Editorial: Sony’s Kotaku Fiasco a Troubling Glimpse into Video Game P.R.

In case you missed yesterday’s Sony-Kotaku soap opera, here’s the executive summary:

Kotaku latched onto a hot GDC rumor concerning the possible announcement of something called PlayStation Home, a combination of achievements and social networking for the PS3.

That’s what good journalists do: root out stories. In its report Kotaku explained that it was a rumor, and cited a number of reasons why it might be valid.

The backstory, Kotaku editor Brian Crecente revealed later in the day, was that Sony applied intense pressure to the popular game blog in an effort to suppress the story:

Sony asked us not to publish the story, first nicely, then not so much. (SCEA) 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.

It’s unclear which rocket scientist at Sony made this decision, but it would be difficult to imagine a more destructive course of action. As a news site, Kotaku was entirely within its right to publish the rumor. Hell, it had an obligation to its readers to publish it. The fact is, Kotaku has more journalism chops than most other game blogs. Crecente, the site’s editor, has been a full-time newspaper reporter for years.

As to Sony’s objection to publishing rumors, are they kidding? Rumors get published all the time, not only in the game blogosphere, but in mainstream media publications as well – baseball trade rumors, Wall Street takeover rumors, political rumors, Britney Spears rumors…

What’s really troubling here, however, is the mindset underlying Sony’s decision. It says that the video game industry doesn’t really want an independent gaming press. What they want are a network of websites that will regurgitate their press releases and recycle the product propaganda espoused by their executives during interviews.

Wasn’t it only a couple of weeks back that outgoing ESA president Doug Lowenstein criticized the gaming press for a lack of professionalism? Here’s an example of a member of the gaming press exercising quite good journalistic standards and, for its trouble, being threatened and bullied by a major industry player.

It’s disgraceful.

In the end, Sony reversed its bad decision. But that came only after criticism of its bully tactics exploded on the net. If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that other game publishers will hopefully absorb the lesson and let the free press continue to be free from heavy-handed pressure tactics.

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