Monday, September 1, 2014

Netflix and the ethics of modern journalism

I had meant to drop this topic after the recent Emmys post, but one more issue got stuck between my teeth and I think it would be easier to write it away then to try to ignore it.

I recently heard an interview on public radio that bothered me quite a bit but before I get into the specifics I should probably lay some groundwork about the Netflix business model.

When Netflix first started as a DVD-by-mail service, perhaps its greatest selling point was selection. It couldn't offer every movie and TV show that had ever been released on DVD, but it could come surprisingly close. By contrast, selection was probably the worst thing about the streaming service. If you randomly pick a movie or TV show that you would like to see, the chances of finding it on Netflix are vanishingly small. (To get an idea just how limited, try comparing the classic movie section in Netflix with the Criterion Collection on Hulu).

Of course, retailers have been dealing with the problem of making small selections look big for decades, perhaps even centuries. Some stores get around this by putting mirrors on the wall. Others arrange their stock so that a few items will take a great deal of space and seem to fill the showroom. And of course, the tricks used by advertisers to achieve this effect are endless.

Netflix has come up with a number of online alternatives to the mirrors on the wall. They have found excuses for double, triple, and quadruple listing various titles. They have split single series into multiple listings. They leave titles in the new arrival category for a very long time. For a while , they were even offering the same public domain episodes of shows like Bonanza which you can find and download for free at the Internet Archive (the tip off is the title music).

Just to be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a company doing this. If I were running Netflix, I'd be pursuing the same strategy (actually, I'd hire Neal Sabin and tell him to do it but that's another story). You always present the product in the best possible way then you present the presentation in the best possible way. When your merchandise is ugly, you dim the lights; when people ask why the lights are dim, you say it's artistic.

Where I do see a potential ethical problem is in the way journalists present these presentations, particularly when the journalists have a symbiotic relationship with the companies they cover.

The other day, I heard CBC's Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Atlantic writer/editor Alexis Madrigal and Netflix executive Todd Yellin. I in part way through and only heard some of the segment and I would have listened to even less if I hadn't been waiting to find out who was talking (I tuned in in the middle). The two of them were very much working as a team to the extent that, if not for the occasional pronoun ('our' vs. 'their, for example), I would not have been able to tell who was the journalist and who was the company spokesman.

Perhaps it got better, but what I heard was simply an uncritical recitation of the official company spin with the journalist stepping into the role of second company representative. This is doubly troubling because Madrigal appears to have benefited greatly from this partnership. Reporting on big companies is remarkably easy if you're telling the story the executives want people to hear (obviously the case here), so Madrigal appears to have gotten a major feature with minimum effort. What's more, he is milking this piece for all it's worth, getting interviews and being featured in other stories and building his media profile in general. He may even get a book out of this.

I realize there have always been symbiotic relationships between journalists and subjects, just as companies have always tried to shape their narratives, but if nothing else, I think it used to bother us more.

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