The more I read this interview of an FTC staffer by book blogger Edward Champion, the more the stupidity burns.
By way of background:
This morning, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials would be revised in relation to bloggers. The new guidelines (PDF) specified that bloggers making any representation of a product must disclose the material connections they (the presumed endorsers) share with the advertisers. What this means is that, under the new guidelines, a blogger’s positive review of a product may qualify as an "endorsement" and that keeping a product after a review may qualify as "compensation."
These guidelines, which will be effective as of December 1, 2009, require all bloggers to disclose any tangible connections. But as someone who reviews books for both print and online, I was struck by the inherent double standard.
The double standard is, of course, the fact that bloggers (and other citizen journalists) are held to a different standard than the traditional media. Ed decided to ask that FTC staffer to explain this double standard.
I contacted Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection [...]
Cleland informed me that the FTC’s main criteria is the degree of relationship between the advertiser and the blogger.
"The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger," said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.
What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?
"You can return it," said Cleland. "You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation."
You can return it. Most book reviewers (political bloggers included) get dozens, if not hundreds of books, per year. The logistics and expense of such a thing makes it impractical. Strict adherence to this edict would essentially kill non tradmed book reviewing. And why?
If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as "compensation." You could after all sell the product on the streets.
So stupid. You "could" sell it. If you buy a gun, you "could" shoot someone with it. If you purchase a knife, you "could" stab someone. If you open up a stock trading account, you "could" engage in illegal insider trading. If you buy shoes, you "could" use them to run away from a crime scene. If you get an accounting degree, you "could" use that knowledge to launder drug money. If you take a job at the FTC, you "could" become a blithering idiot.
Of course, nothing is stopping a staffer at a newspaper or magazine from potentially selling a book he or she reviewed, right?
But what’s the difference between an individual employed at a newspaper assigned to cover a beat and an individual blogger covering a beat of her own volition?
"We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review," said Cleland. "In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products."
Bullshit. The way most publications operate is that they hand the book to the reviewer, and that's the end of it. I'm not sure where this fantasy "strict rules" about what happens to the product comes from, but newspapers don't have a library of review copies, nor does it have any interest in it.
And even if they do have "strict guidelines", is the FTC monitoring the situation to ensure that they are being followed? Because you know what? People at those newspapers or magazines "could" sell those books for compensation. In fact, book stores like New York City's The Strand make brisk business selling used books in near-perfect condition -- many of them review copies (many unread) dropped off by old media reviewers.
Ed pushed on this ridiculous double standard, and Cleland dished even more bullshit.
Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.
Of course Cleland didn't see it that way. Cleland is a moron. Book publishers are desperate for attention, any attention. I didn't receive my copy of "Liberal Fascism" with the expectation that Daily Kos would write a positive review. In the publicity game, attention is attention. Whether good or bad, a skilled PR effort will turn that exposure to gold.
"If a blogger received enough books," said Cleland, "he could open up a used bookstore."
And if cows had wings, they would fly. Here's an idea -- when bloggers start opening up used book stores selling their review copies, maybe then the FTC can start thinking about imposing double standards.
Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.
I think we've already established that Cleland is a fucking moron, so no, of course he's not aware that 1) paid reviewers hold on to their swag, and 2) how many traditional media reviewers DON'T GET PAID to write those reviews. Sure, the folks at the NY Times and New York Review of Books get compensated for their reviews, but in many smaller newspapers and magazines, the reviews are written for free for the same reason bloggers do it -- because they have a passion for books and love to write about them. And yes, they get to keep those review copies. The newspapers don't demand their return.
That Cleland doesn't know simple basic facts known by most people who have worked in newsrooms speaks poorly to the reasoning that went into making these new rules.
"I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid," said Cleland. "His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side."
And most people reading reviews expect that companies send out review copies. If I read a video game review site, I assume that video game companies send out review copies (and anyone who reads those sites know, not all games get good reviews). If I read a gadget site, I expect that gadget manufacturers sent review copies to those sites for review. If I read a car site, I assume that car companies loaned out cars (along with insurance) to the reviewers. And yes, if I read a book site, or political site discussing political books, I assume those sites received review copies.
Here's what I don't expect -- that every writer at a newspaper or magazine gets paid to write. In fact, the smaller the publication, the less I expect that. And my expectation is based on reality, not preconceived bullshit about economic models.
"If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review," said Cleland, "then there should be a disclosure."
Back to this. Here's the reality -- companies that send out review copies of their products HOPE they get good reviews. They don't expect it.
In any case, as a matter of site policy, Daily Kos rejects any double standards between new and old media. We will adhere to standards required of traditional media outlets, and reject the imposition of a double standard that is based on beliefs and suppositions not supported by reality. If a disclosure rule is good enough for one media outlet, it's good for the rest of them as well.
If the FTC has a problem with that, their lawyers know where to find me.