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April 6, 2009

Critic Fired For Reviewing Movie

Of course it was a movie that hasn't been released yet - the latest in the X-Men series. An advance copy got out on the web, and a columnist at Fox News wrote a mini-review. That didn't sit well with Rupert Murdoch, who has blasted copyright pirates. From the NYT story:

The film studio, which enlisted the F.B.I. last week to hunt the pirate, put out a statement calling Mr. Friedman's column "reprehensible," among other things. Then the News Corporation weighed in with its own statement, saying it asked had Fox News to remove the column from its Web site. (It did.)

Over the weekend, the Web site Deadline Hollywood Daily reported that Mr. Friedman had been dismissed. Sure enough, on Sunday came a revised statement from the News Corporation. "When we advised Fox News of the facts," the statement said, "they promptly terminated Mr. Friedman."

So piracy is illegal. But where is the line between aggressive reporting/reviewing and encouraging illegal behavior? If the movie is out there. If people are talking about it (and they are). What's the journalist's responsibility? It's not up to journalists to police the law.
April 6, 2009 1:33 PM | | Comments (7)


Because it was a 20th Century Fox film, and what Friedman was counter to the interests of his employer Rupert Murdoch.

@Jim: Of course that's the direct connection here. And the Fox empire protects its own interests (why shouldn't it?). But I guess what I'm wondering is whether there's some bigger argument to be made here about covering something that is stolen and is copyright protected? Theatre critics seem to have agreed not to cover shows while they're in preview, and yet on Broadway they'll cover a final preview before the real run begins so they can get it in the paper on the day the production officially opens. Investigative reporters write stories based on "leaked" documents. Should a movie or music critic have to vet the legality of the copy they're writing about?

I don't know. Can a reporter blatantly break the law and get away with it, simply by reporting his own actions? This may be an unforgivable question, but how far does/should the First Amendment stretch?

I'm not so sure about your theatre critics analogy. Yes, they'll cover previews, but as you said yourself, the piece they're writing is published "in the paper on the day the production finally opens." That would fall outside the press embargo, and by then it's perfectly acceptable. The author of the piece sits on his story until it's allowed to be printed. Friedman didn't do that. He published his review when the embargo was still on. In any event, this is hardly the Pentagon Papers. An early review of "Wolverine" doesn't benefit the public any, so there was no journalistic worth to the piece (other than to downplay the ramifications of what he did). And if there's no merit, then there's no excusing away his illegal downloading, AFAIC. A simple mention of the film being illegally distributed on the net would have sufficed.

Doug, I think you are conflating journalism’s protocols, ethics, and legalities. Each can exist as somewhat separate domains. For instance, journalistic ethics often diverge from legal standards, especially surrounding First Amendment issues.

Not reviewing theatre previews is a matter of protocol, not ethics. Reporting/reviewing pirated media is not illegal but it may or may not be ethical… and there is no real protocol for it.

@Jim: No Pentagon Papers, certainly. And I'm not defending the review. Nor is it an issue of free speech or First Amendment. I'd even defend Murdoch/Fox's right to fire Friedman (though I think they were wrong to do so). Friedman's primary job isn't even to review movies. But isn't it a reporter's job to report on what he/she sees? It would be one thing to break into somebody's office and steal. But if a pirated movie is out in the wild and widely available, isn't it fair game? I'm not defending the piracy, but in a sense, what better illustration of the cost of piracy than the fact that it was reviewed?

@Nick: I don't think I was clear with my point about theatre critics. There is a case to be made that theatre critics perhaps ought not review until a "finished" product was available. In a more practical sense, a critic with ongoing relationships in a theatre community would find his or her access limited if he/she broke embargoes. So there's a mutual interest that governs when reviews appear. Or, as you write, a protocol that has been established so that the business of theatre and reviewing can both benefit. You're right, there isn't a protocol here. But I'm not sure there's an ethical or legal standard that has been set for this either.

No, Friedman's primary job isn't to review movies, but reviewing the movie is exactly what he did. Had he just stuck to writing about how he came across the film and how it demonstrates how widespread online piracy is, then it would be sound journalism. But the piracy angle wasn't written with any broad context in mind. It was just an article about Thomas Friedman reviewing a movie he illegally downloaded. Not only is that not news, it also smacks of an underhanded business practice posing as news.

I'm in no way exonerating Fox News. They must have approved the article before putting it up in the first place, and kept it there until their film division picked up on the scent. They're scumbags, too. But that doesn't mean I'm going to shed any tears for Friedman.

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