“AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down” screamed Alexia Tsotsis' headline on TechCrunch earlier today. And, as someone who has been just waiting for our new corporate paymasters to pull a stupid stunt like this, I really thought Christmas had come early.
I knew it! All that talk of AOL respecting our editorial independence and now they're emailing Alexia and asking her to tone down the snark? J'accuse Tim Armstrong! J'afuckingccuse.
But then I read the rest of the post and – you know what? – I kinda feel like we owe AOL an apology.
You see, here's what actually happened. A couple of days ago, Alexia – an esteemed colleague, and friend – went to see some crappy movie, at the prompting of someone at TC-sister-site, Moviefone. (As a Brit, I don't really know what Moviefone is, but I do know that's not how you spell phone.)
After seeing the crappy movie, Alexia wrote a solid post, expressing a healthy dose of cynicism about the Facebook game that Summit Entertainment has created to hype it. And that's where the fun started.
Apparently someone at Summit didn't like the “snark” in Alexia's post. They passed on their concerns to their Moviefone contact in the hope that, as an AOL sister site, Moviefone would be able to lean on Alexia to tone it down. Sure enough, someone at Moviefone emailed Alexia…
“First wanted to thank you for covering Source Code/attending the party, etc. But also wanted to raise a concern that Summit had about the piece that ran. They felt it was a little snarky and wondered if any of the snark can be toned down? I wasn't able to view the video interviews but I think their issue is just with some of the text. Let me know if you're able to take another look at it and make any edits. I know of course that TechCrunch has its own voice and editorial standards, so if you have good reasons not to change anything that's fine, I just need to get back to Summit with some sort of information. Let me know.”
Unsurprisingly outraged, Alexia wrote a follow-up post, quoting from the email and insisting that she will never tone down her snark. Which is fine – after all, Alexia without her snark is like MG without his iPhone.
The only problem is, rather than calling out Moviefone in her headline, she called out the whole of AOL, apparently on the basis that “AOL owns Moviefone” and our promise that “if AOL ever asked us if we could change our coverage in any way… we'd immediately publish it.”
The problem is Moviefone is no more a representative of AOL Corp than we are. As such, the headline could just as accurately have read “Moviefone asks AOL to tone it down”. An employee of Moviefone sending a dumb email to a TechCrunch writer is not the same as Tim Armstrong sending it, or Arianna Huffington sending it. Yes, it's a damning indictment of the kind of dumbass hacks that are still inexplicably employed by some of AOL's content divisions (and who Arianna Huffington has her work cut out to replace), but it's not an indictment of AOL itself. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous at best, dangerous at worst.
No-one who still writes for AOL has been more critical of the company than me. I've attacked the Aol Way, and Armstrong's obsession with SEO while squeezing every last dollar out of underpaid contributors. I've bitched about the company's recent round of firings and I've stood on stage at TC Disrupt, ten minutes after we were acquired, and asked that “the owner of a silver Toyota blocking the exit please move it before AOL acquires it and drives it off a cliff”.
But if we're going to attack an entire organization, particularly one that signs our paychecks, we need to be sure we're on absolutely rock-solid ground. The truth is, for all of AOL's many faults, they have never once asked us to adjust our content and they have certainly not told us to dial down the snark. They're hugely dysfunctional but they're not hugely stupid.
To suggest that a silly email by a staffer at Moviefone is the smoking gun we've all been waiting for smacks of boy-who-cried-wolfism, which will make it far harder for us to raise a stink if and when someone with a VP title or above at AOL HQ does ask us to “make a few changes”. Headlines like “AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down” might be good for clickthroughs but they're bad for just about everything else.
And there's one other problem with the headline: in hanging an innocent man (or in this case an innocent corporation), we're letting a guilty man (or in this case woman) walk free. A few hours ago Patricia Chui, the Editor-in-Chief of Moviefone, wrote a spirited defense of her publication's actions:
“The reality of our situation is that, as a movies site, we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them. Staying on good terms with studios means that we will relay information if asked.”
I mean, seriously. An editor-in-chief wrote these words: “we work with movie studios every day, and it is in our best interests to stay on good terms with them”.
Actually, Patricia, you only have two loyalties: one is to your readers and one is to the company that signs your paychecks. That's it. You do not – emphatically do not – have a responsibility to “stay on good terms” with movie studios. On the contrary, when a movie company asks you to try to strong-arm a colleague into dialing down her editorial voice, it's in your best interests as a professional editor to tell them to go fuck themselves. The fact that you didn't do that is bad enough, the fact that you're so bad at your job that you still believe you acted correctly is unforgivable.
So, no, Alexia's headline shouldn't have read “AOL Asks Us If We Can Tone It Down”. That was unfair to AOL. What it should have said – and what would have been entirely fair to everyone involved – is “Moviefone's Patricia Chui should resign in shame, and if she won't resign then AOL should fire her immediately.”
And once they've done precisely that, Alexia should probably send Tim and Arianna some flowers to say sorry.