Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


free page hit counter



hit counter script


All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Friday, December 7th, 2007

CNET, Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann: Controversy or conspiracy theory?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

On Wednesday, I spotted a post from Michael O’Connor Clarke about Jeff Gerstmann, a games reviewer and Editorial Director at CNET’s Gamespot, who appeared to have been fired for giving a bad review to Kane & Lynch. The game’s publishers, Eidos Interactive, had just bought hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising on the site and the rumour was that they used the weight of that contract to force CNET to fire Gerstmann. It seems the news was broken in this Penny Arcade strip.

Here’s Gerstmann’s review:

The implications of this rumour are clear: If CNET is bowing to pressure from advertisers to ensure that their own games are favourable reviewed, then CNET’s games coverage becomes not worth the electricity that lights its pixels. Indeed, the suspicion that CNET can be bought immediately devalues all its reviews, across all sectors. If the PR, advertising and editorial departments submit to bullying from one vendor, then there’s no reason why they aren’t doing the same for other vendors. This is potentially very damaging for CNET as it destroys readers’ confidence that what they are getting is honest, unbiased opinion.

As Kotaku says:

As our tipster points out, if the rumor is true, it could point to a distressing precedent at Gamespot and parent company CNet. “As writers of what is supposed to be objective content, this is our worst nightmare coming to life,” wrote the tipster.

Our efforts to confirm the story with Gamespot haven’t proved successful. Our current requests with PR, Gerstmann and other CNet contacts have either gone unanswered or yielded a “no comment.”

But rather than address the rumours head-on, CNET shilly-shallied about:

CNET allowed hours to pass by as people continued to spread word of the firings, creating incensed users everywhere. They issued no formal statement and made no attempt to defuse the situation. Eventually, they came out with what I refer to as a “non-denial denial,” in which they made no reference to the controversial situation, resorting to generalized statements about how CNET is a bastion of “unbiased reviews.”

And the first formal response on Gamespot is a masterpiece of not really saying anything:

Due to legal constraints and the company policy of GameSpot parent CNET Networks, details of Gerstmann’s departure cannot be disclosed publicly. However, contrary to widespread and unproven reports, his exit was not a result of pressure from an advertiser.

“Neither CNET Networks nor GameSpot has ever allowed its advertising business to affect its editorial content,” said Greg Brannan, CNET Networks Entertainment’s vice president of programming. “The accusations in the media that it has done so are unsubstantiated and untrue. Jeff’s departure stemmed from internal reasons unrelated to any buyer of advertising on GameSpot.”

“Though he will be missed by his colleagues, Jeff’s leaving does not affect GameSpot’s core mission of delivering the most timely news, video content, in-depth previews, and unbiased reviews in games journalism,” said Ryan MacDonald, executive producer of GameSpot Live. “GameSpot is an institution, and its code of ethics and duty to its users remains unchanged.”

Whilst neither CNET nor Gerstmann were willing to discuss exactly what happened, Gerstmann was keen to play down the implications of his firing by telling MTV’s Multiplayer blog that there’s no reason for gamers to doubt Gamespot’s reviews.

Despite that, public opinion in the gaming world swung against CNET, despite the hints that Gerstmann’s firing may be nothing to do with Kane & Lynch, and more to do disagreements with (new) senior manager Josh Larson. If I may quote liberally from Kotaku:

Speaking with a Gamespot employee yesterday who asked not to be named for this story, we’ve learned that, despite the neutral nature of the Gamespot news item on the matter, the editorial staff is said to be “devastated, gutted and demoralized” over the removal of former editorial director Jeff Gerstmann. While the termination of Gerstmann, a respected fixture at Gamespot, was pitched to his remaining colleagues by management as a “mutual decision”, it was anything but, we’re told.

The confusion over the reasons for Gerstmann’s termination, compounded with a lack of transparency from management has created a feeling of “irreconcilable despair” that may eventually lead to an exodus of Gamespot editorial staffers. “Our credibility,” said the source, “is in ruins.” Over the course of the previous days, a “large number of Gamespot editors” have expressed their intentions to leave. Tales of emotionally deflated peers, with no will to remain at the site, were numerous.

Unless cooler heads prevail or concerns are addressed, Gamespot could see “mass resignations”, our source revealed.

Rank and file employees of the Gamespot organization are unaware of the real reasons behind Gerstmann’s termination. Our source admitted that Eidos was less than pleased with the review scores for Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, but the team has “dealt with plenty of unhappy publishers before.” Our contact stressed that “Money has never played a role in reviews before” and that “[Gamespot] has never altered a score.” No pressure from management or sales has been exercised to remove or alter content, the source reiterated.

However, the source did speculate that disagreements between Gertsmann and VP of games Josh Larson may have been the root cause of the former being terminated. Larson, successor to former editor in chief Greg Kasavin, was described as out of touch with the employees who report to him. The VP is the one allegedly responsible for telling Gamespot editorial staff that it was Gerstmann’s “tone” that was at the heart of his dismissal.

Then, on a Valleywag post disputing the theory that Gerstmann was fired for a bad review, someone who appears to be a Gamespot insider left a number of rather damning comments (again, summed up well by Kotaku):

No one wants to be named because no one wants to get fucking fired! This management team has shown what they’re willing to do. Jeff had ten years in and was fucking locked out of his office and told to leave the building.

What you might not be aware of is that GS is well known for appealing mostly to hardcore gamers. The mucky-mucks have been doing a lot of “brand research” over the last year or so and indicating that they want to reach out to more casual gamers. Our last executive editor, Greg Kasavin, left to go to EA, and he was replaced by a suit, Josh Larson, who had no editorial experience and was only involved on the business side of things. Over the last year there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we’ve started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up. Other publishers have started giving us notes involving when our reviews can go up; if a game’s getting a 9 or above, it can go up early; if not, it’ll have to wait until after the game is on the shelves.

I was in the meeting where Josh Larson was trying to explain this firing and the guy had absolutely no response to any of the criticisms we were sending his way. He kept dodging the question, saying that there were “multiple instances of tone” in the reviews that he hadn’t been happy about, but that wasn’t Jeff’s problem since we all vet every review. He also implied that “AAA” titles deserved more attention when they were being reviewed, which sounded to all of us that he was implying that they should get higher scores, especially since those titles are usually more highly advertised on our site.

Gamespot insiders were clearly unhappy with what has happened.

Eventually, Gamespot management did address the issue, although they maintain they are legally unable to discuss why Gerstmann was fired, the categorically deny that it was because of pressure from Eidos.

Q: Was Jeff fired?
A: Jeff was terminated on November 28, 2007, following an internal review process by the managerial team to which he reported.

Q: Why was Jeff fired?
A: Legally, the exact reasons behind his dismissal cannot be revealed. However, they stemmed from issues unrelated to any publisher or advertiser; his departure was due purely for internal reasons.

[...]

Q: Was Eidos Interactive upset by the game’s review?
A: It has been confirmed that Eidos representatives expressed their displeasure to their appropriate contacts at GameSpot, but not to editorial directly. It was not the first time a publisher has voiced disappointment with a game review, and it won’t be the last. However, it is strict GameSpot policy never to let any such feelings result in a review score to be altered or a video review to be pulled.

Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment cause Jeff to be terminated?
A: Absolutely not.

Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment cause the alteration of the review text?
A: Absolutely not.

Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment lead to the video review being pulled down?
A: Absolutely not.

[...]

Q: Why didn’t GameSpot write about Jeff’s departure sooner?
A: Due to HR procedures and legal considerations, unauthorized CNET Networks and GameSpot employees are forbidden from commenting on the employment status of current and former employees. This practice has been in effect for years, and the CNET public-relations department stuck to that in the days following Jeff’s termination. However, the company is now making an exception due to the widespread misinformation that has spread since Jeff’s departure.

[...]

Q: GameSpot’s credibility has been called into question as a result of this incident. What is being done to repair and rebuild it?
A: This article is one of the first steps toward restoring users’ faith in GameSpot, and an internal review of the incident and controversy is under way. However, at no point in its history has GameSpot ever deviated from its review guidelines, which are publicly listed on the site. Great pains are taken to keep sales and editorial separated to prevent any impression of impropriety.

For years, GameSpot has been known for maintaining the highest ethical standards and having the most reliable and informative game reviews, previews, and news on the Web. The colleagues and friends that Jeff leaves behind here at GameSpot intend to keep it that way.

The problem is, the damage has been done. Whatever the reason for Gerstmann’s dismissal, the appalling way that CNET handled the crisis means that a lot of people now believe that the Chinese wall that separates advertising and editorial has been permanently damaged. That in and of itself means that both Gamespot’s and CNET’s credibility has been severely dented and if there’s one thing that a publisher cannot afford to do, it’s to appear even for a moment to be in the pockets of its advertisers. Readers want impartiality, honesty, transparency, and if they sniff a rat they’ll leave in droves.

CNET should never have fired Gerstmann without thoroughly thinking through the implications of such a precipitate dismissal. Doing so without a strategy in place for addressing the inevitable rumour that would follow was stupid and short-sighted. In any company, that sort of “marching off the premises” style of dismissal is bound to cause a rumpus, especially when the person being fired, as Gerstmann appears to have been, is much loved by their colleagues and readers, and has been there for so long. It shouldn’t have taken a genius to realise that there’d be a pretty strong reaction against it, and that some sort of thought should be given to how to address the rumours early on.

Whether Gerstmann was fired because of Larson, or Eidos, or something else, is almost irrelevant now. The conclusions one can draw are that either CNET’s in bed with its advertisers, or it’s being managed incompetently by someone prone to throwing hissy fits and firing people on the spot. If one were being generous, one might just put this down to an HR/PR fuck-up, but there is a valuable lesson to be learnt by every publisher and every company with externally-facing bloggers: Look before you fire.

Email a copy of 'CNET, Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann: Controversy or conspiracy theory?' to a friend

EMAIL THIS ENTRY TO A FRIEND



Separate multiple entries with a comma. Maximum 5 entries.



Separate multiple entries with a comma. Maximum 5 entries.





E-Mail Image Verification

Loading ... Loading ...

3 Responses to “CNET, Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann: Controversy or conspiracy theory?”

  1. Joe Says:

    You’re right, it doesn’t really matter why Gerstmann was fired at this point. I was a GS Complete subscriber from the first day it terned pay and I’m angry not at the GS Crew but at how CNET is run(now that I know). There are no excuses for this to happen. It is now apparent that CNET does not care if their management destroys all the blood, sweat, and tears shed by employees in the trenches. CNET leadership is in some sad shape. The employees in public view who make the content are the brand for god sakes! How could they be this ignorant. No excuses. As sad as I am for the GS crew I can’t visit the CNET sites for now. I, as a user could give a crap about stupid management. I go to the sites for the content and the only thing I care about is the people who bring that content to me. Management and Sales need to back the hell up because without the content they wouldn’t be employed. None of us give a flying %#$^ about management or sales.

  2. Mike Says:

    CNET Management sure messed up this one. Had I been the evil manager; and given that he was most likely not acceptable to toning down his reviews (if management wanted and even worked on that point with him). I would have done the following (remember I’m role playing an “EVIL” but semi-competent corporate executive):

    1. Given Jeff reviews of non advertised products that couldn’t have made any waves with bad reviews.

    2. Locked down the K&L review so that no changes would occur. The damage was already done and any softening of the review would most likely hurt the product more than help.

    3. Canned him in February or later after so that there aren’t any recent events to flame GS readers.

    The amount of management mistakes in how this was handled is pretty amazing. Terminating a popular public editor with a locked door and box has to be the worst way to handle his termination. You may think you are trying to fix the situation quickly to get the conflict over as soon as possible. However, if you go that route you better have your PR bases covered (read suggestions above). Mucking with the K&L review after it had been tied so closely to his termination and making waves has to be one of the dumbest stunts pulled! It was like putting the nail in the public perception coffin regardless of what the behind the scenes reasons were! There should be some management terminations just over how this was handled after the fact!

  3. Richard Madeley Says:

    The simple fact is that as these websites get bigger and become more corporate, they lose the edge that made them popular in the first place. Gerstmann was a throwback to a different kind of web. He was odd, unprofessional (in a good way) and knew his stuff. In the last year, Gamespot have lost the personalities that made it fun.

    It’s a sad day when a good website goes this way but it’s only natural. It gives a chance to a new website that still has the element of fun that these huge sites lack.