more people writing articles about how Developer X is a misogynistic asshole, without fearing that they’ll be denied access to review copies of his future games, maybe.
But even then, you’ve still got to consider how much the publishers are dependent on the game sites. If you’ve got a site with the reputation that Joystiq, Edge, or Polygon (even before launch!) has, then publishers are going to have to weigh the cost of dicking you around. That’s not just me speculating, either: every time a developer’s thrown a temper tantrum over a bad review and threatened to refuse access to a site, it’s been all over the news blogs and message boards. It’s pretty self-policing.
For everything else, though, I still don’t see how they’re related. The separation doesn’t even guarantee objectivity, much less insight. That’s up to the individual writers, not the environment. For proof, just look again at all the movie reviewers who continue to churn out breathlessly positive reviews of every single screening they’re invited to. I think it’s a mistake to believe that a statement of policy is going to guarantee objectivity in something as inherently subjective as arts criticism.
Again, I think a lot of the reason you don’t see more in-depth articles focusing on individual game developers is because of the nature of games themselves, not any corporate puppeteering. It’s just plain harder to make a game “say” anything at all, much less develop a body of consistent work over multiple games. Maybe that’s starting to change as more focus is put on independent developers; I’d love to see more articles talking with Brendon Chung about his stuff, for instance.
You’ll see it more often across a genre, not across the work of a single developer. Flash of Steel (the blog) and Three Moves Ahead (the podcast) by Troy Goodfellow & some others goes pretty deep into strategy games and how they work. (I don’t follow it regularly, since it focuses more on the mechanics and less of the creative side of things).
And Tom Chick at Quarter to Three has been taking more of a film criticism approach to games criticism for years: by that I mean treating a game as a “holistic” work, instead of giving it a pass for good mechanics but lousy story, etc. (I admit I stopped following that as well, since once you go all-in on the idea that you’re writing your personal thoughts about a game instead of trying to do a completely objective buyer’s guide, it’s easy to lose interest once you realize you simply don’t have the same taste in games).
And for the big sites: Joystiq’s been branching out more into columns, features, and “higher-level” reviews, and I like the direction it’s going. And it hasn’t launched as a separate site from The Verge yet, but several of the reviews I’ve read on Polygon have been surprisingly insightful.
I think it’s bunk to say that video games just haven’t matured yet, and that’s why we’re not seeing better storytelling. But I do think it’s fair to say that games writing is still transitioning from the days of the “reviewer’s tilt!” into legitimate criticism and commentary.
Okay. Let’s drop the Gizmodo/Foxconn example, since that clearly isn’t getting us anywhere. My point was that no matter what the Times did, they wouldn’t get cut out like Gizmodo. Maybe that’s because Apple can’t hurt the Times as badly as Gizmodo, maybe Steve Jobs just had a personal reaction to the stolen phone that no one there had to the allegations of inhuman labor conditions, maybe it’s because the Times had them dead-to-rights but the Gizmodo thing was more patently bullshit. It may be, I suppose, an earned privilege, but let’s not kid ourselves, if Apple could manage the Times like they manage Gizmodo, they would. They’d be crazy not to.
For the record, I do, in fact, believe that Apple is filled with darkened rooms full of executives with steepled fingers asking each other how far they can go to maximize profits, because that’s been true of literally every company I’ve ever worked at, with the sole exception of public or not-for-profit schools. (And is clearly true at some public schools, as well, for certain values of “profits.”) It’s publically traded, for God’s sake–if it doesn’t have those darkened rooms, the shareholders should throw out the management team. I can’t believe you don’t believe that. (It is also, I’m sure, full of people who are there to make cool stuff.) My past employers have also had many employees who are there to make cool stuff, and large teams of employees whose sole job it is to manage the press as much as possible, and as cynically as possible.
I wouldn’t care about the Joystiq thing if it weren’t a violation of their ethics policy. And thus a clear signal to other developers that the policy can be set aside if they push hard enough. The policy doesn’t mean anything if you break it.
I know about the Kotaku thing, and yeah, you’re right to be pissed off; that piece was bulshit. By the same token, if those guys wrote for a legitimate news venue, they wouldn’t have been drinking on your tab to begin with. (When you say “But I didn’t pay for it,” do you mean you personally? Or was this a cash bar event where the Kotaku writers paid their own way?)
As long as we’re trading stories, the press junket I went to was for Beowulf; I loathed every second of the film, wrote about exactly what I thought sucked about it, and had the review spiked “for reasons unrelated to the quality of your writing.” I was still paid ($100 for all rights forever; I took the job because I thought it would be interesting to see what a junket was like). But the upshot of cashing that check is I can never reprint the essay, which wasn’t a particularly great piece of criticism, but wasn’t all that terrible. The review they ran was, let’s say, surprisingly positive, and could have been written by someone who didn’t see the film, but had access the press packet. No writer signed it, even more oddly.
Coincidentally, I’m sure, Ugo’s website had one of those We’ll Customize Our Whole Site For You ad packages for Beowulf the week the film opened. I can’t imagine why a publisher or studio might think they could push a site like that around. (And it was owned, at the time, by Hearst.)
Attending the junket was great, though, and if I ever go into a Bruce Wagner phase I’m definitely going to use it.
I guess my larger point here is that the reason the Times gets respect is not because they “earned” it by not pulling bullshit scams, it’s because they have a clear policy and stick by it. If you want them Times to review your movie, you provide them with the opportunity to send a critic to a screening. You don’t get to pick which critic, and you don’t get to do anything else. If they send someone, they’ll write about your movie. If you don’t have a screening, but they still want to write about it, they buy a ticket and run a review Saturday. The people who handle advertising don’t talk to the editors and vice versa, period. That’s the only way to do it. That’s not a rule against “fraternization” or saying it has to be “antagonistic,” that’s just basic journalistic ethics, the kind every respectable publication since time immemorial has had to have. It may not guarantee objective reporting (and I’m not saying an individual reporter can’t write objectively after going to a junket or whatever) but I think it makes it a great deal more likely.
Here’s a secret about the movie reviewers who write glowing reviews of every screening they get invited to: they work for organizations that send them to press junkets and allow them to go to studio events. Or they’re writing for their own site and have to beg their way into screenings. I mean, the classic example is AICN, where the studios decided they had to start babying Harry Knowles so he’d write nice things about them. Or is there someone specific who does this at a real publication?
More later, perhaps.
Well, as long as we’re agreeing to drop the topic and then going on to write a couple more paragraphs about it:
Apple doesn’t “manage” Gizmodo. They said basically “you guys suck and aren’t getting invited to any more press events,” and Gizmodo has spent the last year publicly bitching about it and asking “why so secretive, Apple?” That’s why Tycho’s allusion to the scorpion and the monk was appropriate: they’ve demonstrated time and again that they value page views over legitimacy; it’s in their nature. Unlike the rest of the fable, though, apparently it’s not in Apple’s nature to keep giving shit like that a pass.
The tragedy of it, and the only reason I’ve spent this much time writing about it, is that it seems like people are accepting that that’s just the way it is. Based on the number of tweets that I’ve seen from Kotaku writers talking as if they don’t understand why their site has such a bad reputation, I’m not 100% convinced that they even recognize why. They (and by the sound of it, you) assume that the relationship is just inherently antagonistic, because their primary motivation is to generate ad revenue and the companies’ primary motivation is to generate sales. But my entire point is that for most of the people in the business, the motivation is perfectly aligned: to drum up interest in this topic both sides are enthusiastic about. (If you want to make money, there are plenty of easier ways to do it than game development or game journalism).
I never said that Apple didn’t have people concerned about revenue. I even acknowledged that you don’t get hundreds of billions of dollars without having people concerned about that. For all I know, there’s a Keynote slide somewhere on an Apple server that directly estimates the “worth” of Chinese worker deaths per unit sold. What I’m saying is that it’s simplistic to assume that the company is filled with Central Casting Cutthroat Executives straight from a 70s conspiracy movie. Here’s exactly what I said: “Of course they’re always concerned about their bottom line, but I don’t believe it’s the one thing that drives every single interaction with the press.”
Motivation is everything. To take it even farther afield, it’s a lot like the other topic on which you and I completely disagree: Mike Daisey’s role in the whole Foxconn scandal. You said that the muckraking was necessary to bring the problems to light. I say that responsible investigative journalism brought the problems to light; if anything, Daisey weakened the argument, because so many lazy people ended up saying “he’s a fraud, so Apple’s completely in the clear and there’s nothing to worry about.” And the difference, again, is that the Times‘s motivation was to report a story, while Daisey’s was to drum up attention for himself and attendance at his performances.
And Apple responded by promising stricter auditing of its suppliers. You could say that they did that because their hand was forced due to all the bad publicity, or you could say they did it for completely altruistic reasons because they wanted to do the right thing. Or, you could be realistic and say that it was a lot of column A and a not insignificant amount of column B.
As for the idea that Apple would manage the Times if they could, look at the coverage of the Apple/Samsung trial on The Verge. The Verge got really popular really fast, but I’d still be extremely surprised if it’s gotten more readers than Gizmodo. They’re reporting all the details of the trial, including tons of photographs of early Apple prototypes that I’m sure the company would rather not have had to expose to the public. They’ve reported negative stuff about both Apple and Samsung. (It looks like Apple is winning, but I can’t tell if that’s because of my bias, their bias, or because Apple just has a rock solid case in the first place or else they wouldn’t have risked the lawsuit in the first place). And if you believe that The Verge is playing softball, I’d point you to Daring Fireball, where you can see what pro-Apple bias really looks like. (I still like reading Gruber’s stuff, but the insistence that he doesn’t always find the pro-Apple spin is just absurd).
The Verge is every bit as dependent on access to press events and review units to Apple & Samsung devices as Gizmodo is. It has a good reputation, but it’s hardly “too big to fail.” And yet I haven’t heard anything about attempts from either company to shut them down.
And then the idea that the New York Times‘s strict ethical policy makes them both unassailable and leads to better journalism: the New York Times‘ s tech columnist is David Pogue. He’s the closest analogue to what The Verge & Engadget are doing; stories like the Foxconn one are rare. And Pogue’s articles are generally inoffensive, but he’s definitely not the one people turn to for in-depth or insightful tech reporting. A huge part of that, of course, is because his tone is as general-audience as possible, but that’s not all of it. (All Things Digital at the WSJ is almost as general-audience, but they’ve still got a better reputation for insight and depth). The one thing Gizmodo did right is prove that tech reporting can be accessible and entertaining without devolving into an indecipherable mass of acronyms, and without explaining to readers exactly what a pixel is at the beginning of each article.
I mean that I wasn’t personally offended because I wasn’t paying for drinks. I know that Telltale rented the space, but I don’t remember if they had an open bar. I’m assuming they did, or the Kotakuites wouldn’t have gotten so fucked up. It did double as a company party for the team, but it’d be disingenuous to pretend it wasn’t primarily intended to be a press event.
But as for “legitimate news venue,” that’s where I go back to the conclusion of my post, the bit about its being “ultimately inconsequential.” There was no legitimate news taking place that evening. It wasn’t an examination of workers’ rights (although I feel sorry for the bartender who had to keep serving those clowns), it was simply, and transparently, selling a computer game about a dog and rabbit in a zombie night club. Frankly, I think the whole notion of anyone refusing to go to a GDC party sponsored by any company, or going and averting his eyes and acting appalled at the very notion of being offered alcohol, is patently silly.
Part of it is just simply the size of the studio. If a company like Blizzard or Valve throws a party with first access to a game, there’s an implicit threat of “if you miss this event, your site will lose BIG.” For a smaller studio whose releases aren’t automatically assumed to be front-page news, it’s just an attempt to increase awareness. And I think there’s a big difference between implicitly coercing someone to write about your product favorably, and coercing them to write about your product at all. Again, I wasn’t demanding a positive write-up; I was just annoyed that it was barely even mentioned.
Would you say that the parties that Sony, Microsoft, Valve, et al at shows like E3, GDC, or PAX should also be off-limits to games press? Obviously I’d have a problem with a reviewer getting a free cell phone or console at an event, and then keeping it past the review period. But drinks and bad food in a noisy bar, or being stuck in a hotel room with a bunch of other poorly-compensated journalists, doesn’t seem like bribery so much as hazard pay.
Regardless, there’s an enormous gulf between that and buying glowing coverage outright. That non-review of Beowulf that you linked to is just gross. But I have to say, my first thought was, “Well, yeah. It’s UGO.” I already said that there are always going to be offenders, and I still believe that they inevitably end up shooting themselves in the foot. There’s a reason that UGO and IGN lost their credibility a while ago; it’s from pulling stunts that proved where their priorities lie. It’d be a mistake to act as if there’s no difference between a public acknowledgement of deviating from established review practices, and complete ethical bankruptcy.
Complete separation between advertising and editorial: yes, absolutely, 100%. But I believe that’s the one absolute rule. Everything else — when you’re talking about something as subjective as entertainment writing — is tangential.
Where it turns into “rules against fraternization” and “antagonism” is when you become more fixated on the statement of policy than on common-sense, responsible behavior on the part of the writers and management. When you impose this artificial image of objectivity onto a category of writing that is inherently subjective.
Last night I was reading a thread on NeoGAF — which is not the venue for carefully considered, nuanced opinions — titled “Who is your favorite games reviewer?” There was, predictably, just a list of names with no explanation. But there were just as many cases of “No one” or “Message boards” or “Word of mouth.” And there were plenty of mentions of IGN reskinning its entire site for advertisers. And plenty of mentions that the poster would never read GameSpot again after “Gerstmanngate”, even though Gerstmann & the rest of the Giant Bomb folks have already gone back to CBS and said that the management responsible for the debacle had since left the company.
That one thread kind of sums up how we’ve ended up with broken games journalism:
1) Plenty of magazines and sites have broken the absolute rule of separating advertising from editorial.
2) They don’t get away with it. Once it comes to light, their reputations are irreparably damaged.
3) The “average gamer” distrusts game review sites and magazines, and cares more about individual writers, usually ones that agree with him.
4) If a review has a score attached, the “average gamer” will automatically scream “THIS REVIEWER IS BIAS!!!!” if it’s even a fraction of a point lower than what they think it should be, or scream “fanboy” if the score is a fraction of a point higher than it should be.
5) To over-compensate for this, both readers and writers have grown more and more insistent on the idea that their writing has to be completely objective to be taken seriously.
6) Everything except the most abominable piece of crap, or the foregone-conclusion-it’s-going-to-get-a-10 game ends up getting scored in the 7-9 range.
7) Reviews end up being filled with meaningless qualifier phrases like “a mixed bag,” as the reviewer doesn’t want to be too critical or too effusive.
8) Game reviews fail to demonstrate any genuine insight, so readers argue that the reviewer must be in the company’s pocket, and stop trusting the source. GOTO 3.
Reviews like that Beowulf one are indeed gross. But I don’t even consider them to be the real problem, because they’re so easy to identify and dismiss.
I think this illusion of objectivity, the insistence that previews and reviews of artistic works are actual news, is the bigger problem. The reason is that it’s completely counterintuitive to think that a journalist trying to be objective is a problem. When management censors a writer, it tends to come to light pretty quickly. But when a writer censors himself, it just results in mediocre writing. And on the flip side: when a writer just becomes focused more than anything else on “keepin’ it real” so as to have absolutely no signs of bias, it turns into shallow, cynical writing.
That’s what I meant by “enthusiasm” in relation to AICN. Again, I said there were a billion things to complain about there — my acknowledging that there’s one positive aspect of it isn’t an endorsement of AICN, any more than my saying up higher that Gizmodo made tech journalism entertaining and accessible means that I’m suddenly a fan of Gizmodo. And the stuff on AICN may not be well-written, but at least it comes across as sincere. (Or at least, it did years ago when I last read it).
Any company “manages” press, with varying degrees of grossness. Studios, to choose one completely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with any past or present employers, are very conscious and manipulative in terms of both the business and the entertainment coverage of their projects. Some completely hypothetical examples that I have no personal knowledge of might include:
*Rushing a press release to the wires to avoid letting one venue scoop others (and thus pissing off other venues who might think the information had been deliberately leaked).
*Carefully giving leaks and exclusives to particular journalists to ensure initial coverage of a particular business development is positive (and yes, this goes as far as “put this spin on it and you can have this information on-the-record before anyone else” in so many words).
*Being incredibly careful to keep–again, speaking completely hypothetically–Nikki Finke and the rest of the Deadline crew feeling loved, lest they start running negative stories (which they’ve spiked in exchange for leaked information, hypothetically).
*Asking editors to steer assignments to particular freelancers or staff reporters who are known to be, let’s say, “friendly” to the company (or away from others). Denying any of the editor’s employees access or quotes or anything else if they don’t do this.
*Putting together complete media packages with “friendly” editors and reporters. Hypothetically.
I’m not going to footnote any of those hypothetical examples in public, but let’s just say I find it very hard to believe that a company Apple’s size doesn’t do exactly as much of that as they can get away with. They can get away with less of it with some venues than others. (They get away with some of it everywhere.)
Note that I’m not talking about arts coverage there, just hard news coverage of the business. Not talking about subjective news. It is true, however, that they do as much as they can to manage “subjective” news, as well. The only thing that stops them from asking particular critics to be assigned to particular films is written policies that the editors can point to and say, well, my hands are tied, sorry. As far as whether or not journalists should attend industry parties, well, what does David Pogue do? He’s allowed to eat the food or have drinks at receptions if he’s covering the event. He’s not allowed to accept free travel or lodging. (Joystiq could have complied with even the Times’ more restrictive policy by simply paying for the room themselves, if the developer insisted that was the only place the game could be played.)
And while the one piece I linked to is obviously a press release (and Deadline is the most shameless about this), you wouldn’t necessarily be able to see the film studio’s influence in a lot of stories that, in fact, were quite carefully stage managed, entirely to serve the bottom line. It’s their job. Their interests might be aligned with AICN, and an individual PR person might love a movie or client or whatever just as much as a reporter, but yes, I do think that all of their decisions are about the bottom line. If they’re not, they’re not doing their job. If that wasn’t true at Telltale, they should hire better publicists.
We don’t disagree as much about Daisy as you seem to think. Daisy didn’t have to lie, and shouldn’t have lied. (I do have a different expectation for what I see in a theater–if I’d seen his show live, I would have expected some stretching of the truth, as I would from any storyteller. We might disagree there, but do you really think everything Mike Birbiglia says on stage could be sourced and verified?) If he’d rewritten to be accurate for This American Life, I think he would have done just fine. As it is, we agree that he did more harm than good, in that he’s sort of a Climategate that lets people like Gruber keep their fingers in their ears.
Apple, incidentally, could have started caring about the conditions at Foxconn and other suppliers at any point since Tim Cook began his outsourcing strategy at the start of the last decade. Instead, they carefully managed the suppliers’ minuscule profit margins while growing their own, and deliberately moved manufacturing to countries with abysmal labor laws. I mean, give me a fucking break–to paraphrase a discredited liar, do you really think they didn’t know? You really think that “altruism” had anything to do with their decision to implement minimal standards for suppliers? Why did they outsource to begin with, to make Tom Friedman happy? You think the Foxconn raises were because of “altruism?” What took them so long to get altruistic? Altruism doesn’t enter into it; it honestly doesn’t have any place in business. The absolute best spin you can put on this is that they were like FDR: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
Here’s the crazy thing about all of this, though, to get back to journalism. Not only is AICN the poster-boy for why publications shouldn’t let their journalists accept travel, accomodations, gifts, and so on, and the most obvious example of how completely a studio will capture a journalist if given the opportunity, he’s also pretty explicitly on the same side as Jason Schreier when it comes to the fans’ right to know everything, which will somehow magically result in great movies. See, e.g, here and here.
As always, more to say on this topic, but this seems like a good start.
A few other things:
1. I should note that my position on Daisy has changed a bit since he was initially brought down, because pragmatically, what he did had bad results. But this is a topic for another day.
2. Didn’t mean to go all Ned Beatty in Network on you. But as long as I have, I’ll continue: a publically owned corporation is an entity that exists to make shareholders money. That’s it. That’s the one and only thing it is designed to do. It’s not cynical to point out that any action a corporation makes is supposed to be governed by the bottom line, full stop. Individual executives (like, say, Steve Jobs) may make a decision to do something for personal reasons. But if the Board of Directors is doing what they’re supposed to on behalf of the shareholders, and they don’t think (as in Jobs case) that he is still going to make them more money than another executive, for whatever reason, then it’s their job to get rid of him and replace him. Executive capture of the BoD is its own problem, obviously, but that’s how it’s supposed to work. There’s a reason BoDs tend to not like giving executive positions to people who act for their own inscrutable reasons. Any thing they can do to make more money, within the bounds of the law, they’re obligated to do. That’s why companies have to have their hands legally tied in a lot of places.
3. Not for nothing, but you know what a great illustration of the ways that institutions swallow up the good (or bad) intentions and actions of individual actors to serve institutional needs? Paths of Glory. (And also The Wire.)
I guess I wasn’t quite done–one more thing:
“They (and by the sound of it, you) assume that the relationship is just inherently antagonistic, because their primary motivation is to generate ad revenue and the companies’ primary motivation is to generate sales. But my entire point is that for most of the people in the business, the motivation is perfectly aligned: to drum up interest in this topic both sides are enthusiastic about.”
And my entire point is that the individual motivation doesn’t matter–never matters–when it’s not in line with the instutional motivation. So if the journalist and PR guy both want to drum up enthusiasm for a game, and both think it will sell more copies of the game and bring more ad dollars to their site, then everybody’s happy. But even if the journalist doesn’t want to hurt the game, if his publication is set up to chase ad dollars and they have something that will bring clicks, that’s what’s going to happen. (And even if the developer thinks that these new screenshots will drum up enthusiasm for the game, if the company doesn’t think this will sell more copies, they’re not going anywhere.) Which is why it’s important to design your institutions very carefully.
Legacy media, bless their hearts, had the idea that their institutional goal was to provide a public service. They built their rules around this goal, then let the ad guys go nuts within those rules. And as long as they made most of their money from subscribers and not advertisers, all was right with the world. You talk a lot about how an individual writer should neither censor themselves nor be reflexively “objective,” by which I guess you mean write The View From Nowhere pieces. I say that codes of journalistic ethics are the only way to make this possible (not guarantee it, but make it possible) for writers. If you don’t have grounds to fire Harry Knowles, the people you write about will do their best, 24×7, to turn your writers into Harry Knowles. And let’s face it, that’s what they try to do to games & gadget writers.
But the more I think about it in terms of institutional goals, the more I think you were right about one thing to begin with: there is such a thing as “the enthusiast press,” which, at least in the case of, say, Kotaku, IGN, UGO has “maximize ad revenue” as an institutional goal. They’re never going to set up rules that interfere with that. No writer working in that environment is going to be able to do their best work, period. We need better institutions, I think.
Of course, since “enthusiasts,” or whatever you want to call them really, really love to be told that the games they like are THE AWESOME and will put up with being told that Beowulf is the best movie of 2007, we’re not going to get those institutions, because not enough people want them.
Well, I’ve got to say I’ve all but completely lost interest. At this point I’m just repeating myself or performing triage. It’s not getting anywhere but further from my original point, and even when it does, it doesn’t make a difference.
For instance: I agree it would’ve been better for AOL & Joystiq to pay for the hotel room during that MW3 event. And… so what? It doesn’t change my perception of the site or the review in the slightest. I’m still going to differentiate between reviews, previews, dressed-up press releases, and objective reporting. I’m not going to mentally deduct a half-star based on the knowledge that the review is possibly tainted. And other readers aren’t going to stop bitching about bias no matter how well they stick to their stated policy.
You can link to Joystiq’s policy page and shout “j’accuse!”, and you can hold up the Times‘s policy page as a beacon of integrity. It doesn’t change the fact that sometimes the Times movie reviewer is going to go into a screening with a headache, just as sometimes a Joystiq reviewer is going to start up a game after getting sick of military first-person shooters.
Everything you list is an example of industry news. I’ve said from the start that there’s a difference between investigative journalism, which demands objectivity; and writing about the arts, which defies objectivity. The idea driving my whole post in the first place is that it’s bogus to act as if the same rules apply throughout. It’s bogus to act as if an acknowledgement of that subjectivity invalidates a writer from being a “real” journalist. It’s bogus to act as if any deviation from the standards of investigative journalism automatically invalidates arts writing, and it’s bogus to act as if strict adherence to that has any kind of direct correlation to the quality of arts writing.
Supposedly, Pogue is fine getting food & drinks at a reception, as long as travel and airfare are out; but the Kotaku guys should never have been accepting free drinks in the first place, and Joystiq threw all of its integrity out the window by accepting accommodation for a writer and acknowledging it in the review. I don’t really care about the inconsistency; I’m saying it’s a meaningless distinction in the first place. It’s not going to make me pay any more or less attention to Pogue’s general audience pieces, and it’s not going to improve or diminish my already low opinion of Gawker media sites. The policy’s good to have, it’s important to try to stick to it, and individual cases of adherence or infractions does jack shit compared to the overall respectability of a news source.
The reason it’s an even bigger deal for games and gadgets than for movies is that there’s still an insistence that underneath everything, they’re products, and there’s always a way to look at them completely analytically. That will probably never change for gadgets, and it frankly doesn’t matter all that much. But it’s deadly for games writing. It’s what’s created the ridiculous amount of attention paid to Metacritic scores, all the way to affecting hiring practices at studios. It’s encouraged the behavior of sites that say “Hey, you should be more transparent! We’re all friends here!” on the one hand, and then immediately turn and publish a link-baiting scandal at the first opportunity. Because they invariably wrap themselves in the cries of “free and independent press,” and it fosters the idea that if you’re not publishing dirt, you’re not publishing the truth.
A film critic may get flak from a single review, but it’s not going to change the long-term perception of him. A games journalist is constantly just a few percentage points away from being dismissed as a corporate shill. In that kind of environment, you don’t get insightful analysis, and you sure as hell don’t get objectivity. You get nothing of merit. Have you seen people running statistical analysis on Roger Ebert’s reviews, trying to determine bias for or against individual studios? I never have. But I’ve seen it done pretty regularly for game sites.
When you said that Apple “manages” Gizmodo, all your examples suggest that you meant that Apple manages its own public relations with Gizmodo, just as it does with every publication. To which I have to respond, “Well, duh.” What I inferred from “manages” was the notion that Apple’s reprisals of Gizmodo resulted in the site being neutered into nothing more than an extension of Apple’s marketing arm.
If that’s not what you’re saying, then I don’t get what point you were making — is it supposed to be somehow less than honorable that a company tries to control its perception in the media and what information gets out? There’s definitely an implication of that, with the recurring idea that there’s something sinister behind Apple’s secrecy. It’s as if just because people want to know something, they deserve to know, and Apple’s desire to protect their trade secrets is nothing more than muzzling the hard-working independent press.
And in case that sounds like an attempt to reduce a point to an absurd conclusion: to go back to the same well again, plenty of people, not just you, have tried to draw comparisons between the Foxconn story and the stolen iPhone prototype. “I’m not defending Gizmodo or anything, but whatever. Look! Look at what Apple did! They sent police to that guy’s house!” (Even though they didn’t; that’s pretty much what the police do when someone reports a theft of something that valuable). I find it baffling that the same people who say it’s “naive” to believe that companies are motivated by anything other than profit, will simultaneously act as if there’s no such thing as corporate espionage.
For the bit about Apple’s complicity in the Foxconn scandal itself: I’m wary of saying anything about their motivations, since with the way this conversation’s going, it’s either got to be that Apple was absolutely 100% blameless, or that Tim Cook was using a bellows to blow aluminum dust directly into the lungs of child workers, laughing maniacally the whole time. While discrediting Daisey didn’t completely absolve Apple of blame, it does require everyone to reconsider the scope of the problems. Daisey’s claim was that anyone would immediately see how bad the situation was, since he saw all of this going on in one plant over a period of about a week. Now that we know that the incidents were miles apart and months apart, do we keep assuming that the problems were so glaring and Apple desperately covered them up? Apple didn’t directly manage these companies; they audited them. Should they have been more stringent, audited them more frequently, paid closer attention to violations? No question. From what I hear, that’s the policy they’ve put into place. If an industrial accident occurs at a plant in the US, and it results in deaths, do we demand the plant be shut down, or improved? It sounds to me like it was more a case of negligence and denial than intentional, malicious cost-cutting. Of course, negligence and denial aren’t to be dismissed. But a corporate giant blithely stomping on the backs of developing nations makes for a better story than a company that grossly underestimated the severity of a problem in its efforts to meet demand.
And speaking of that: While I appreciate the explanation of how corporations work, I think I get it. I chose the word “altruism” deliberately, but used it in the wrong turn of phrase. Everyone realizes that it’s absurd to say that a for-profit company is working purely for the greater good. My point was that it’s no less simplistic, and no more realistic, to talk as if a company is motivated completely by profit. And I don’t think it’s that much more realistic to take the Silkwood approach, either, and believe that it’s always just a case of the well-intentioned and disregarded employee workin’ against The Man.
Especially when Apple’s in the picture. By all accounts, Jobs frequently pulled some assholish and underhanded maneuvers. By all accounts, he was a shrewd businessman. And while he still nominally had to answer to shareholders and to a board of directors, at least after the iPod, he was in a position to do basically whatever he wanted short of puppy slaughter. And to suggest that he was motivated solely by profit isn’t being cynical, it’s just patently false. A company motivated by profit looks like Samsung: a lot of well-made products, a few outstanding products, and year-to-year increase in share prices. It’d be ridiculous to stare in open-mouthed Spielbergian wonder at the “magical” iPad, but the fact remains that you don’t get industry-changing and everyday-life-changing products if you’re focused entirely on profit.
Another example: since you used a completely hypothetical example of a studio’s financial troubles & media manipulation, I’ll use my own completely hypothetical example of an imaginary multinational corporation that also runs theme parks. And as often as I may have been annoyed at the bureaucracy, directly affected by the politics, and disappointed by creative decisions made in the interest of cutting costs, you will never convince me that the primary motivation of that (imaginary) company is anything other than to make people happy. You could hypothetically go to one of these parks and see nothing but the ticket prices, the cost of concessions, and the number of souvenir shops; or you could acknowledge that they exist to allow the fantastic stuff to exist, not the other way around. I’ve seen plenty of message board posts and blogs from people who insist that the company’s a business that exists for the purpose of making money. They think they’re being realistic; I think they’re being simple-minded. They complain that the company’s overrun by the pencil-pushers running spreadsheets; I (hypothetically) spent a couple months dealing primarily with people running spreadsheets and checking numbers off clipboards — and over and over again, without exception, their justification was making guests happy and keeping them from having to wait.
So if all this is the result of my losing interest in the topic, you can see why I’m reluctant to drag it out farther away from gaming sites and into a larger discussion on how to finally fix journalism. Frankly, I think it’s dissolved into nothing more than a disagreement over whether the glass is half empty or half full. I think it’s important to remember that the point of that expression isn’t to say one or the other was right; the point is that both are right.
Well, one more thing you stealth-commented while I was still writing:
I’m not sure you meant the same thing with “enthusiast press” as I do. I’m not being even remotely dismissive, for one thing. It’s not the difference between, say, Fangoria and Variety; it’s the difference between The New York Times and EDGE or Joystiq. I don’t think that it’s baked into the notion of “enthusiast press” that they all have to work like Kotaku, UGO, and IGN, because I don’t think it has much of anything to do with the business model. I think it’s solely about the material they cover. Again: part of it is investigative journalism about the industry as a whole, but a lot of it is writing about the arts, topics that are inherently subjective and inherently inconsequential.
And I think it’s defeatist to assume that there’s no demand for intelligent and insightful coverage of an ultimately inconsequential topic. Every print magazine has been hit hard over the past few years, but I’ve still never gotten the impression that EDGE is in danger of going out of business. And they have a reputation — a reputation I’m not entirely convinced is deserved, but whatever — for ignoring the 7-9 scale, and reviewing games critically. They don’t get the readership numbers of Kotaku, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean there’s no demand for it at all.
Mr. Burns, J’Accuse! (One of my favorite moments in gaming, in a terrible, terrible game.)
You’re right, we’re not getting anywhere, and also right that we don’t, as far as I can tell, disagree about anything factual. So, yeah, let’s let it be. You say half full, I say FULL TO OVERFLOWING WITH THE BLOOD OF THE PROLETARIAT. We’re both right. I am going to make a point of checking out the writers and sites you recommended up the thread. Because I really do want to read intelligent writing about games.
Sorry I was a dick about Apple. I’ve never had an experience with an employer where anyone in management wasn’t completely cynical, but I will acknowledge it might be possible. (I don’t think we will agree about Apple or your hypothetical employer being that company, but there might be one out there, like the Higgs Boson.)
There is one last point I’d like to make, which is that Apple, like Nike, the Gap, HP, Wal-Mart, and every other company that outsourced in-house manufacturing to third-world third-parties, has always understood that they could shield themselves from some culpability for human rights abuses by saying, “We don’t manage these companies! We just audit them!” That liability shield is baked into the deal and part of the reason people structure their manufacturing that way instead of running their own third world factories. A lesson Foxconn has also learned. So, no, I don’t think they should get off the hook in the slightest for only auditing their suppliers. (And the scope of the problems is ongoing.)
So I guess I’m still being a dick about Apple. (Says the man who bought a new MacBook Air, so yeah, there’s blood on my hands. But I would have paid twice as much to have it built by someone who had decent working conditions. And I would surely pay 20 cents more for a shitty Papa Johns pizza if the guy who delivered it had health care.)
So let’s end on something we can agree on: could Mitt Romney be any more of a train wreck? No, he could not.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re being a dick about Apple. I just disagree about the stuff I’m aware of, and am deliberately not taking it upon myself to dig much deeper. Because then I’d have to come to the terms with the fact that it’s absurd that someone with my income could have as much stuff as I do. And it’s probably good to maintain a healthy skepticism about any company that has such a cultish following, and whose advertising doesn’t hesitate to talk about itself in terms of “magic.” (Even though I don’t know how to describe the MacBook Air as anything other than a gift from the heavens, albeit the MagSafe 2 connector sucks balls).
I definitely agree that I’d pay more if they opened up production plants in the US — I don’t know if I’d still be as actively stimulating the economy if it were twice as much, but it wouldn’t turn me off altogether. I’m already so spoiled by the products that they don’t really need to compete on price anymore. The problem is that I don’t know how exactly they’d start that process.
The Guardian article you linked to, and the NYT article that we both keep mentioning, both had the same fault: they put APPLE in the headline and spend paragraphs talking about iPads and iPhones, and then several paragraphs in, almost as an afterthought, mention that Foxconn supplies parts to just about every tech manufacturer. (Their example story even mentions a worker making parts for the Kindle, but only mentions Amazon in passing and keeps all the emphasis on Apple). I don’t want to harp on that too much, because it has a connotation that it’s okay for Apple because “everybody else is doin’ it!”
Maybe Apple really is in a unique position to fix things, since they’ve got so much money stockpiled. But with the market as competitive as it is, and with companies already selling some devices at a loss just to try and get a foothold into the iPad-and iPhone-dominated market, I have to wonder what would be the repercussions of saying “That’s it, we’re dropping you clowns and getting a more expensive supplier.” By all accounts, Apple’s already making a healthy profit margin on everything it sells, so maybe it wouldn’t be as risky for them as I’m making it out to be. Maybe paying, say, $50 or $100 more per laptop or tablet would be enough to pay for a more responsible supplier, and the company’s got so much momentum now that it wouldn’t make a dent in their sales. (But then, I wonder if another supplier would be able to even meet the demand?)
I am pretty sure that Samsung, HP, Amazon, Microsoft and Google wouldn’t think twice about continuing to use Foxconn. (Maybe Microsoft, because for whatever reason, they strike me as the company that wants to be better but just can’t help itself). Half of me thinks it’s unfair to single out Apple as being the sole conscience of the entire tech industry; the other half realizes that it’s Apple’s current CEO who orchestrated the situation that they’re in now, since he’s the one who did all he could to make sure they could sell the iPad for less than $600 in the first place.
So yeah. Mitt Romney, huh? Not to break up this new-found detente between us, but I think he could be more of a train wreck: if he were Santorum, Bachmann, or Herman Cain. I do like the idea of the illuminati that controls the GOP deep within its volcano lair just looking at the campaign, and especially the coverage of his overseas junket, and just shaking their heads. You couldn’t genetically engineer a more appropriate GOP candidate: he says nothing except for the party line, and he’s basically a 1950s cartoon dad made flesh.
Edit: I forgot to mention Gingrich, so that’s a good thing. With everything else that’s horrible in the world, I still managed to let myself forget that Newt Gingrich exists. So things can’t be all bad, right?
I think the focus on Apple, at least on the part of human rights activists, is a function of the fact that they have the cash and the comfortable profit margin (and in some fields, e.g. tablets, no real competitors yet) that they could afford to do the right thing, whether you define “the right thing” as bringing manufacturing home or doing real reviews of their subcontractors with real consequences, require that their workers get paid a living wage, or even hiring the workers directly. Also, if you want to get something actually changed, you’re far better off focusing on one company instead of going around saying “the supply chain for all electronic companies needs to be completely redesigned! Somebody should do something!”
On the part of the news media, beyond the fact that activists are steering the story in this direction for pragmatic reasons, maybe it’s just bad luck or whatever, but this guy didn’t lose an Xbox. The Chengdu explosion was on an iPad 2 production line. The Wintek employees were using n-hexane to polish iPhone screens. If I remember correctly, the coverage of the original wave of suicides mentioned other manufacturers nearly as often as Apple. But the most interesting fuckups in Chinese manufacturing have involved Apple products.
But since these stories started breaking, it’s also been reported that, more than any other company, Apple allows their suppliers only a very, very small, fixed profit margin, and are by all accounts the most difficult tech company for Chinese manufacturers to negotiate with. Not because they make expensive requests for worker safety (and let’s face it, their requests to improve worker conditions don’t have teeth if they don’t fire Wintek for poisoning their employees, or fire Foxconn for not putting adequate ventilation in a room filled with aluminum dust), but because they are brutal about keeping manufacturing costs down.
Last of all, there is certainly some amount of anger, at least on my part, that is specifically targeted at Apple and its Gruber-style defenders. When this is the way an Apple website reports a worker riot (especially the closing paragraphs), I want to build a time machine and ship the authors and commenters off to Cripple Creek. I can’t imagine a hypothetical Microsoft fan being that willfully blind, or an HP fan, if such a person existed. It’s like being stuck in a room with a climate change denier or Mark Halperin.
Anyway, yeah, it’s unfair to call this an Apple problem, when it’s a U.S. problem (he wrote, in his Chinese-made t-shirt). And let’s face it, the west has been enjoying a higher standard of living by using weapons or money to keep poorer nations as chattel since Macedonia. Still, I wish there were some way the United States could, as a nation, pass some sort of, I don’t know, like a written-down-thing-that-companies-have-to-do-or-their-management-goes-to-jail, or even a written-down-thing-that-companies-could-choose-to-do-in-order-to-avoid-a-higher-tax-burden, so the Tim Cooks of the world could do the right thing without being at a competitive disadvantage!
We’re far afield from problems with games journalism now.
(And never forget Gingrich! That’s what he’s counting on–you’ll be lulled into a false sense of security, and then BLAMMO!)
I’m shocked, shocked to see such obviously biased reporting coming from the august halls of AppleInsider. How deep can this scandal go? I hope you’re not suggesting that MacRumors.com and Cult of Mac are also suspect?! Why are you just bringing it up in the comments of this blog — more people need to know!
Speaking of things people need to know, I wish all the media sites, local news, and late-night monologues would just stop going on and on about allegations of worker abuse at Samsung suppliers. It’s practically become a witch hunt.
Sarcasm in this comment made possible by describing it as “pragmatic” when every single headline in the ever-ethical New York Times that mentions a manufacturer at all in relation to Foxconn, mentions only Apple. Along with the disregard for the fact that until 5 years ago and the release of the iPhone, Apple had such a low market share in the tech industry that other manufacturers laughed at the suggestion they could compete. With an additional contribution by the Coke spit on my monitor after hearing “I can’t imagine a hypothetical Microsoft fan being that willfully blind.”
Apple’s success made them a target, and their “company values” as portrayed in their marketing and charismatic CEO made them a story. The facts don’t absolve Apple of culpability, but they also don’t justify singling them out. I could just as easily take the glass-half-full approach once again, and point out that the reason so many people single out Apple is because they’re the only tech company that purports to have enough conscience to do something about it. (Now that Google’s “don’t be evil” has been whittled down to “try not to be all that evil or at least don’t get caught, okay?”)
If the attention does mean that something gets done about it, great. If no solution is acceptable other than “fire your major equipment suppliers immediately, right as other companies are launching the first viable competitors to your own product, even though they’ll continue to use those suppliers without repercussion, and even though you’ve already had trouble meeting the insane demand for your products,” then I’d have to ask who’s being naive here.
Also: I didn’t know what you were talking about with Papa Johns earlier until I saw the Colbert Report. Seriously, fuck that guy. I wish their pizza didn’t already suck so bad, so I could vow to never eat it.
I think you’re attacking a strawman in your penultimate paragraph. I’m saying the acceptable solution is to legally require some sort of minimal labor standards on imported goods. Give these guys and these guys some teeth and more of a place at the table when trade agreements are negotiated, and spend real money on enforcement and penalties. Take the decision out of Tim Cook’s hands (and Samsung’s hands, and so on) entirely, and everyone will leave him alone.
If that doesn’t happen, I still think focusing on an individual company is fine. Nobody calls it the Wagner Palace strike, even if they were causing as much trouble as George Pullman. And Apple’s not going to be run out of business by this. They’re already more expensive than their competitors–if a US made iPhone costs $100 more, I think a lot of people will pay that gladly–I certainly would. But I’m not sure their success or “company values” are the main reason they show up in as many headlines as they do (though not all of the ones you linked to). I think a big part of it is because they’re seen as a luxury brand to begin with. It would be a bigger story if Ferarri started building their cars Foxconn-style than if Kia did (Maybe they both do–I don’t have any idea).
Anyway, if Apple decided to raise their prices to cover better labor standards, I don’t think it would hit their market share much, even if they passed the entire cost onto the consumer. (The smart move on their part would be to push for tougher laws to ensure everybody takes the same hit, and in the meantime, advertise the shit out of the fact that their products aren’t made by harming workers). But look, even if they were hypothetically forced to pay more for labor while Samsung was left alone, people are still going to buy their products. Buying a U.S.-made car in the 1970s and 1980s might have been the right thing to do from a labor standpoint, but those cars genuinely sucked. Apple makes the best product.
I was serious about not knowing anyone who writes about Microsoft the way AppleInsider writes about Apple, although I certainly haven’t gone looking. XBox fans, maybe? But that’d be like people writing about just the iPad but not the rest of the company. They’re not a cool brand; never have been, probably never will be.
That’s about all I think I can safely say on this subject, because the screen on my iPhone shattered since we started this conversation, and I’m sure Tim Cook will break more of my stuff if I go on.
And yeah, giving up Papa John’s pizza is the easiest way I’ve ever ensured my money doesn’t go to causes I disagree with, except for giving up Domino’s.
The one thing I do absolutely agree on is that were Apple to put some genuine force behind their commitment to better labor practices, they’d advertise the hell out of it. I still think it’d be a mistake to underestimate how much of the company is driven by a “vision,” and to dismiss that as nothing more than PR and marketing, but that’s probably just a matter of degree. And I still think it’d be a mistake to underestimate how tight the price differences are for phones and gadgets; people have proven that they won’t pay more for quality, they’ll pay for features.
Apple’s status as luxury products definitely isn’t new; the build quality of a luxury product at a competitive price point is what’s new. (And yes, of course, they still have a higher profit margin per unit than other manufacturers). I think the biggest make is to forget that their dominance is new. For most of the company’s lifetime, it’s been a distant second (at best). To use your example, it’d be as if Ferarri suddenly found itself out-selling Hondas. Raising prices and/or lowering margins probably wouldn’t put the company out of business, but it’s got to be a little bit like the billionaire who grew up poor, so he still saves loose change and buys stuff at a discount. Old mindsets are hard to break. (I still believe in the “Apple Tax,” in my gut, even though I’ve seen first-hand, multiple times, that buying Wintel ends up costing me just as much).
And I don’t know about Microsoft fansites in particular (and don’t really want to know, if they do exist); I meant the general attitude of articles like this one, which has been pervasive for as long as I can remember. The idea that Apple’s detractors are any more unbiased or sane than Apple’s supporters is ludicrous; in my experience, it’s usually the ones who call out Apple “fanboys” as being the most prone to dementia.