Want an all-expense-paid two-night stay at a luxury hotel, with free round-trip airfare, spending cash, and a private screening of the latest Hollywood movie? Get invited to a press junket. Last month, freelance film critic Eric Snider did just that for Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” and then blogged about it on his website. He talks with Bob about the experience and the fallout.
BOB GARFIELD: An all-expense paid two-night stay at a luxury hotel with free round-trip airfare, spending money, and even a private screening of the latest Hollywood movie. Sounds like a game show giveaway, and it sort of is, only the game here is celebrity journalism, and the show is the press junket. Last month, freelance film critic Eric Snider attended a junket in Seattle for Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center." He recounted the story on his blog, ericdsnider.com. He's here to talk about the experience and the fallout. Eric, welcome to On the Media.
ERIC SNIDER: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: So you get flown out there. You're in this extraordinary hotel. You even get a per diem for meals.
ERIC SNIDER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: What does the studio expect in return?
ERIC SNIDER: The unspoken expectation, I guess, is that you'll go back to wherever you come from and you'll write one of those fluffy celebrity interview stories that you see in your local paper. You know, I sat down with Oliver Stone and here's what he said about his movie – not a review, necessarily, but, you know, an article that sort of gets people talking about this movie.
BOB GARFIELD: You did not provide a puff piece. In fact, your column, which was, by the way, very funny -
ERIC SNIDER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: - was a complete evisceration of the process and of the behavior of the journalists and the behavior of even some of the celebrities. I mean, you were quite harsh on Maggie Gyllenhaal for her [CHUCKLES] comportment during the thing, and even her looks.
ERIC SNIDER: I did take an unfair swipe at her appearance, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Why don't you give me the low lights?
ERIC SNIDER: As far as specifics at this one, there was one of the guys there who actually lives in Seattle but who had stayed in the hotel the night before anyway. That struck me as [LAUGHS] sort of over the top as far as taking freebies goes. I noticed that most of the other writers there, they referred to the celebrities by their first names, which reminded me of the way paparazzi behave, and they only talked about movies in the context of who's in them and can we interview them. There was very little discussion at all about whether movies are any good. You know, the whole system is kind of unsettling, and I think it operates on darkness. It operates on both sides sort of lying to themselves, where the studios pretend that they're not buying off writers and writers pretend they're not being bought off. So just kind of talking about that in general is kind of against what they want.
BOB GARFIELD: What was the reaction from Paramount?
ERIC SNIDER: They weren't happy with it, and I expected not to be invited to any more junkets, which would be fine, because I didn't intend to go on any more. But they took it a step further and banned me from all their press screenings.
BOB GARFIELD: And they asked you to remove your post from your website.
ERIC SNIDER: And I said, well, no.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I want to talk about something else that happened in the aftermath here. You actually went back and checked one of the other journalists' copy that came out of this press junket and [LAUGHS] pretty astonishing. Tell me about that.
ERIC SNIDER: Yes. One of the other writers on the junket had been Tim Nasson, who writes for a site called wildaboutmovies.com. He's out of Boston. And as I was transcribing my recording of the interview with Oliver Stone –- we'd had a roundtable interview with him, me and Tim Nasson and several others –- I went to Tim's site and read his article on the interview, and I noticed that all the quotes that he had were not actual quotes. That's not what Oliver Stone said. That's not what Maggie Gyllenhaal said. He hadn't changed their ideas any. He had just sort of paraphrased them and put quotation marks around it. So I wrote to him. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and said, you know, I don't know what your background is, but you can't do that in journalism, and so, you know, my unsolicited advice would be to take the article down or to go back to your tape of the interview and put the actual direct quotes in. He replied by saying that he'd interviewed everyone not just in Seattle with me but he had also interviewed them previously in New York, and that that must be why the quotes were different. The quotes came from those interviews. So I looked at his article again. I thought, okay, that's possible, I guess. But then I noticed a chunk in his article where he says something – blah, blah, blah, said Oliver Stone, sitting in Hotel 1000 in Seattle. And I said, ah-hah –
BOB GARFIELD: That's the smoking gun.
ERIC SNIDER: That's the smoking gun, yes. I was at that interview at Hotel 1000 in Seattle. That's not what Stone said.
BOB GARFIELD: But as far as you know, Paramount didn't object to that, because whether or not it was shoddy journalism, it didn't bring disrepute on Paramount or "World Trade Center" or Oliver Stone.
ERIC SNIDER: Exactly, yeah. It was still warm and fluffy, which is what they paid for, so why would they care?
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, finally, since you have set yourself up to be an ethics policeman here, I have to call your attention to -
ERIC SNIDER: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - to the fact that you were once fired a few years back for a pretty gross ethical breach.
ERIC SNIDER: Well, that story: In a nutshell, there was a local theater that was doing a production of a Neil Simon play, and I knew this particular play had a lot of profanity in it, and I assumed they were going to cut the profanity out, which was the common practice in community theater. And I wondered if that was actually legal as far as the royalties and the copyrights were concerned. So I called the Samuel French company, which handles the royalties, not as a reporter, just as a curious person, and asked, and they said, no, it's not allowed, and, in fact, they already knew about this particular offense and that they were going to deal with it. And sure enough, a few weeks later, the theater announced that they were canceling the show because they had been told either to do it with the swear words or don't do it at all. And so I was asked by the city editor at the paper that I worked for to write the news story about this show being canceled. And I ought to have said at that point, you know, I wasn't the one who got the show shut down, but I did call Samuel French and I did have some contact prior, so we should probably have someone else write the story, or at least mention, you know, that this reporter had some previous contact with Samuel French. I didn't do that, and so the way it looked to my bosses was that I had started the fire and then written a story about this mysterious arsonist.
BOB GARFIELD: So from just about every aspect of this, you seem to be kind of an expert on journalistic transparency. What conclusions can we draw from the entirety of your career?
ERIC SNIDER: [LAUGHS] Well, one, that there's apparently never a dull moment.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
ERIC SNIDER: You know, as far as the thing three years ago with the paper, not that I was, you know, made a practice of being an unethical journalist before, but it was sort of a wakeup call of, you know, you've got to take this kind of thing seriously. So I don't know if I'm a crusader now for ethics in journalism, but now I'm sort of ever more interested in the whole journalism world being represented well by its practitioners.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric, thank you for joining us.
ERIC SNIDER: Thank you for having me. It's been an honor.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Snider is a freelance film critic whose movie reviews appear in Portland, Oregon's Willamette Week and The City Weekly of Salt Lake City. He also blogs, pretty hilariously, at ericdsnider.com