How the FTC's New Regulations on Bloggers Affect Pajiba
Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission passed new regulations that, for the first time, aim to regulate bloggers. The gist of it is this: Bloggers will be required to clearly disclose freebies or payments they get in exchange for reviewing a company's products. A number of alert readers promptly sent me links to the new rules, which I appreciate. But for those wondering how the new FTC regulations might affect Pajiba, the answer is simple:
They won't affect us at all.
Granted, there is some question about whether free screeners or even press screenings would fall under the new regulations; most reasonable people agree that they do not. Junkets are another matter -- where a studio pays for the travel and accommodations of a blogger for the purposes of covering a junket, these rules may (and most certainly should) apply.
In either case, it still doesn't affect us.
For folks who are relatively new to the site, or others who have never bothered to read our About Us page, it's worth reiterating that we're not like other blogs because we don't attend press screenings or participate in junkets (there's also a legitimate question about whether we fall under the definition of blog; I believe the FTC intended to cover all "Internet writers," so for the purposes of the regulations, I believe we do).
In fact, we pay full price for movie tickets, and I'm of the belief that doing so makes us more honest critics. By paying $12 to see Are We There Yet?, I think our reactions reflect not just the wasted time we spent, but the money we lost in the transaction. I don't believe for a second that most critics who attend press screenings are dishonest, mind you. I just think that, by attending movies like other moviergoers -- with other moviegoers -- our assessments are more closely aligned to our readers, most of whom don't have the benefit of free screenings, among other critics, with seats often set aside for them. I might also note that, in our brief experience with press screenings (very, very early on in the game here), that the PR folks who arrange these screenings do occasionally attempt to influence reviews, even if it's just to alter the language (PR folks don't like critics to use profanity in their reviews, for instance). And lest you believe otherwise, PR people do hold some sway over critics, even if it's just in their ability to revoke press screening privileges if they don't like what they read (as happened to us, early on, when we refused to tone down the language).
As for junkets -- different sites, of course, have different philosophies, but mine is simple: Junkets are a complete waste of goddamn time. Spending 15 minutes in a room with 10 other junket writers rarely elicits anything of value. Other outlets, naturally, talk up these "interviews" or "exclusives," which is understandable: Getting the latest "scoop" about what Megan Fox's opinion on nude scenes generates page views (we just post a picture of Megan Fox to generate cheap page views). But junkets almost never generate substance. The celebrities and filmmakers are there to sell you a product; they're not your friend. And it's amazing, to me, how over the last decade or so -- since online writing really began taking off -- how we've seen something of a role reversal of what we saw in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, where the members of Stillwater had to constantly remind themselves that journalists are not their friends. Now, I think a lot of online writers often need to remind themselves that the celebrities and filmmakers are not their friends.
Granted, we've done a few interviews here on Pajiba, but we've never worked through PR channels. Those interviews were set up, directly, with the filmmaker, and they were all done over email, so nothing could be taken out of context. In that regard, I do believe you get more honest and more informative interviews. In either respect, it's clear that our readers aren't that interested in interviews: they're little trafficked, and despite -- or maybe because of -- our reputation, our readers have called our opinions of subsequent reviews into question, suggesting that they were influenced by email interviews (they weren't. In the case of Pete Chiarelli, for instance, I reviewed his film before the interview, and with Kevin Smith, I conducted the interview, but Prisco wrote the review). I can only imagine the shit we'd get if we spent half our time in junkets, stargazing, and then being asked to turn around and write an objective review after chatting up the filmmakers.
Of course, the writers for other legitimate, respectable and often more popular sites than ours (they have those Megan Fox "exclusives," after all) will argue that their judgement is absolutely not affected by these press screenings and interviews. And maybe it's not. I absolutely believe that many of them are capable of separating their reviews from their puff pieces. But if you spend a day on the set of, say, Inglourious Basterds and then, a few months later, turn around and spend half an hour with Quentin Tarantino before watching his movie, for free, in your reserved theater seats, I think it's not only fair for your readers to call your judgement into question, but that the online writers, at the very least, make that disclosure and allow their readers to decide for themselves.