MediaWatch: Pay for play in the world of reviews

Back in the 1960s when esnl was a cub reporter and newspapers employed lots of scribes, reviewing was a major part of the medium’s functions.

These days, reviews are few and far between, and websites have taken over the function, sometimes superbly [as in the case of cameras] and sometimes miserably [as in the case of books].

But opening up the reviewer’s craft to all has carried a pernicious side effect: The paid reviewer who doesn’t disclose that the contents are subsidized by folks with a direct financial interest in seeing the product praised or panned.

Two recent stories have brought the seedy reviewing underworld to light.

Google versus Oracle and a judge’s questions

The question of play for pay emerged in a San Francisco courtroom during a landmark legal battle between two software giants, resulting in a controversial judicial order.

From Richard Chirgwin, writing for The Register:

An unknown number of bloggers and hacks are feeling a little sweaty around the collar today, with a US judge ordering the disclosure of financial relationships that might have affected published articles and comment in the Oracle-versus-Google lawsuit.

The order follows FOSS Patents’ blogger Florian Mueller’s voluntary disclosure that he had a consulting relationship with Oracle.

Read the rest.

Here’s the money quote from the order [PDF] by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, a jurist who’s also skilled in writing his own computer programs:

The Court is concerned that the parties and/or counsel herein may have retained or paid print or internet authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers who have and/or may publish comments on the issues in this case. Although proceedings in this matter are almost over, they are not fully over yet and, in any event, the disclosure required by this order would be of use on appeal or on any remand to make clear whether any treatise, article, commentary or analysis on the issues posed by this case are possibly influenced by financial relationships to the parties or counsel. Therefore, each side and its counsel shall file a statement herein clear identifying all authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers who have reported or commented on any issues in this case and who have received money (other than normal subscription fees) from the party or its counsel during the pendency of this action.

Some background on the case, reported Monday by Brandon Bailey of the San Jose Mercury News:

Oracle did confirm that it has a consulting contract with Florian Mueller, a  prolific blogger and commenter on patent issues who has written sympathetically about Oracle’s position in the Android case.  Both Oracle and Mueller said his contract  – which Mueller disclosed in his blog last spring – was unrelated to his commentary on the legal dispute.  (Mueller also notes that he’s been critical of Oracle in the past.)

Google, for its part, said it had not paid anyone to pontificate on the dispute. But the search company acknowledged it has given money to a variety of trade groups and other organizations, and added:  ”Google is aware that representatives of some of these organizations have elected to comment on the case.”

That wasn’t enough for Alsup.  Oracle has accused Google of maintaining an “extensive network of influencers to help shape public perceptions” on the dispute, and the judge apparently wants to know more.

Alsup issued second order on Monday, saying Google had “failed to comply” with his first instruction.  The judge clarified that he wasn’t just  looking for people who were paid directly to comment on the case.  He also wants to hear about any commenters who received any compensation at all.

Read the rest.

Here’s an RT interview exploring the pay-for-media-play controversy with Georgetown University journalism professor Christopher Chambers:

Another pay-for-play venue: Book reviews

As the Los Angeles Review of Books notes:

The great tradition of the American comprehensive book review, in magazine and newspaper form, has been in its death throes for years. The disappearance of the newspaper book review supplement (papers in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Des Moines, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and elsewhere have shuttered or radically shrunk theirs) has been accompanied by an explosion of titles in the book market. The net result: twenty times as many titles are published each year than were a quarter century ago, and we have one twentieth of the serious print book reviews. They have been replaced in partial ways by web-based reviews, many of them crowd-sourced or user-generated forums for book talk.

So what about those web-based reviews? How reliable are they?

New York Times scribe David Streitfeld offers a fascinating look at another venue where cash can buy a good review: Self-published books.

His story focuses on Tulsa “review entrepreneur” Todd Rutherford, who made his living writing reviews for self-published authors looking for blurbs to punch into the websites where they sell their ebooks.

Rutherford’s service offered a menu of offerings, starting with $99 for a single review and ranging up to $999 for 50.

He was soon so busy that he was doling out reviews to scribes recruited through Craigslist, who were paid $15 for five-star reviews, half that for reviews with fewer stars [we leave it to your cynical self to conclude the results].

His venture was derailed after his ads were banned by Google, on the grounds it wouldn’t approve of ads seeking favorable reviews.

Streitfield reports:

“The wheels of online commerce run on positive reviews,” said Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, whose 2008 research showed that 60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars. “But almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”

Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.

Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

The Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines stating that all online endorsements need to make clear when there is a financial relationship, but enforcement has been minimal and there has been a lot of confusion in the blogosphere over how this affects traditional book reviews.

Read the rest.

Rutherford’s peddling RVs these days, but he’s working on a comeback.

We’ve not doubt plenty of other folks out there are filling in the gaps left by his absence.

By way of disclosure, we’ve done a fair amount of book reviews for previous employers, including the late Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Psychology Today, and the Sacramento Bee. And for our own books we’ve never posted pseudonymous reviews [a topic covered in Streitfield’s story] nor sought favorable reviews from others [ditto].

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