Professional Punditry Pitfalls


Over the years I’ve been involved in various markets (most notably the multimedia/game markets) and have worked alongside, worked as and worked against all three sides of it. The three sides comprise the consumer side, the publisher/developer/manufacturer side and the press side.

That experience has helped to give me a fairly healthy understanding of the politics of punditry. The problem I have with it is that, far too often, reviewers and columnists fall into various traps that end up resulting in recommendations and perspectives that simply aren’t very representative of the real world and, worse, damaging to consumers who read those views and take them as highly-responsible, very informed points of view.

One of the hardest things to maintain when you’re a journalist of any type is your integrity. Inducements are constantly all around you for the taking. All you need do is reach out and enjoy them.

The first case is the new, fairly unknown reviewer with very limited scruples. They can be swayed by the allure of free products or get into the business for the freebies. Neither case is good for the consumer. Worse, the system is setup in such a way that the products consumers should be most wary of are the ones most likely to be thrust upon these types of pundits. The top players in a given market usually reach a point of being very discriminating as to who gets their products and, further, who gets to keep them. It’s a question of earned respect. The top writers are often impervious to such inducements in part because getting free product long ago ceased to be a draw.

During my most involved years as a columnist in the games industry my biggest problem was getting rid of the free things I received. I had to spend inordinate amounts of time discarding cardboard boxes and the like. Packing materials, especially Styrofoam peanuts were a constant source of irritation.

Typically the new reviewer comes along and makes his requests to the companies in question. Many send out their products for the review, but the hungry company often sees this as an opportunity and spends more time explaining their view of the industry to this young sponge. They also let the young scribe keep their product when the review is completed while the other companies request theirs back.

Sadly, I’ve seen this example happen quite often and it’s usually fairly easy to determine which product it was they were able to keep. The problem here is obvious. You’re reading a recommendation without this knowledge. You’re taking the perspective at face value and that’s not only misleading and wrong. It very likely may end up costing you money and time if you believe what you read.

While getting to keep free products can cause the above problem, that doesn’t mean that pundits awash in free products are not a concern. The mere fact that they get to keep everything they get can seriously skew their opinion. It’s extremely difficult for such reviewers to put themselves in the shoes of the consumer who has to make a single purchase and have it matter. A reviewer who gets, for example, every game that comes out really has to work overtime to remember what it’s like to spend $50 on a single game. The concept of value often goes right out the window. Of course their view is that they’re helping to retain your value by giving you input on everything you’ll have to choose from. In the best cases, that’s true. However, in many cases, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Consider the case of professional movie reviewers. I respect Roger Ebert a great deal. However, over the years it’s become clear that he long ago forgot what it was like to have to pay to see a movie, especially if you take a family and buy concessions. If Roger Ebert still had to pay for every movie he reviewed (and I’m not advocating that), I guarantee that you’d see a dramatic reduction in the number of movies he’d recommend. The same holds true for any other market as well.

In fact, a case can be made that being able to keep any product after a review puts the pundit in questionable light. Wouldn’t true integrity demand that all products be returned? It’s for exactly this reason that we don’t allow many people in critical jobs to accept “gifts”.

Another problem that occurs is the attention many reviewers and columnist get. First, companies aren’t generally stupid. They know they’re sending their products out to people who may have a large impact on their success. Given that risk, many companies make sure that reviewers receive direct VIP treatment. They don’t have to call customer service if they have a problem. They get software versions that consumers aren’t seeing yet. In the worst cases they get hardware that is tweaked or upgraded from what consumers get and the reviewer isn’t told about these changes. All of this adds up to a skewed perspective that doesn’t benefit the consumer. I wonder just how many of those glowing reviews of Civilization 4 would have remained glowing if the reviewers responsible for them had to attempt to call customer service, even once, to resolve the bugs that resulted from the product being released too soon.

Lastly there’s the case of the pundit that I refer to as “being in the business of being in the business.” These are often the bigger names. They’ve been around for many years and spend their time traveling from convention to convention visiting personally with various companies, often in closed-door one-on-one sessions. Without a doubt the poster child for this type of pundit is John Dvorak of PC Magazine. Over the years I’ve spoken to John many times, though not recently, and it’s absolutely clear to me that he’s extremely well-informed and well-meaning. However, if you’re one of his long-term readers you begin to realize that his views can blow like the wind and his predictions are often quite wrong in the end.

Take, for example, his most recent column in PC Magazine, “Xbox 360 to the Rescue”. He’s talking about how the Xbox 360 represents real progress and how the games industry is really where progress in computer technology comes from (which is interesting given the fact that in earlier years he didn’t believe that). Among the rest of the column is this comment: “Microsoft personnel are rightly proud of how the Xbox 360 (which operates in conjunction with either regular TV or HDTV) can, when hooked up to a network, function as a Media Center PC if there’s also an actual Media Center PC on the network.” He follows that up by saying, “This is genius, and the best example of integration I have seen.”

This comment is one that can only come from someone who has lost touch with the common consumer. I’ve seen it before on various forums where people discuss TiVo‘s and their Home Media Option (HMO) which was a huge failure.

What he’s talking about above is the ability to use the Xbox 360 as receiver to receive streamed content from your PC. This viewpoint is lacking in so many ways that it would take an entire new post just to cover all the issues. First of all, this is nothing new. This approach has been around for years. I’ve been doing this (and more) on my current Xbox. Second, he makes no mention of the fact that the current design requires you to have a PC that’s running Windows Media Center as the server. There’s no reason why any operating system shouldn’t suffice.

However, the biggest disconnect is in the entire concept. Think about virtually anyone you know who isn’t a technology nut. Then re-read that comment and think about what it’s really saying. In other words, John Dvorak thinks it’s genius that in order to play music in your family room, this person should have an Xbox 360 hooked up to a stereo receiver, hooked up to a TV and all of that is connected to a wired or wireless network running off of a PC running Windows Media Center and a server applet that all needs to be set up, maintained, understood and powered on just for this person to play a simple song. In what world is that a genius approach? Only in the world of someone who spends their days far away from interfacing with regular consumers.

One of the amazing things about TiVo that even the TiVo people forgot is that it represented the first successful media device that people put in their family rooms and left powered on 24/7 on purpose. That was the goal of media companies for decades and TiVo made it happen. Then they got side-tracked by listening to technology pundits and the most vocal forum posters (also technology buffs) and concluded that their upcoming media option should stream non-TV data from another device. Think about that. They believe TV data should be stored on the TiVo, but music, photos and any other media should be streamed in from your PC. Why?

The beauty of a media center is that it’s a media CENTER. The average consumer is more interested in a single location device that stores everything on it and serves up the data right there. TiVo should have realized this because their own concept of recording TV had been around forever with few takers until they brought it into the family room with a simple intuitive device. Back to John Dvorak’s comment — A good media center should operate as a good media center, period. How would it sound to say “This car engine works great as long as it’s in a car with another engine for it to work alongside.” Sort of redundant isn’t it?

The bottom line is that consumers need to be aware of the various factors that mold the reviews and commentary that they encounter daily. Bias inevitable enters a huge percentage of them and, most likely, a majority of them. So what do I ironically recommend? The best thing you can do is to never buy anything based on a single review. Reach out and search for many trusted reviews and, if possible, talk to actual consumers who own the product in question. No approach is perfect but when it comes to product research, the more data the better the results.

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