Blackballing: On the relationship between journalists and game makers

In 2007, in the days leading up to the Game Developers Conference, Kotaku reporter (now Polygon’s deputy news editor) Mike McWhertor dug up an interesting story about the direction of the PlayStation 3.

It was a fully detailed report on what was set to be announced as PlayStation Home. As with any rumor story we ran, McWhertor was able to get multiple sources to confirm the report. But then something unusual happened.

When we went to Sony with the routine request for comment, they flipped out. What happened in the hours following that reaction would go on to define not just Kotaku, but, I believe, the state of new video game journalism. That Kotaku was the one that pulled the trigger on a story that got them officially, and publicly blackballed was happenstance. Times had changed by 2007, video game journalism was truly, proudly journalism and no longer an arm of video game marketing. Plenty of sites were doing amazing work, it just happened to be Kotaku that fell under Sony’s very public ax.

The original stories, which I’ll post below because they’re  no longer available on Kotaku, don’t fully show the level of amazing support that sites around the world gave Kotaku. Competitors, people who sometimes detested Kotaku, mainstream newspapers, all came together as a group, as journalists in search of truth, to denounce Sony’s decision. The result of that collective outrage was a shocking change in the relationship between the game industry and journalists, and a quick retreat from that very public, blackballing Sony made.

Sony Blackballs Kotaku

Earlier today we posted a rumor story on the site about a possible announcement of a new technology coming to Sony’s Playstation 3.

The Playstation Home, we reported, would be an intriguing blending of the Mii and achievements, allowing gamers to create a virtual world for customized avatars and then decorate that space with items unlocked through game play.

What readers couldn’t have known was the great lengths we went to to try and pin down the veracity of the rumor before publishing and, when finally deciding to go live with the rumor, to make sure we put it in the correct context.

In so doing, Sony asked us not to publish the story, first nicely, then not so much. Sony Computer Entertainment of American representatives reminded us that the story was a rumor and then went on to say that publishing it could harm our professional relationship with them.

When I responded that we were going forward with the story and that sometimes news doesn’t come from official sources I was told that if we published we would likely be blackballed by the company.

Specifically, they said we would be asked to return our debug PS3, uninvited from all meetings scheduled with Sony at GDC, including one on blogger relations and a one-on-one with Phil Harrison, and that they would no longer deal with us.
Knowing that, we went forward with the story, choosing not to point out the threats.

Shortly after the story ran, and I forwarded it to Dave Karraker, the senior director of corporate communications for Sony Computer Entertainment of America, to point out we did decide to run it.

Here was his response:

Brian, This is an email I was really hoping I would never have to write, but it is what it is. When I came on board here at Sony, I made every effort to be as inclusive as possible to media and the blogging community in an effort to improve previously damaged relationships. This included getting people access to executives, opening our events to more individuals and personally responding as quickly as possible to inquiries. This was done in good faith with the thought that the people I was working with would operate with the same integrity and courtesy I think I demonstrated when I was a reporter. Basically, I went out on a limb for a lot of people — people SCEA PR and SCEA management had written off. I caught a lot of flack for it from folks, but I felt strongly it was the right thing to do.
I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor…. I can’t defend outlets that can’t work cooperatively with us.

So, it is for this reason, that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum.

Again, I take absolutely no joy in sending you this note, but given the situation you have put me into, I have no choice.

Dave Karraker
Sr. Director, Corporate Communications
Sony Computer Entertainment America

I obviously took no joy in receiving it, though I do believe it adds to the veracity of our initial rumor report.

As I told Dave Karraker in reply, this only highlights the differences between what PR people do for a living and what journalists do.

Dave,

Obviously I disagree with your decision, but it sounds like your mind is made up. I think this only highlights the differences that PR people and journalists have. My interest is not in making sure that Sony has positive news or that the timing of their news is correct, my job only is to inform the readers of news as quickly and accurately as I can. Hopefully, one day this dispute will settle down and you will reopen communication with us. Know this, while I disagree with this decision and think it is a monumental mistake, it will not effect our continuing coverage of Sony and the gaming software and hardware your company makes and supports.

Take care,

Brian

Sony’s decision is disappointing, not because of what it means to Kotaku, but because of what it means to the industry.

Originally published on Kotaku on March 1, 2007.


Shortly after this post went live, after sites like Joystiq, GameSpotGizmodo, Destructoid rallied in support, after the New York Times and Washington Post contacted me to cover the blackballing, I received a call from Karraker. He wanted to figure out how to make things right … quickly.

We had a short phone call and he unblackballed the site and apologized for the confusion. I told him I’d post the decision in a new story and wouldn’t be an ass about it.


Sony and Kotaku Make-Up

What a hellish day it has been today. Both for Kotaku and I’m sure team Sony.

First to summarize: We posted a rumor after Sony asked us not to and they emailed to say we were no longer welcome at any of their private GDC events and that they would no longer provide us with any information found outside of the public forums.

We posted said e-mail and the Internet imploded.

First, I have to say thank you to all of the websites, newspapers, magazines, people who were so quick to come to our defense and supported our decision to stand by our story.

Second, I want to thank Dave Karraker, head of SCEA PR, who was big enough to call me and talk the whole thing through after this exploded.

He told me his take on the story and his frustrations and I told him mine, in the end we agreed to disagree on some level, but also decided that our readers and gamers in general would be best served if Sony and Kotaku could still play nicely together.

In a nutshell: The story remains up and Sony has re-invited us to the meetings and interviews initially scheduled for the Game Developers Conference.

It’s unfortunate that we, not just Kotaku and Sony, but all of us had to go through this, but it’s good to see the outcome: We were doing our job and Sony was doing theirs and now we can both continue to do so.

This story originally ran on Kotaku on March 1, 2007.


In the weeks, months, sometimes years following that game of chicken with Sony several questions, and sometimes misunderstandings, keep coming up.

No, we didn’t break an embargo when we ran the Home story. That story was fully the work of McWhertor’s excellent journalism.

Yes, I should have published that letter Karraker sent to me blackballing the site. It was an official email detailing an abhorrent practice by some publishers that many people knew existed but very few, if any, had hard evidence that it was still be done.

Sony hates Kotaku or me, or I hate Sony. Neither of those are true. I think the relationship I now have with Sony is, in some ways, better than it was before that showdown. I held and hold zero malice, even when it happened, toward Sony. Karraker thought he was doing what he had to do to protect his company. I think he was wrong, but that doesn’t shape the way I feel about him or Sony.

The most important thing that came out of this is that for a time the entire video game journalism industry stood together to tell the video game industry two things very clearly: We don’t work for them, and we have each other’s backs.

The one thing I sometimes wish is that as a group, game journalists would do this more often instead of sniping each other and grumbling about the competition on Twitter and sites like NeoGaf. We’re all in this together as writers and journalists, we should be working to improve each other and the state of game journalism as a whole, not tearing one another down.

2 Responses to Blackballing: On the relationship between journalists and game makers
  1. Bryan C. says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s a shame that these things still happen, but nothing ever changes. We ran into lots of things like this with Game Zero magazine when we were publishing back in the 90’s.

    One time we were requested to pull a quote from a news item (the only retraction I ever honored) about a delayed title. The overseas P.R. team called us frantically asking for an employee’s quote be removed as the company was now looking to sell the title off to another publisher and they were afraid the article might jinx the sale. I honored the request in deference to the long standing relationship I had with studio as I knew this would have killed our sources and possibly cost someone their job. I also pieced together that the only chance this game would have (along with it’s team jobs) hinged on this sale and I really didn’t want all of that on my head, so I pulled the quote. I still debate the decision.

    On the other end of the spectrum of sketchy though is this story.

    One morning I get a phone call from one of our P.R. contacts (for a *major* publisher) about one of the titles they had sent us for review months prior. Apparently one of the Gold review disks had been tied back to a piracy related software leak. An internal audit was coming down on the P.R. team from corporate and they thought they could enlist my help in shutting down the probe. They wanted to dictate a letter for me to give them to send to corporate that said we destroyed the media instead of sending it back. They assured me that this would be quid pro quo, if I could help them support the story that the media was destroyed and not simply lost by them that they would repay us with better coverage options.

    My problem (other than not getting involved in a cover-up) was that I documented everything and had detailed handling protocols set up for our magazine (including keeping track of when and how things were shipped back along with all packing slips and receipts and tracking #s). These protocols were set up specifically to help cover our ass from any lawsuits. I told them that I just couldn’t help. There was too much risk involved from my perspective and could open our publication up to getting drawn into the investigation, and/or potential legal action. So, in the end the best I could do was I faxed them copies of all of the proof of shipping materials I had that verified that I had sent their review disc back to them. In return the P.R. team cut us off from getting future preview materials via “oops, we didn’t have a copy to mail you” bullshit. It irritated me that they would do something childish like this but I never regretted the decision.

  2. Harold C. says:

    I remember this because I used to visit Kotaku everyday at this time. I wouldn’t be wrong to say it was perhaps the most influential and one of the few top gaming sites at that time. I truly feel Crecente and McWhertor made Kotaku the site to go to for news, commentary, and anything happening in the industry. The comments on articles were amazing back then too. Sadly the site isn’t the same, but I want to thank those who worked at Kotaku back then. Truly made the site great.

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