March 2, 2007

Tempest in a Crackpot?

Unusual ethical questions arise as film writer battles GreenCine over yanked director interviews

By S.T. VanAirsdale

A fairly nasty war of editorial principles and media ethics has smoke pluming over the base camp at GreenCine, the gallant cinema resource to which I was so excited to finally have occasion to link earlier this week but which had a much rougher go of things Thursday. To wit, this note from film writer N.P. Thompson awaiting me 24 hours ago in my inbox:

I freelanced for GreenCine over a two-year period, interviewing filmmakers and sometimes writing festival coverage. My editor for most of the way was David Hudson, a man I liked working with very much. Even on those rare occasions when he and I disagreed, we got along well. Then Jonathan Marlow took over the assigning of interview pieces. He commissioned an article on the actor Malcolm McDowell; after it was complete, Marlow announced his intention to shelve the interview indefinitely. When I objected to the agreed-upon terms being changed at such a late stage, Marlow ... made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want me writing for GreenCine period.
Big deal, some of you must think. Doesn’t that happen all the time between editors and writers? Perhaps…
But then Marlow took the extraordinary step of going into the article archives (evidently on a rampage) and one by one by one, he deleted the five interviews of mine that went back to November 2004, all pieces approved and edited by Hudson. I, of course, received no notice that Marlow was going to do this: I discovered one day that my work was gone, as if it had never existed.

The interviews Thompson refers to were with filmmakers Marc Forster (for Finding Neverland), Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener), Ayad Akhtar and Tom Glynn (The War Within), Scott Coffey (Ellie Parker) and Chris Terrio (Heights). This last one was something of a disturbing surprise; I'm a huge fan of both the Staten Island native Terrio and his 2005 feature debut, and Thompson's conversation with the director was easily the most comprehensive Heights feature anywhere on the Web. I'll miss Scott Coffey like I miss junior high, but the disappearance of Terrio and even Meirelles and Forster were indeed troubling. Admittedly, even the Coffey and Akhtar/Glynn interviews were viable work and at least deserved to remain published, right?

Of course, when N.P. Thompson says, "I objected...", my mind's eye summons the image of a bridge torched in the most dramatic pyrotechnic style known to man. As far as I know, he remains the only person to be banned from commenting on Dave Kehr's blog, and bloody, smoldering Web wreckage remains from last year's contretemps with Slate's culture editors, film critics and anyone else unlucky enough to be within a square mile of Thompson's exploded outrage:

Stephen Metcalf and Dana Stevens are two of the worst writers on the face of the planet. They are dull, incompetent, lifeless, and narcissistic. Nathan Lee and Michael Agger are scarcely less so, although Agger manages a self-effacing blandness that in the context of Slate emits the fumes of a virtue. ... Metcalf, the most brazenly untalented and unsubtle in this quartet of sixteenth-wits, writes like an ape that has just discovered a bone will suffice as a murder weapon. Yet no jump cut could ever propel that lackey into the cosmos.

As Thompson noted in yesterday's e-mail, bitter fallings out with editors are common in media, and writers -- especially arts writers, with our painstaking judgments and delicate egos and near-spiritual senses of entitlement -- often tend toward flairs for the dramatic when boosting their work. And as the nature of the business is to harness and cultivate its more challenging practitioners, thus moodiness, invective and general difficulty are tolerated in significant disproportion to other fields. There are no industrial conventions to determine the line separating aggressive, even intimidating self-defense from egregious abuse, and even if there were, it would require another clause explicating the editorial indignities writers must endure before such attacks are within their rights. It's an impossible, unappealing standard to establish; it's easier (i.e. a job requirement) to consider each grievance on a situational basis. In the end, Slate wanted nothing to do with N.P. Thompson, whose vehemently, almost unanimously negative reviews earned him the nickname "notorious" (a tag he relishes, incidentally) in his Seattle milieu. And after a fruitful relationship dissolved into a volley of belligerent correspondence from both sides (Thompson selectively excluded what are said to be the more colorful responses from his forwarded Marlow paper trail, thus spoiling its context and defying its introduction here) GreenCine decided it had had enough as well.

But what is the precedent, if any, for removing an abusive writer's work from a publication's archives? Seriously -- I'm asking: Aside from issues of plagiarism or fabrication, how common is it for an editor or publisher of a mainstream Web site to actively yank contributions from its freelancers? While Thompson writes that he restored the Forster and Terrio interviews to AlterNet and his own Web site, MoviesIntoFilm, respectively, indeed the Meirelles, Coffey and Akhtar/Glynn pieces are gone. Even if we assume Thompson possesses the original electronic files or that GreenCine and Marlow simply unpublished rather than deleted the pieces, what are the ethical implications here? Just as the Web is film culture's infamous province of excess, so it is preservation culture's ultimate custodial ally. The idea is that the work is there indefinitely, indelibly and in varying states of access or obscurity. That is the libertarian deal we made with the Internet: What is legally defensible can belong in the bandwidth, for better or worse.

Of course, that might be getting a little ahead of ourselves. "I have no interest in the personal or professional details of N.P.'s dealings with GreenCine, and I've indicated as much in emails to N.P. about his dispute with the site," film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote Thursday in an e-mail to The Reeler. (Seitz eventually published the Malcolm McDowell interview in question and continues to work with Thompson on his film site, The House Next Door. "That said, I agree with N.P. that the deletion of past articles is the equivalent of the death penalty for a freelancer -- unjustifiable except in cases of plagiarism, libel or top-to-bottom factual inaccuracy, and probably not even then -- and that GreenCine, the Internet's most comprehensive and valuable resource of modern film culture, should re-post his work. To refuse to do so amounts to an official denial that N.P. Thompson ever wrote for the site when, in fact, he did."

Moreover, it amounts to a stunning editorial reprisal against a writer whose reputation preceded him and whose work had been featured on GreenCine for nearly two years. The site's managing partner Dennis Woo issued his own statement Thursday afternoon, attempting to qualify GreenCine's defense point-by-point. "Though we have paid NPT for his articles, we choose to no longer run his work on our sites;" Woo wrote. "We explained to NPT that we claim no exclusive rights to his work and that he is at liberty to resell or post his work elsewhere freely as he chooses -- which he has since done. ... NPT has engaged our company personnel with threatening and harassing e-mails, including bullying language to obtain payment for work we deemed unsatisfactory; we capitulated to N.P. Thompson by submitting to his payment demands. We understand that this was agreeable, as N.P. Thompson cashed our check to him before launching into a campaign of provoking e-mails. ... We hope that (the Web) community will not come to summary judgment just because N.P. Thompson is raising a ruckus."

Indeed, what little I've seen of Thompson's e-mails -- including a handful obtained outside his authorized memo -- indicate a feral meltdown that makes his Slate rant look like Voltaire. Nevertheless, the case of N.P. Thompson vs. GreenCine is one neither party has the capacity to win as long as the pitched indiscretions on both sides perpetuate themselves this gracelessly. And in any event, it's really not either party's loss anyway -- ultimately, the reader takes the hit. Bygones may not always be bygones, but in an era when everything is allowed, I'd be interested to know the degree to which you think work from the past is subject to such severe consequences in the present. If the Web is the world capital of whim, then who are its judges, juries and executioners?

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Comments (8)

Interesting question. In my experience doing PR and as a fiction writer I know of no website that guarantees that writings will be archived indefinitely. Some of my short stories have been published in webzines that still exist, but do not archive content. I actually prefer this because it means I can resell the story to markets that don't require first run rights. I know a few freelancers that make a decent portion of their income by selling reprint articles to various publications -- which is pretty much impossible to do if the article is still archived somewhere. I'm assuming that once the articles were pulled from Greencine this writer was able to resell those articles to new markets and make more money? (Disclosure: I'm the girlfriend of Greencine editor Craig P.)

If I am reading this correctly, Mr. Thompson owns all of his work and has not merely the right to resell the work, but his own forum in which to republish it if he can't find a buyer. It's not being suppressed, merely removed from one venue. Thus, unless he has discarded his originals, there is nothing lost to the Internet or its readers.

It seems to me that the issue for Thompson isn't that the work is lost, it's that the respectability of GreenCine's name is no longer attached. And that leads to another question: what right does a publication have to define itself through content and contributors, or rather redefine itself through the reconsideration of previously published content.

You can read more of the Thompson's internet tantrums here:



And for a hint as to why he was banned from Siffblog, you can read between the lines here:

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I am currently a contributor to GreenCine and have been for years. I have been a full-time freelance writer and film critic for the past ten years and I have been the target of Mr. Thompson's bile in the past.

For the record, I have never had a conflict with the editors at GreenCine. But then, I have always kept the level of discourse at the very least civil.

A useful comparison here is, semi-ironically enough, Slate: in 2001, they published their slightly infamous "Monkeyfishing" article, which has, over the course of the last five years, been revealed to have been pretty much entirely made up (http://www.slate.com/id/110932/ and http://www.slate.com/id/2159189/). The article is still available on slate.com (http://www.slate.com/id/109707/), with the necessary caveats attached.

The operating logic in that situation, clearly, is that online publications may have the technical ability to cleanse their records of embarrassment in a way that's not available to print publications, but not the ethical mandate: that is, as Matt Zoller Seitz says, it's inappropriate to destroy traces and otherwise whitewash one's mistakes.

Personally, I tend to agree with this principle. If the voice of an individual or organization is to be taken seriously, said voice should be held accountable for its output, even (especially?) the parts of its output that it might regret.

If Greencine is really that upset about Thompson's contributions to their site, they should deal with his work for them the way Slate dealt with the Monkeyfishing article: with a disclaimer stating clearly why they now wish to clarify and correct their error. As I understand the nature of the dispute, this disclaimer would probably read something like: "Greencine regrets their publication of this article, as it has come to our attention that N.P. Thompson is more or less an unrepentant jackass with whom we're embarrassed to be associated."

Although, come to think, that sounds pretty petty, and probably a humiliation with which they should just shut up and deal.

The underwhelming rush to defend Mr. Thompson is more illustrative than anything I can possibly convey and I am reluctant to continue to draw attention to the case, but there are some unchallenged assertions in the article that I believe deserve clarification and correction.

1) Thompson says that "Marlow announced his intention to shelve the interview indefinitely," when in fact the article was being held to tie-in to the release of Malcolm McDowell film, either in theaters or on DVD.

2) In his selective description of the conflict with GreenCine, Thompson neglects to mention that he himself broke the original "agreed-upon terms" by bringing the interview in weeks late, thus missing his deadline for the originally scheduled run. As it is the policy of GreenCine to tie-in all interviews to current releases, the piece was subsequently pushed back, to run at the next appropriate window. Thompson felt that his piece should not be subjected to the same policies as other interviews and be run immediately. As payment is made upon publication, his motivations seem fairly transparent.

3) Despite Thompson's fantasy that all of his mistreatment (at least at GreenCine) is the result of a vindictive editor, it is my understanding that the decision to pull Thompson's pieces from the site was not made by Jonathan Marlow, but by managing partner Dennis Woo, who was exasperated by Thompson's torrent of E-mails with unsolicited "advice" on how to run GreenCine and attacks upon his employees.

4) Not a claim by Thompson but an assertion in the body of the article: "[Matt Zoller] Seitz eventually published the Malcolm McDowell interview in question and continues to work with Thompson on his film site, The House Next Door." In fact, Seitz has not published anything by Thompson since the McDowell interview in November, 2006, and has since removed Thompson's name from the list of contributors on his site. While Seitz is a Thompson defender, as a writer if not necessarily as a reasonable and sane human being, that is hardly the model of a continuing professional relationship.

Regarding #4, I'm annoyed that you would try to "correct" assertions that are based on your own best guess as to what certain things mean. That your interpretation is mostly unflattering to N.P Thompson is surely not coincidental.

I never "removed" N.P.'s name from my contributors list. Recently my blogging software, Blogger, got upgraded, and the contributors list was wiped clean of all names, including mine; the names were restored as contributors logged in to upload stories or post comments. N.P. hasn't uploaded a story (like some of my contributors, he lets editors do that anyway) and he hasn't posted a comment lately, thus his name has not reappeared.

Second, you're right that I haven't published anything by Thompson since the McDowell interview, but that doesn't indicate the state of my relationship with Thompson as a contributor or a friend. My contributors are free to come and go as they please, publishing as frequently or infrequently as they wish; if I or co-editor Keith Uhlich like the subject and the writing, it's a go. For future reference, anyone who publishes at the House is considered a contributor until he or she asks to be removed from the masthead. Next week I'm publishing a piece by a writer who's been AWOL from the House for much longer than N.P., and whose name has remained on the
contributors list for the duration.

As for N.P., he emailed me a couple of weeks ago with a pitch, and we're continuing to talk about pieces. He's still a prized collaborator, despite our frequent and sometimes heated differences of opinion.

To quote "Glengarry Glen Ross," don't open your mouth unless you know what the shot is.

I stand corrected... I suppose.

Mr. Thompson has not published anything on "The House Next Door" in four months and his name has not been restored to the list of contributors on the website because he has not published since your software purged your list of contributors. Based on the evidence at hand, I drew the conclusion that four months of inactivity is not indicative of a continuing relationship "on [the] film site" (which is not to say that you have no continuing relationship outside of "The House Next Door").

I am not calling into question your support or respect for Mr. Thompson.

I merely suggest that our respective definitions of a continuing professional relationship are different and I leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions based on the evidence, as I have.

Once more, G.A., for old time's sake, then I'm done with this thread:

You didn't "merely suggest" anything. You drew hard conclusions based on an incorrect reading of evidence you didn't know how to interpret -- a reading which, as I noted, dovetailed with a predetermined point of view. I took offense because the crux of your remark indicated that while The Reeler said that there was a continuing professional relationship between N.P. Thompson and my web site, the available evidence suggested a different story (which we all know is the only reason for anyone to begin a sentence, "In fact...").

The House Next Door is not a print magazine with set publication times and a masthead indicating who's in and who's out. Contributors tend to be college students or people with full-time day jobs, mostly not related to journalism; some of them publish their own blogs and understandably give them first priority. As a result, they contribute articles when they're willing and able. Some publish five or six times a month, others once or twice a year. Tomorrow I'm publishing a piece cowritten by a contributor whose last piece appeared in November, 2006. Two nights ago I spoke to another contributor about publishing the second installment in a projected three-part series of articles; Part 1 debuted last August. The subject isn't time-sensitive, so he's welcome to take as long as he wants.

In my reply to you, I explained that N.P.'s name disappeared from the site because Blogger's buggy new software didn't carry his name over to the updated site, a fate also visited on other House contributors, none of whom have been feuding publicly with an employer. You asserted that I removed his name from the site when I did no such thing.

Your reply to my reply said, in essence, "Now that I have the facts, I have decided to ignore them." That's your right, but that doesn't change the fact that N.P. is a contributor to The House Next Door who still pitches me ideas for articles.

If that situation changes, I'm sure The Reeler will run an update, along with a photograph of a burning house.

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