In the Blue Corner . . . Movieguide! – a guest editorial by Tim Willson

Many thanks to Looking Closer reader Tim Willson for this editorial on some unethical practices at Movieguide. Here’s Tim…

[This editorial was originally posted at Looking Closer in 2004.]

Christianity Today has been forced to defend itself after recently questioning the ethics of film critic Ted Baehr, founder of MovieGuide.

A recent article generated considerable heat and a flurry of public and private communication, and even Pat Boone has weighed in on the subject, defending Baehr in a letter to CT. The May issue of the magazine devotes another page and a half to the subject.

An article in the March 2004 issue questioned the ethics of reviewing films while accepting money to promote them. Baehr admits to accepting payment for helping market six films over the years, among them Gods and Generals, Gordy and Left Behind. Reporter Marshall Allen wrote:

Quote (Christianity Today):

Ethicist David Gushee, a professor at Union University in Tennessee, calls Baehr’s paid promotional work unethical because Movieguide—the public branch of his ministry—presents itself as an independent, donor-supported, Hollywood watchdog. “There is no way morally a person doing that kind of work should be receiving money from that industry, because it’s a patent conflict of interest,” Gushee says. “He’s at least responsible for making full disclosure of the various roles that he is occupying in the Hollywood industry.”

Several film reviewers say they’ve never heard of a movie critic taking money to promote films. One prominent reviewer said that it’s ethically “about as far over the line as you can go.”

Baehr immediately mounted fierce defense; he solicited comments of support from his friends and constituents, and wrote a scathing—almost toxic—response on his website. (A condensed version of the response was printed in CT’s May 2004 issue.) The rebuttal includes at least half a dozen inaccuracies, misquoting Allen’s article and accusing him of sloppy reporting. Worse, Baehr stooped almost to the level of slander with accusations of anti-trust behavior, bias and hypocrisy. He went so far as to resurrect a lawsuit from almost a quarter-century ago in an effort to smear the magazine.

Quote (MovieGuide’s ‘Straight Facts’)

Several years ago, Christianity Today was sued for trying to destroy its competition and settled out of court.

…the entire sordid affair is documented in reams of discovery documents obtained during the lawsuit against Christianity Today back in 1982.

He added that the case proved that “the officers of Christianity Today were greedy, unethical, dishonest and corrupt.”

Apparently, the best defense a no-holds-barred offense. Baehr called CT’s “Inciting Article” attack journalism and obvious hypocrisy, potentially slanderous and libelous and a bitter attack – but defended himself with an article that could be characterized as obvious hypocrisy, potentially slanderous and libelous and a bitter attack.

In one of his more curious objections, Baehr implies that there is no conflict of interest because he isn’t actually a “reviewer.”

Quote (MovieGuide’s ‘Straight Facts’)

We’re an Advocacy Group – Not Movie Reviewers

It is well publicized by the Christian Film & Television Commission™ ministry that we are an advocacy group registered with the entertainment industry guilds in Hollywood. We analyze movies as a part of our advocacy role.

However, Baehr then goes on to refer to himself repeatedly as a reviewer:

Quote (MovieGuide’s ‘Official Response’) (emphasis added):

-Interestingly, the article notes that Kairos worked on only six of the 5,000 movies that Movieguide has reviewed in 19 years.

Quote (MovieGuide’s ‘Straight Facts’)

-…because MOVIEGUIDE(r) uses standards rooted in the Bible, the reviews are biblically credible.

- Attacking competition is unethical. Furthermore, it is hypocritical of a group like Christianity Today to accuse MOVIEGUIDE(r) and Christian Film & Television Commission(tm) of having a “conflict of interest.” That in itself is a conflict of interest since they are in direct competition with MOVIEGUIDE(r) – they recently began producing reviews of movies from a Christian perspective.

- Several years ago, Christianity Today negotiated to buy MOVIEGUIDE(r) reviews to reprint in their magazine and on their website…

MovieGuide also describes itself as a movie review provider in the standard disclaimer that appears with the organization’s syndicated, um, reviews.

Quote (MovieGuide disclaimer) (emphasis added):

The featured reviews are a selected sample of informative reviews from MOVIEGUIDE: A FAMILY GUIDE TO MOVIES AND ENTERTAINMENT, a syndicated feature of Good News Communications, Inc. For a copy of MOVIEGUIDE, with a complete set of reviews of the latest movies as well as many informative articles, please write or call MOVIEGUIDE P.O. Box 190010 Atlanta, GA 31119 (770) 825-0084.

The publications which carry MOVIEGUIDE and the organizations which distribute MOVIEGUIDE are not responsible for these reviews, nor is MOVIEGUIDE responsible for the opinions and positions of these publications and organizations.

Clearly, MovieGuide reviews movies, and to say otherwise appears to be disingenuous. Baehr now prefers the term “analyst,” although any distinction may be lost on the people who subscribe to his service; anyone paying for independent, unfiltered opinion doesn’t expect a marketing pitch.

Furthermore, Baehr’s claim that Christianity Today is in a conflict of interest (since CT’s new movie review section puts them in competition with him) poses a problem: if CT and Baehr are in competition, then he is also wrong to attack them.

But all of that is merely spin-doctoring and deflection: the real issue comes back to ethics. Is it right to critique an industry—in a subscriber- and donor-supported role—while simultaneously, secretly working for it? The worst thing about Baehr’s response is an apparent lack of comprehension of this inherent conflict.

To me, as a former journalist, this issue is quite clear: independence means just that… no outside influence. To serve as advocate for a film consumer and for a film producer is wrong, especially when that dual role is kept secret. Imagine a food critic who accepted money to promote a restaurant that was being reviewed, or an automotive writer who was quietly paid money by Ford or Chrysler. How about a political correspondent who was secretly on the payroll of the Republican or Democratic parties? Such dual roles constitute the very essence of conflict of interest, even if the writer’s published “analysis” would have been the same with or without payment.

When I worked as a broadcast journalist, there were strict rules governing our conduct, because the reputation of the newsroom was considered to be a sacred trust. Voice work—even for documentaries—was frowned upon, and voicing commercials was forbidden: a listener who recognized the announcer’s voice might infer an endorsement of a product or cause. And while Baehr is more of a personality than a journalist, the people who subscribe to MovieGuide are paying for independent commentary, not advertising camouflaged as film criticism.

The media generally keeps a clear delineation between advertising and editorial content. Even when critics review a film produced by a corporate cousin, payment for the reviewer’s services are not contingent upon a good review, and such reviews are not unfailingly positive. And when this isn’t the case, the public learns not to trust that critic’s reputation. Baehr can’t legitimately claim that he’s simply doing what everyone else is doing.

Quote (MovieGuide’s ‘Straight Facts’)

Reviewers Commonly Promote Movies

Other reviewers who are not involved in advocacy work and analysis have been
paid by the entertainment industry to promote movies and other entertainment. In fact, many of the most prominent reviewers have worked for the entertainment industry. Other possible conflicts exist; for instance, Roger Ebert’s television program is owned by the Walt Disney Company, and he routinely reviews movies that are produced by Disney.

In fact, Ebert’s program is not owned by Disney…merely syndicated by a division of the Disney empire, but either way, that’s irrelevant. If Buena Vista Television didn’t like something Ebert said about a Disney film there isn’t anything they could do about it – they can’t fire him. They could stop distributing his program, but Ebert’s program would simply move to a new distributor, and the Disney empire would lose revenue and gain a black eye.

More importantly, Ebert’s situation is quite different from Baehr’s: Ebert has not ever been a paid part of a film’s advertising campaign– he doesn’t even accept payment when he contributes to DVD commentaries. After nearly four decades in the business, Ebert’s integrity on this question of independence is precisely what makes his reviews credible…without it, his ‘thumbs up-thumbs down’ evaluation would be worthless.

A similar charge was made against Ebert earlier this year by a New York critic, and Ebert’s response is worth repeating:

Quote (Ebert):

“I’ll send him a tape of our show ‘Worst Films of 2003′ . . . Whether I go easy on Disney films he can ascertain by checking my reviews, something he did not bother to do.”

Furthermore, it is either naïve or deceitful to pretend that paid promotional work is comparable to the ads that appear in Christianity Today.

Quote (MovieGuide’s ‘Straight Facts’)

Christianity Today Simultaneously Promotes and Takes Ads from Books and Movies

Alongside Allen’s article in the March 2004 issue, stories appear about THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and Max Lucado’s new book. Christianity Today, in this very same issue, ran ads for both products. What is the difference between what they are doing and what Allen has accused Dr. Baehr and CFTVC of doing?

“What is the difference?” Is that a serious question? It’s one thing for CT (or any other advertiser-supported publication) to accept paid ads… quite another for an editor or individual reporter to be paid. It’s a distinction that is quite apparent to publishers, editors and readers alike. No reasonable person reads an ad as an endorsement, nor articles as advertising. The whole issue of a reader’s trust is predicated on this issue of the independence of the press, and the public is sophisticated enough to recognize the inherent self-serving nature of advertising claims. It’s when advertising content is disguised as editorial opinion that the public’s trust is violated.

There are several options for MovieGuide:

  1. Choose to be an independent voice for consumers, or
  2. Choose to be a marketing tool for advertisers, or (as a poor third option)
  3. Choose to do both, but with transparency. If Baehr (or MovieGuide or Kairos Marketing) ever felt the desire to promote a film, they should do it for free. If inclined to do such work for payment, the absolute minimum requirement would be for any such dual role to be publicly acknowledged to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, or (worse)
  4. Refuse to review any film in which MovieGuide has a marketing interest—although this would not eliminate questions about the organization’s impartiality.

It seems that Baehr wants to have a dual role (Option 3), but doesn’t recognize the need for transparency. This issue would likely have already been forgotten if MovieGuide had simply responded like this:

We realize with hindsight that our subscribers deserve to know of any instance in which we have been involved with a film. In the future, we will add a disclaimer to any such reviews so that the public has the benefit of full disclosure.

Such a disclaimer could read:

MovieGuide’s sister organization, Kairos Marketing, has been paid for promotional services in conjunction with this film. This review reflects MovieGuide’s assessment of the film based on fixed criteria, and was not among the services offered by Kairos. MovieGuide founder Ted Baehr accepts such marketing contracts only rarely, and only in conjunction with films that meet our strict standards for acceptable content.

News organizations frequently use disclaimers to avoid potential conflicts of interest. For example, in May 2003, CNN reported that Microsoft had settled a lawsuit with AOL for $750-million. The opening paragraph of the story noted thatAOL Time Warner is the parent of CNN/Money.” At the bottom of the article, CNN was careful to include a standard disclaimer: “Analysts quoted in this story do not own shares of AOL Time Warner or Microsoft, and their firms do not have investment banking relationships with either company.” Without such a disclaimer, the news organization might be accused of unfairly promoting itself, boosting its share price by reporting good news. Such a failure to disclose, in the context of financial journalism, would not only be unethical, but could be illegal.

I wish Mr. Baehr no ill, and I mean no disrespect; after all, the ethical short-comings raised by CT are not serious moral failures—simply inappropriate policies and procedures. However, I think it’s reasonable to hope that he will modify his practices to come into line with minimal standards of impartiality. The denial of any conflict of interest has simply made things worse by diminishing Baehr’s credibility.

This isn’t a case of “attacking our own,” as Pat Boone suggests, but rather a simple examination of ethics. It may be unusual to see an issue like this debated publicly, but journalists—especially Christian ones—must be committed to the truth. On the substantive issues raised in the original article, CT seems to have been fair, and, in providing Baehr with an entire page for a rebuttal, the magazine has been more than fair.

This is a matter of important public interest. Thoughtful, reasoned and informed criticism of the arts is of vital importance for our communities and for the church. It is essential that we have a voice in the cultural conversation that pre-dominates in our society. But for the integrity of our discussion, we must be clear on which critics speak for themselves and which ones are paid to speak for others.

UPDATE: A letter from a reader

Thank you for including on your website the guest editorial by Tim Willson.

Many years ago my husband and I stopped ordering MovieGuide for another reason: they began looking through extremely political glasses in their review process; as well as turning almost entirely political in their letters section.

We just wanted to access reviews based on art and morality. We absolutely hated the eventual sidetracking in their magazine toward all things political. Their letters section became a hotbed for political bitching and moaning; most of the time having nothing to do with movies!

Many years ago, thanks to you, Peter Chattaway, CT, HollywoodJesus and others, we found what we were looking for. Thank you for your time, energies, insight and hard work!

Cheers,

Annette Keadle

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