The internet medium has given rise to a whole new generation of independent media outlets. At this stage, it is not a positive move for the different movie websites to begin tearing at the meat of each other’s carcasses. Generally, we’ve all stuck to policing our own shit. In light of events over the past few months, though, perhaps it’s time for us to speak up about the problems with Ain’t It Cool News and its fearless leader, Harry Knowles. Now, I didn’t write this article just to be an asshole or to ignite some kind of “flame” war. This is neither a hit piece nor a personal attack. The real struggle here is between three camps: the mainstream press, the studios, and the internet press. Aw, fuck it. When it comes to making enemies, why stop now?
…THAT RED-HEADED KID
In the past week alone there have been quite a few complaints about Aint-it-cool-news.com focusing on its webmaster and sock puppet, Harry Knowles. Amongst all of the movie sites on the web, Harry’s quickly rose to the top for two reasons. First, it received a lot of important scoops on a lot of major films. Second, unlike nearly all of the non-corporate sites (save, well, this one), AICN was driven by a personality, his own. Cartoon likenesses litter and brand the site. AICN struck a chord with a lot of people, and Harry quite adeptly developed his persona. User hits went through the roof.
Smelling a phenomena, the mainstream press latched onto Knowles as the new face of web media… and then his troubles began. The old press tends to be lazy and a little nearsighted when it comes to making distinctions between groups other than themselves (you know, immigrants, latinos, blacks, whatever). It doesn’t matter that the different sites don’t necessarily agree on much. Hell, it’s hard enough for the chief authors of Film Threat to agree on anything. Bottom line: Harry screws up, we all get blamed.
Conversely, people often only have the power the public gives them. It’s all about perception. Studios will often blame the internet for bad publicity as to draw attention away from their often crappy product. The press, lemmings that they are, plays along by citing the web (instead of quality) as the cause of death of many an ill-conceived film. Harry, easily identified and marketed, becomes the new “red menace” as the perceived center of power.
Now, people say that power corrupts, but not nearly as much as the process of maintaining that power. I’ve seen people swallow a lot of shit for that one whiff of the sweet smell of success. That place on top of the dung-heap may allow for quite a view, but it makes you an awfully easy target. I think it’s time to pop off a few rounds.
AND THE CHARGES ARE…
Here’s a basic sampling of the largest complaints against Ain’t It Cool News:
- GRAFT – One tends to question Harry’s credibility due to the volume of gifts and gratuities he receives from both studios and filmmakers. Not only does he admit it, he begs for it! The only words in a story title that will turn me off faster than “Harry’s Adventure In…” would be “WAAAH! ME WANT PWESANTS!!!” Damn, son. Show some dignity. Let’s reviews some of the “known” items on this shopping list of shame:
- Paid trip to New York for premiere of “Godzilla” at Madison Square Garden.
- Paid trip to Los Angeles for premiere of “Detroit Rock City” where band KISS performed.
- Paid trip to premiere of “Green Mile”.
- A bit part given to Harry in “The Faculty”, while friends got to be extras. Premiere was in Austin and everyone got to attend.
- Dreamworks provided an exclusive, advanced screening of “Gladiator” for AICN in San Francisco.
- Provided set tour of “Armageddon” in Houston. Paid trip to premiere in Florida.
- Paid trip for lacky to Los Angeles, “Robogeek” to set of “Mystery Men”.
- Paid trip to London to set of “The Mummy”.
- Tours of many film sets, including “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “Monkey Bone”, “Fail Safe”, etc.
What’s the result of all this? Besides a great deal of frequent flyer points, all of these films that have been released received positive to glowing reviews. While this may be acceptable for films such as “Gladiator”, some others, namely “Godzilla”, “Detroit Rock City”, “Armageddon”, and “Mystery Men”, have, uh, more than their share of detractors.
- OUTRIGHT BULLSHIT – Aaah! Now on to the fabled Oscar scandal. For the most complete coverage of this debacle, head over the archives of Dave Poland’s Hot Button column on roughcut.com. To summarize, it goes something like this:
On February 14 of this year, the day before final nominations for the Academy Awards were announced, AICN ran a list of between 8 and 11 possible nominees for each major category. These lists, reportedly a “complete accounting of the press materials regarding possible nominees,” were reportedly from a spy, dubbed by Harry “Dr. Evil’s Evil Lite Son”, who claimed to have access to early voting. Knowles later stated that the lists were extrapolated from the Academy’s pre-written Nomination Sidebars for the press to be release after nominees were announced. He then claimed to have hacked the info himself from an Academy computer after. Harry then provided the instructions for readers to access the same information themselves.
It was all bullshit. The lists were actually just a bunch of guesses by a staffer from ABC.com, stored on their home computer. Unaware of the vulnerability of their cable modem, a non-industry, untested source forwarded the list and its IP address to Harry on Sunday, Feb. 13, claiming they were from an Academy staffer. Harry did no investigation of the material beyond a couple of questions to the would-be spy. He then manufactured most of the details and posted the story.
- MISDIRECTION OF CREDIT – There have been multiple instances of AICN running news items that have appeared elsewhere and either not crediting the originating site or watering down the quality of their information. The latest flare-up occurred last week. On May 31, Patrick Sauriol, the webmaster at Corona’s Coming Attractions sent the following email to a long list of movie sites:
Date: Wednesday, May 31, 2000 7:11 PM
Subject: Star Wars 2 casting news.
I rarely do this, but I feel the importance of this piece of gossip is important enough to pass on to you all. CA’s running the story that Jimmy Smits (yes, he of NYPD Blue fame, but I prefer LA Law myself) has been secretly cast in a role that’ll have him starring in STAR WARS 2 as well as STAR WARS 3. I don’t know the name of the character yet, but according to my source, Smits’ deal is done and only requires a few days of filming.
However, his role in SW3 is much larger and will require more time from the actor. I trust my source and his credibility, which I outline on the CA STAR WARS 2 page. ^ If Lucas is serious about shooting this film starting next month, there should be some kind of casting announcement fairly soon, you think, right? Well, this is Lucas…
Patrick soon found the data posted by Harry’s father with the following intro:
OK so this isn’t a cutting edge scoop, I (Father Geek) am posting it for the benefit of our readers that DON’T have the time to surf around to all the different film sites out there on the web. Actually Patrick over at CA ran this by us here at AICN before it went up on his site and then instantly everywhere else, but, stone me if you like, Father Geek was waiting for some more info to expand it into a story not just an unconfirmed sound bite, however it seems no expanded story is forthcoming. This DOES seem to be fact not rumor though, any way here is what is KNOWN at present…
The contents of Patrick’s original email were reprinted with one important change. “Hey gang” was now replaced by “Harry etc.” To say the least, he went ballistic. You can check out his comments at Coming Attractions Director’s Cut . Whereas Patrick had believed he was extended a friendly courtesy to his fellow webmasters with info he sat on for a week until he received a second source as confirmation, he was now reading an article that implied he sent the info to AICN alone for their blessing. He felt it made Coming Attractions appear subordinate to the mighty AICN.
Upon hearing similar complaints from other sites, Patrick drafted a declaration of ethics to be sent to AICN by each of the participating websites. This document was promptly leaked to Knowles. His rambling defense can be found at AICN .
- BLAMING OTHERS AND HIDING BEHIND PSUEDONYMS – How seriously can you really take any review credited to a fictional character (Moriarty, Elektra, etc.)? Without a real name to back up the opinion, you don’t know whether the author is someone who lucked into an advanced screening or is merely a studio flack (or hack) with an axe to grind or a product to promote. AICN swears it fact checks sources, but in light of the Oscar episode it’s difficult to believe. ^
Anonymity provides an easy target to blame when things go wrong. We know the identity of “Father Geek”, who took the blame for the conflict with Corona, though it was Harry who conveniently provided the (sort of) apology instead.
- RESPECT FOR PRIVACY ONLY WHEN IT SUITS HARRY – AICN zealously guards the identities of its spies, but rules can shift as it suits them. Father Geek removed any reference that Patrick Sauriol’s email was sent to anyone but them, but when Harry printed his declaration of ethics in his response he had no qualms about reprinting the entire list of addresses to which Patrick had originally sent it. Was this so Harry’s legion of pseudonymed fanboy minions could then personally harass all of them?
Let’s not forget Knowles also provided the IP address to access the home computer of the poor sap at ABC.com whom Harry and pals exploited for the Oscar disaster. Of course it was by providing this information that led to Harry’s exposure and humiliation.
- REALLY BAD WRITING – He also tells us, among other things, that it is, “my philosophy that film review doesn’t begin and end with the opening and ending titles. There is more to it. What we do and who we are affects the review. ” Well, he’s got that right. The problem is that you should know who you are and how what you do affects your writing.
God knows, I’m as guilty as anyone of writing first-person film reviews and stories. Hell, I’m doing it right now. I, on the other hand, may possess a dim awareness that no one would really give a shit about how I got from the airport to my complimentary hotel to the movie premiere for which the studio flew me in. Oh, and if my name were, say, Drew McWeeny, (AKA Moriarty) formerly of Dave’s Laser Disc, and I chose to masquerade under the name of some Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, I might avoid spinning bullshit fantasies about myself for half the review. You should really masturbate on your own time. ^ By the way, if you want some grasp of how to impose yourself on your writing, you might substitute Lester Bangs or Nick Tosches for your delusions of Movieline.
What does Harry have to say in his defense? Let’s start with the bribery charges. In an email to FT editor Chris Gore on 3/13/00: “I went to the GREEN MILE premiere, but not because of Warners, but Frank Darabont. In fact in almost every single case of me attending a premiere, it’s been at the invite of the filmmaker also for “Armageddon” and not the studio.”
In response to set and star access he states: “David Poland (from roughcut.com) has gone on far more junkets than me. Roger Ebert has been given access to far more stars than I have. Hell, I’m willing to bet you Chris Gore have as well.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: As a matter of policy, Chris Gore and Film Threat’s writers do not attend junkets or accept trips from studios. That has been Film Threat’s policy since the beginning.)
Finally, in response to attacks on his ethics or lack thereof: “The process of filmmaking is something to be studied without borders. Since when has journalism been solely about following the rules of the subject you are reporting on?” Harry’s defense can be read on his site at AICN .
THE REALITY CHECK
Alright, let’s sort through this swamp of myopia. The “borders” comment is important as Harry has some funny ideas about what constitutes journalism.
The big problem is that Knowles doesn’t appear aware of the different types of entertainment writing, and that each has a distinct set of ethical expectations. There are basically five different kinds, though they can overlap. They are as follows:
- Promotional or Personality Writing, a.k.a., the “Fluff” Piece. – The promotional/personality articles are distinct in that they require the participation of the subject. The press needs the studios, etc. for content for their magazines, newspapers, television shows, whatever. The studios need the press to promote their product. Premiere and People magazines need those stars on the cover, so those stars and the studios have some degree of influence on what is actually written.
For large films, studios will often fly in members of the press for special “junkets” to see the film, interview stars, and drink large quantities of alcohol. Journalistic integrity is neither expected nor required. It’s really just an exchange of services.
- News Reportage. – You have a nugget of information, then you relay it to the public. To the best of your knowledge, that item is true, and you’ve validated that fact to the best of your ability. If you don’t verify anything, or don’t try, check out #5.
- Journalism. – Investigative pieces seek to uncover and present some conclusion or specific nugget of information. It’s not about merely reporting the facts, it’s about connecting the dots of those facts. In researching a given topic, cooperation may or may not be required, and the benefits for those that do may not be so tangible. VERY popular at the moment are programs such as “VH1: Behind the Music”, “E! True Hollywood Story”, and “A&E Biography”. While these shows wallow in the bad judgement of popular culture’s favorite fuck-ups, they can often increase public awareness of a has-been performer (i.e., Leif Garrett). This is often still an entertainment piece, but if it’s passed off as actual journalism, any personal relationships or biases with the subject will question its objectivity.
- Criticism. – Criticism comprises the personal opinion and analysis on a specific product (movie, album, etc.) or topic. Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. When an audience reads a critique of a specific film, they expect the reviewer to give an honest opinion that will anticipate their own possible viewing experience.
As with any writing, a reader must take into account the author’s personal tastes and biases (as should the author), but they shouldn’t have to determine any studio manipulation. Critics usually get press screenings and the occasional press event, but little else. If the reviewer has a personal relationship with either the studio or the filmmakers, they are expected to excuse themselves from presenting judgement. Roger Ebert won’t review Russ Meyer films because he wrote the screenplay for Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”.
- Gossip. – News without proof; opinion without an identifiable source. Guess what? This is what AICN is really all about. It’s a gossip site. No better than the National Enquirer of the net.
AN ACCEPTABLE CODE OF BEHAVIOR
One of the most import lessons you learn as an adult is to question the bias or motivation behind the information presented to you. The mainstream entertainment press has lived with a symbiotic relationship with the entertainment conglomerates for decades. Many of the major entertainment (or regular) news outlets are in other divisions of the same corporations, themselves. Entertainment Tonight is owned by Paramount/Viacom/Blockbuster. Entertainment Weekly is owned by Time/Warner, as is CNN. Does this influence content? Probably, but other news outlets are still businesses and the first priority is profits, a difficulty for print media at a time the internet has nibbled away at the market. ^ OK, these categories can often bleed together. The distinctions are important as they determine the expectations of objectivity placed upon the writer. The most important way a media outlet maintains these distinctions is by having different people assigned to different tasks. If Rolling Stone decides to send someone to the set of the new “X-Men” movie, they won’t send Pete Travers, or whoever will actually write the review.
You also don’t review a movie based on attendance of the world premiere gala. Psychologically, it’s worlds apart for the average schmuck plopping down eight bucks at the local multiplex. His chances of getting within ten feet of Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis are pretty slim. It’s okay to go, but stick to reporting on the event itself. Calling anything related to that a “review” only wastes everyone’s time.
Contrary to Harry’s belief, the studios never pay to send any critics or other press to premieres. Roger Ebert, Dave Poland, Chris Gore and myself all have to sit in the same screening rooms or theatres. The only time travel is provided for me is when Gore stops by to pick me up. Same deal with press junkets.
If the studio or filmmaker foots the bill for “Harry’s Adventure In…”, it’s with the expectation that young Knowles will pimp the product. This is strictly a marketing expense, not a favor to some spunky kid from the internet. If AICN really believes they are not heavily biased by studio interference, they might want to examine every story where gifts or paid expenses were provided and see the kind of coverage they gave.
Get the whole story and read part two of DECONSTRUCTING HARRY: THE GEEKS STRIKE BACK and read about the evils of Hollywood, Film Threat’s own personal Hall of Shame, the media creates a monster, and everything goes horribly wrong.
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