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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