When snark attacks: AOL and the fight for editorial independence

A feud between 'sister' sites TechCrunch and Moviefone raises questions over who owns the media and how it's manipulated

Welcome to the AOL-TechCrunch Follies, brought to you by Moviefone.

Today's post centers on a silly feud between bickering members of the big, new dysfunctional AOL family -- TechCrunch and Moviefone -- now under the viselike embrace of headmistress Arianna Huffington. But it's also about who owns the news and what can happen as a result.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Cringely told you so -- hello AOL, good-bye quality content. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]

Our story begins with Alexis Tsostis, a blogger for TechCrunch who's been schlepping around SXSW for the past week scrounging up stories. She got invited to a screening of a movie called "The Source Code," which sounds like yet another truly lame Hollywood take on high tech. (Plot synopsis: Military guy uses computer "source code" to enter the brain of a terrorist and prevent him from blowing things up. Think "The Matrix" meets every other "thriller" you've ever seen.)

Tsostis did a video interview with the star of the film (Jake Gyllenhaal) and wrote a brief, less-than-reverent blog post about how the movie is being marketed to geeks, including an unbelievably silly Facebook "game" the studio concocted to promote the film.

The movie studio, Summit Entertainment, didn't like Tsostis's post. Summit contacted AOL's Moviefone, which had arranged for the blogger to view the film and spend quality time with movie hunks, and asked Moviefone to convey its displeasure. Tsostis received the following email:

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? … 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.

(If they think Tsostis's post was snarky, one can only imagine what they'd think of this blog.)

That in turn led to every blogger's dream post -- one in which they can declare their unswerving loyalty to truth, justice, and the journalistic way while taking potshots at both obnoxious PR types and their own corporate masters. Really, it's the trifecta. You're lucky if you get a chance for one of those in a career. Tsostis came out swinging:

The most ridiculous part about this whole episode is that the post in question wasn't even that "snarky," whatever the hell that means. I mean it's not like I wrote "Movie Studio Creates 'Game' In Order To Get People To Spam Their Friends On Facebook" in the headline.

The issue is simply that Summit thinks it can pressure us, through an AOL sister site, into making a balanced report more glowing. And while it's inappropriate, it's not surprising. What is surprising, and sad, is that Moviefone/AOL actually tried to comply with their request and asked us to change our post.  It's not just sad, it's wrong.

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