On Wednesday, I spotted a post from Michael O’Connor Clarke about Jeff Gerstmann, a games reviewer and Editorial Director at CNET‘s Gamespot, who appeared to have been fired for giving a bad review to Kane & Lynch. The game’s publishers, Eidos Interactive, had just bought hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising on the site and the rumour was that they used the weight of that contract to force CNET to fire Gerstmann. It seems the news was broken in this Penny Arcade strip.
The implications of this rumour are clear: If CNET is bowing to pressure from advertisers to ensure that their own games are favourable reviewed, then CNET’s games coverage becomes not worth the electricity that lights its pixels. Indeed, the suspicion that CNET can be bought immediately devalues all its reviews, across all sectors. If the PR, advertising and editorial departments submit to bullying from one vendor, then there’s no reason why they aren’t doing the same for other vendors. This is potentially very damaging for CNET as it destroys readers’ confidence that what they are getting is honest, unbiased opinion.
As Kotaku says:
As our tipster points out, if the rumor is true, it could point to a distressing precedent at Gamespot and parent company CNet. “As writers of what is supposed to be objective content, this is our worst nightmare coming to life,” wrote the tipster.
Our efforts to confirm the story with Gamespot haven’t proved successful. Our current requests with PR, Gerstmann and other CNet contacts have either gone unanswered or yielded a “no comment.”
But rather than address the rumours head-on, CNET shilly-shallied about:
CNET allowed hours to pass by as people continued to spread word of the firings, creating incensed users everywhere. They issued no formal statement and made no attempt to defuse the situation. Eventually, they came out with what I refer to as a “non-denial denial,” in which they made no reference to the controversial situation, resorting to generalized statements about how CNET is a bastion of “unbiased reviews.”
And the first formal response on Gamespot is a masterpiece of not really saying anything:
Due to legal constraints and the company policy of GameSpot parent CNET Networks, details of Gerstmann’s departure cannot be disclosed publicly. However, contrary to widespread and unproven reports, his exit was not a result of pressure from an advertiser.
“Neither CNET Networks nor GameSpot has ever allowed its advertising business to affect its editorial content,” said Greg Brannan, CNET Networks Entertainment’s vice president of programming. “The accusations in the media that it has done so are unsubstantiated and untrue. Jeff’s departure stemmed from internal reasons unrelated to any buyer of advertising on GameSpot.”
“Though he will be missed by his colleagues, Jeff’s leaving does not affect GameSpot’s core mission of delivering the most timely news, video content, in-depth previews, and unbiased reviews in games journalism,” said Ryan MacDonald, executive producer of GameSpot Live. “GameSpot is an institution, and its code of ethics and duty to its users remains unchanged.”
Whilst neither CNET nor Gerstmann were willing to discuss exactly what happened, Gerstmann was keen to play down the implications of his firing by telling MTV’s Multiplayer blog that there’s no reason for gamers to doubt Gamespot’s reviews.
Despite that, public opinion in the gaming world swung against CNET, despite the hints that Gerstmann’s firing may be nothing to do with Kane & Lynch, and more to do disagreements with (new) senior manager Josh Larson. If I may quote liberally from Kotaku:
Speaking with a Gamespot employee yesterday who asked not to be named for this story, we’ve learned that, despite the neutral nature of the Gamespot news item on the matter, the editorial staff is said to be “devastated, gutted and demoralized” over the removal of former editorial director Jeff Gerstmann. While the termination of Gerstmann, a respected fixture at Gamespot, was pitched to his remaining colleagues by management as a “mutual decision”, it was anything but, we’re told.
The confusion over the reasons for Gerstmann’s termination, compounded with a lack of transparency from management has created a feeling of “irreconcilable despair” that may eventually lead to an exodus of Gamespot editorial staffers. “Our credibility,” said the source, “is in ruins.” Over the course of the previous days, a “large number of Gamespot editors” have expressed their intentions to leave. Tales of emotionally deflated peers, with no will to remain at the site, were numerous.
Unless cooler heads prevail or concerns are addressed, Gamespot could see “mass resignations”, our source revealed.
Rank and file employees of the Gamespot organization are unaware of the real reasons behind Gerstmann’s termination. Our source admitted that Eidos was less than pleased with the review scores for Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, but the team has “dealt with plenty of unhappy publishers before.” Our contact stressed that “Money has never played a role in reviews before” and that “[Gamespot] has never altered a score.” No pressure from management or sales has been exercised to remove or alter content, the source reiterated.
However, the source did speculate that disagreements between Gertsmann and VP of games Josh Larson may have been the root cause of the former being terminated. Larson, successor to former editor in chief Greg Kasavin, was described as out of touch with the employees who report to him. The VP is the one allegedly responsible for telling Gamespot editorial staff that it was Gerstmann’s “tone” that was at the heart of his dismissal.
Then, on a Valleywag post disputing the theory that Gerstmann was fired for a bad review, someone who appears to be a Gamespot insider left a number of rather damning comments (again, summed up well by Kotaku):
No one wants to be named because no one wants to get fucking fired! This management team has shown what they’re willing to do. Jeff had ten years in and was fucking locked out of his office and told to leave the building.
What you might not be aware of is that GS is well known for appealing mostly to hardcore gamers. The mucky-mucks have been doing a lot of “brand research” over the last year or so and indicating that they want to reach out to more casual gamers. Our last executive editor, Greg Kasavin, left to go to EA, and he was replaced by a suit, Josh Larson, who had no editorial experience and was only involved on the business side of things. 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.
I was in the meeting where Josh Larson was trying to explain this firing and the guy had absolutely no response to any of the criticisms we were sending his way. He kept dodging the question, saying that there were “multiple instances of tone” in the reviews that he hadn’t been happy about, but that wasn’t Jeff’s problem since we all vet every review. He also implied that “AAA” titles deserved more attention when they were being reviewed, which sounded to all of us that he was implying that they should get higher scores, especially since those titles are usually more highly advertised on our site.
Eventually, Gamespot management did address the issue, although they maintain they are legally unable to discuss why Gerstmann was fired, the categorically deny that it was because of pressure from Eidos.
Q: Was Jeff fired?
A: Jeff was terminated on November 28, 2007, following an internal review process by the managerial team to which he reported.
Q: Why was Jeff fired?
A: Legally, the exact reasons behind his dismissal cannot be revealed. However, they stemmed from issues unrelated to any publisher or advertiser; his departure was due purely for internal reasons.
Q: Was Eidos Interactive upset by the game’s review?
A: It has been confirmed that Eidos representatives expressed their displeasure to their appropriate contacts at GameSpot, but not to editorial directly. It was not the first time a publisher has voiced disappointment with a game review, and it won’t be the last. However, it is strict GameSpot policy never to let any such feelings result in a review score to be altered or a video review to be pulled.
Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment cause Jeff to be terminated?
A: Absolutely not.
Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment cause the alteration of the review text?
A: Absolutely not.
Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment lead to the video review being pulled down?
A: Absolutely not.
Q: Why didn’t GameSpot write about Jeff’s departure sooner?
A: Due to HR procedures and legal considerations, unauthorized CNET Networks and GameSpot employees are forbidden from commenting on the employment status of current and former employees. This practice has been in effect for years, and the CNET public-relations department stuck to that in the days following Jeff’s termination. However, the company is now making an exception due to the widespread misinformation that has spread since Jeff’s departure.
Q: GameSpot’s credibility has been called into question as a result of this incident. What is being done to repair and rebuild it?
A: This article is one of the first steps toward restoring users’ faith in GameSpot, and an internal review of the incident and controversy is under way. However, at no point in its history has GameSpot ever deviated from its review guidelines, which are publicly listed on the site. Great pains are taken to keep sales and editorial separated to prevent any impression of impropriety.
For years, GameSpot has been known for maintaining the highest ethical standards and having the most reliable and informative game reviews, previews, and news on the Web. The colleagues and friends that Jeff leaves behind here at GameSpot intend to keep it that way.
The problem is, the damage has been done. Whatever the reason for Gerstmann’s dismissal, the appalling way that CNET handled the crisis means that a lot of people now believe that the Chinese wall that separates advertising and editorial has been permanently damaged. That in and of itself means that both Gamespot’s and CNET’s credibility has been severely dented and if there’s one thing that a publisher cannot afford to do, it’s to appear even for a moment to be in the pockets of its advertisers. Readers want impartiality, honesty, transparency, and if they sniff a rat they’ll leave in droves.
CNET should never have fired Gerstmann without thoroughly thinking through the implications of such a precipitate dismissal. Doing so without a strategy in place for addressing the inevitable rumour that would follow was stupid and short-sighted. In any company, that sort of “marching off the premises” style of dismissal is bound to cause a rumpus, especially when the person being fired, as Gerstmann appears to have been, is much loved by their colleagues and readers, and has been there for so long. It shouldn’t have taken a genius to realise that there’d be a pretty strong reaction against it, and that some sort of thought should be given to how to address the rumours early on.
Whether Gerstmann was fired because of Larson, or Eidos, or something else, is almost irrelevant now. The conclusions one can draw are that either CNET’s in bed with its advertisers, or it’s being managed incompetently by someone prone to throwing hissy fits and firing people on the spot. If one were being generous, one might just put this down to an HR/PR fuck-up, but there is a valuable lesson to be learnt by every publisher and every company with externally-facing bloggers: Look before you fire.