Hey, Doug Lowenstein. Don’t shoot the messengers.
While I’ve got a lot of respect for Lowenstein, the former ESA president sent a letter to Kotaku yesterday that simply blew my mind.
Commenting on Thursday’s Florida Supreme Court order disbarring Jack Thomspon for life, Lowenstein blamed the gaming press for "making Thompson what he became."
On this issue Doug Lowenstein should look in the mirror. It was Lowenstein’s own unwillingness to stand up to Thompson years ago which emboldened the game-hatin’, soon to be ex-attorney. It is a remarkable piece of spin to blame Thompson on the gaming media, but that’s exactly what Lowenstein has done:
Time and again, the game press… would ask ESA to engage with, or respond to Thompson’s latest excess. The media knew well that he was a charlatan who wholly lacked credibility. But hey, they said, he was news and could not be ignored. That was a cop out. It gave Thompson a platform…
Mainstream outlets… were worse but the game press knew better. But he was the game press’ crack. And even as they said privately he was a kook, they treated him as if he was a credible, fair minded critic. That represented an abdication of the critical filtering role the media should play.
…for the game press it was all Jack all the time… You help set the tone for mainstream media coverage and if you validate extremists you give license to the less informed to follow your lead.
To be fair, Doug is no stranger to Thompson’s tirades. During his days at the helm of the ESA he was a frequent target of the disgraced attorney’s most outrageous vitriol.
But, by refusing to respond, Doug dropped the ball. Thompson, finding no resistance from the top of the video game industry, was empowered to push harder. In retrospect, it’s important to understand that bullying is the essence of Thompson’s strategy. In fact, one of the tips he offers in his forgettable 2005 book, Out of Harm’s Way, is "be mean." And, since caveman days, bullies have pushed and pushed until someone got up the nerve to push back.
Doug never pushed back.
Instead, Lowenstein’s ESA operated in a sort of la-la land in which Jack Thompson did not exist. As a journalist, I soon learned not to waste time asking the ESA to comment on anything Thompson said or did because, ostrich-like, they pretended that there was no Jack Thompson.
The gaming press, on the other hand, deserves kudos for helping reveal to the larger world the kind of vicious tactics Thompson employed in his culture crusade. And isn’t that the function of a free press? You’d think that Doug Lowenstein, a former journalist, would understand that.
Given the nature of what we cover at GamePolitics, Jack Thompson was undoubtedly written about here more than anywhere else. Did the Thompson coverage draw traffic? Yes, as much from the Miami activist’s eagerness to mix it up with GP readers in the comments section as from the actual stories. Through his publicity-seeking, over the top antics Thompson came to symbolize anti-game prejudice. Gamers – unlike Doug Lowenstein – invariably wanted a word with him and they often had that opportunity here at GamePolitics.
Was there a price to pay for GP’s coverage? Yes. Without going into detail, Thompson threatened me with lawsuits on an almost continual basis. While some might write off such threats as bluster, that’s easy to say when you’re not the one being threatened. He actually did add my name to one of his million dollar lawsuits until a federal judge ruled that he couldn’t. But he didn’t stop there. He vilified me to the newspaper that I write for and to the company that formerly hosted GamePolitics. He reported me to the FBI at least a half-dozen times. For a guy with a mortgage and kids and (back then) a day job, this was more than a little stressful. Frankly, I’m incensed at Doug Lowenstein’s implication that GP did it for the traffic. I can’t speak for other sites, but GamePolitics covered Thompson because there was a story there, a story that needed to be told.
In the end, it was Thompson who carved out his own record. The things that he did and said eventually told the world all it needed to know about Jack Thompson and where he was coming from. It was Thompson, for example, who told a Louisiana newspaper that nobody shoots anybody in the face unless you’re a hit man or a video gamer.
It was Thompson who appeared on Fox News while the bodies were still warm at Virginia Tech to claim that video games were responsible for the tragedy. And it was Thompson who carried out the vicious and unprofessional conduct outlined in his 2007 Florida Bar trial, behavior that one victim compared to the emotional equivalent of stalking.
In fact, if there is one thing in GamePolitics’ four-year history of which I am most proud, it was our exclusive coverage of those transcripts containing witness testimony from Thompson’s Florida Bar trial. If you think Thompson – who can turn on the charm when he wants to – is not such a bad sort, read the transcripts and then decide.
To be sure, GamePolitics wasn’t the only game site in Thompson’s crosshairs. He filed a lawsuit against Kotaku in 2007. He threatened My Extra Life over a Jack Thompson Photoshop contest. He tried to get the Seattle Police to bust Penny Arcade, and when he found out PA isn’t actually in Seattle (doh!), he called the FBI, instead.
As for Doug Lowenstein, he’s way out of line to suggest a "critical filtering role" for the gaming press. He is essentially saying that game sites should censor news that the video game industry doesn’t like – in this case, news about Jack Thompson. Doug seems to be laboring under the impression that the gaming press works for the benefit of big money game publishers instead of readers.
Doug Lowenstein, of course, left the video game industry in 2007 for a new gig lobbying on behalf of the hedge fund crowd. Come to think of it, isn’t there enough for Doug to worry about on Wall Street these days? Perhaps he should leave the gaming issues to the gaming press.
We can handle it. We always have.
UPDATE: Destructoid has weighed in on the issue:
Can the coverage of Thompson be defended from a journalistic standpoint? Perhaps. JT was a loudmouth with more words than common sense, but in a world where reality TV stars can become credible icons, ignoring Thompson could have been a bad idea. It was thanks to us that Thompson was exposed for the duplicitous, vulgar and disrespectful man that he is. His personal attacks on industry figures and his many documented online flame wars with youngsters helped to damage whatever credibility he may have been able to forge.
UPDATE 2: Simon Carless of Gamasutra offers his thoughts:
Probably one of [Thompson’s] closest reports, and therefore subjects of his harassment was GamePolitics’ Dennis McCauley, and he has a passionate, angry editorial on the subject up on GamePolitics. His view? "By refusing to respond, Doug dropped the ball. Thompson, finding no resistance from the top of the video game industry, was empowered to push harder."
I’m not sure I completely agree. There’s an argument that you empower trolls by acknowledging them, and then nobody comes out of the situation looking good. Lowenstein realized that preventing state-based legislation against violent games was more important in practical terms than debating Thompson regularly ad infinitum.
UPDATE 3: Aaron Ruby, editor of our sister-site GameCulture adds:
…what the discussion so far has lacked, including Lowenstein’s inciting letter, is that it doesn’t matter who "created" Jack Thompson. The real issue is that the entire gaming community — journalists, developers, lobbyists and gamers alike — let a hack lawyer with a stunningly unsuccessful track record as a videogame vigilante become its most prized bogeyman…
Jack Thompson was a perfect storm, a confluence of circumstance, political climate and the maturation of a medium that now dominates entertainment… we were allowed to knock down straw man after straw man, irrational argument after unsubstantiated claim, and poorly written law after spurious legal theory. We went after him because he was an easy target. Someone who made us feel smug, superior and ritually oppressed. And in our self-righteousness, we all had a hand in keeping the bogey man alive.
In the end, Jack Thompson was the Wicked Witch of Gaming, that evil wretch who always seems ready to poison the world, until, finally, one day she’s dowsed with water and melts. And after we’re done singing "ding dong, ding dong" from every hill and rooftop, we stop and wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. And as we catch our breath, we realize the power was ours all along.