The Race for Traffic Breeds Questionable Practices in Journalists, Networks

Stockholm Syndrome refers to a psychological phenomenon in which hostages begin to identify with their captors. Although things aren’t quite that serious, the condition helps frame a strange dynamic that digital-age pressures and priorities have brought to entertainment journalism (including, on occasion, Variety).

Sift through tweets and peruse websites, and it’s not uncommon to see journalists sounding like cheerleaders for projects and people they cover. Moreover, the need for access to key properties that move the needle in terms of Internet traffic can subtly prod reporters and critics to inflate their importance, if only to justify the scads of time (one hesitates to use “ink” in this context) being devoted to them.

Case in point: “Empire,” a perfectly entertaining but really not all that distinctive primetime soap whose inordinate popularity came as a welcome surprise in network TV circles. Fox, certainly, has every reason to kvell. But based strictly on merit, would the TV Critics Assn. really have anointed the show “program of the year,” except for the fact that journalists understandably want to grab these Lyons by the tail and hang on for all that’s worth?

Entertainment sites have also become de facto adjuncts of studio and network marketing apparatuses by posting video and other promotional snippets, knowing that such material will attract eyeballs. As USA Today critic Robert Bianco asked via Twitter (where else?), “When exactly did we all become free promotional outlets for big media companies? You know, the ones that used to buy ads.” Small wonder some publicists now address emails to journalists “Dear colleague,” like we’re all part of one big happy family, only where some of the kids drive more expensive cars than others.

The evolving nature of these interactions, as well as the enhanced access and faux camaraderie fostered via social media, has bred questionable practices on both sides. While journalists sometimes come across more like advocates than impartial observers, companies that possess passionate fan bases and know it — think Marvel or Netflix — are prone to behaving arrogantly in their dealings with the press, seemingly well aware who has the leverage in their jockeying.

Obviously, nobody gets to be holier than thou about this, which doesn’t make it any less concerning. Nor are these scenarios confined to entertainment, inasmuch as those values have bled into related spheres. Witness, for example, Donald Trump’s off-and-on feuding with Fox News Channel, a relationship that has experienced more breakups and makeups than a bad teen romance. Ultimately, each side seems to tacitly recognize needing the other to advance their objectives, a sign of the symbiosis that creeps into these equations.

What’s changed most in journalistic circles is the ability of one-time print outlets to measure popularity in the same stark numerical fashion that TV does. Where editors once relied on their guts and judgment, with few other criteria to guide them, they can now monitor traffic in real time, creating incentives to chase those topics. Looking ahead, the mind boggles at the level of “Star Wars” trivia we can anticipate as the release of sequel “The Force Awakens” draws near.

In theory, there’s nothing inherently wrong in coverage yielding mutually beneficial dividends to reporters and their subjects. The caution flag should go up, however, when that turns into an ongoing reliance on franchises — in the way a series like “Empire,” “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones” lights up a Website — creating temptations for “I’ll scratch your back … ” abuse.

If rooted in respect, the adversarial give and take between press and the beats they cover needn’t be unpleasant. It’s only when it becomes tough to tell who’s on which team without a scorecard that an intervention becomes necessary. Or in extreme cases, a hostage negotiator.

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