Hey, guys and dolls. I betcha didn't know that bloggers are getting fat and rich from sponsor freebies and kickbacks. And with all the financial sturm und drang out there, there's no more effective way of shoring up the economy than to clamp down on this shameless blogger profligacy.
I jest, of course. But to hear the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) describe it, you'd think the blogger gravy train was right up there with, I don't know, creating fictitious investment opportunities, or selling criminally deceptive mortgages to unsuspecting (and mostly minority) home buyers. The FTC recently issued disclosure guidelines for bloggers: if you receive something free, and then write about it, you need to disclose that "material connection."To be fair, I really don't think the FTC is going after people like me, but rather bloggers who enter into certain questionable sponsorship relationships, receiving actual cash payments to promote particular products. (See this recent article in the New York Times for some perspective on the complexity of the sponsorship issue.) Quite a few media outlets have decried this move by the FTC, calling it "unnecessary and unenforceable" (Silicon Valley Insider) and a "mad power grab" (Slate).
Full disclosure, dear reader: I get free stuff. It's mostly theater tickets, but I do also get some books and CDs, some of which I then review on my blog. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. Although I'm not paid for blogging, I do consider my self a critic, and critics have received free merchandise since the invention of professional criticism. I'd like to think that getting a free seat for a show wouldn't influence my judgment. My tickets to Tin Pan Alley Rag, Vanities, and Kristina were all free, and that certainly didn't stop me from writing rather negative reviews for all three.
Starting in December, bloggers must disclose any financial consideration or free goods and services that they receive in connection with any reviews that they write. Fines for not doing so can reach as high as $11,000 per incident. So, yes, I will indeed comply with the new FTC guidelines, indicating at the end of any review for which I received a free ticket that I did indeed attend gratis. But, for me, I think the FTC has bigger fish to fry.
But, let me put it to you, dear reader. Would you second-guess the validity of a review if you knew that the reviewer had received a free ticket? Would you think of the write-up as somehow biased? If the answer is yes, then do you think about the free tickets that professional critics receive when they review shows? Do you honestly think that Ben Brantley and John Simon are pulling any punches because they nabbed a freebie? Somehow, I don't think so.
I do have to say that I sometimes worry if certain press agents will stop arranging free tickets for me if they get the sense that my reviews are always negative. I think that insecurity is a function of the fact that, as a blogger, I'm not very high in the critical pecking order. Also, as I get to know more people in the industry, and as show creators contact me after reading my reviews, I have run into some awkward moments in writing unflattering reviews for shows created by people with whom I'm, if not friends, then at least friendly. And now that I'm in my seventh year of teaching at the Boston Conservatory, more of my former students are starting to appear in the shows I'm reviewing. That hasn't presented any difficult situations as yet, but there's certainly the possibility.But I think the larger and more difficult question is this: is complete objectivity even possible in a task that is, almost by definition, subjective? Or is it simply a theoretically worthy but, for practical purposes, unattainable goal?