Advertising is the bedrock of commercial journalism. Without it our magazines wouldn't stay afloat and our internet sites would be offline in a matter of days.
But when that advertising starts to try and dictate a media outlets coverage of one of their products, you have to ask the question whether the line between PR and Journalism is being blurred to an unacceptable degree.
One of the most troubling apparent cases of this trend is the recent Jeff Gerstmann fiasco, or "Gerstmann-gate" as it has been rather predictably been monickered.
For those who don't know, Gerstmann has been a reviewer and editor for premier games website Gamespot for over ten years. Yet last week he came into work and found his office locked and his belongings residing in a box on the floor. He had been fired.
The internet being the vicious rumour mill that it is, instantly erupted into all sorts of tales of boardroom treachery and the like, yet for once, these rumours seem not to be going away.
The furore surrounds a review by Gerstmann on the site for Kane and Lynch. The review gave a rather mediocre score of 6/10 for the highly anticipated game, and in the review itself he seemed to be more scathing than the score would perhaps indicate.
Gamespot is a predominantly free reviews and previews site that relies on ad revenue to make a profit. One of the main ways they do this is to "skin" the site. Basically the whole website is decked out in frames that form one big giant ad for an upcoming game. It just so happened that last weeks skin was the aforementioned Kane & Lynch.
You can see where this is going. And its made worse by the fact that after Gerstmann had been sacked the review he had written was edited to improve the "tone" of the piece and the accompanying video interview was pulled altogether.
The word on the street was that Eidos, the publishing giant behind Kane & Lynch was furious with Gerstmann's negative tone and had threatened to pull future ad revenue. Leading the higher ups at Cnet, Gamespot's parent company to act.
Now this is all of course, hearsay. However in the past week more and more information has surfaced to make this tale seem even more suspicious.
First there was the anonymous blogger claiming to be a Gamespot insider who indicated how bad things at the site have gotten:
"Over the last year there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we've started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up. Other publishers have started giving us notes involving when our reviews can go up; if a game's getting a 9 or above, it can go up early; if not, it'll have to wait until after the game is on the shelves."
This isn't just targeted advertisement, this is pure and simple propaganda. If a company wants to use the editorial team to sell a product, they should do it in a clear and open way like the "promotional features" we're seeing more and more of in magazines. I don't like it, but at least they're up front about it.
The sad thing is that something like this wouldn't even be attempted in print as the powers that be would demolish them for it. The fact is that online being such an accessible and easy medium to publish on means that ad men think that if standards in journalism go down the toilet on the internet then their professional ethics can do likewise. I truly sympathise with Jonah Falcon's lament at what this fiasco is going to do to the already low regard at which online material is held, but the industry has brought it on itself.
Gamespot have remained remarkably naive on the subject, as if thinking that this is the sort of thing that will just blow over if they keep denying everything and making really rubbish excuses. Because we all know that the public are totally ok with being misled.
In the mean time the freight train looms even closer.
Rumours of mass walkouts amongst Gamespot staff abound, not helped by further revelations from our anonymous insider. "Everyone at GS now thinks that if they give a low score to a high-profile game, they'll be shitcanned," he reveals. "Everyone's fucking scared and we're all hoping to get Josh Larson (executive editor) removed from his position because no one trusts him anymore. If that doesn't happen then look for every game to be Game of the Year material at GameSpot."
Perhaps the most vitriolic criticism has come from former Gamespot employee Adam Buchen who has called for users of the site to delete their accounts. However he seems as shocked as anyone. "I can't speak for other publications, but that's NEVER, EVER before been the modus operandi of GameSpot's editorial department," he claims. "If it was, then why would Jeff be so freaking obstinate about it? You'd have to imagine that people would be getting fired left and right! But no, they don't."
Maybe this is a one off, maybe someone pushed a bit too hard and they're getting the comeuppance they deserve. I'll leave the final word to Gamepolitics: "If the highly detailed rumors surrounding Jeff Gerstmann’s firing are true, then the people who run GameSpot have, by their own hand, utterly trashed a great media brand."
Yeah. Nice one.