July 24, 2006, “I Was a Junket Whore”: Fifteen minutes of Internet fame — oh, and it cost me a job, too.
This one earned me 15 minutes of Internet fame, but it had far more lasting repercussions than that: If it weren’t for this column, there is a very good chance that right now I would be the full-time film critic at a major weekly newspaper. Yep, this column cost me a job.
I had been freelancing movie reviews for Portland’s Willamette Week for several months when the paper’s full-time film critic, D., called to see if I wanted to go on this junket. It seemed like it would be fun to do once, just so I could say I did it, and I made the arrangements with Paramount Pictures.
My understanding was that I was going as a freelance writer, not as an official Willamette Week representative, and that WW would buy my story when I got back. The story would be your basic interview feature, incorporating the conversations I’d had with Oliver Stone and his actors.
Meanwhile, D. had announced that he was leaving WW, and the paper was seeking his replacement. The other writer who had been freelancing for them wasn’t applying for the job, which meant I was the only applicant who already had a foot in the door. D. indicated that if it were up to him, I’d be his replacement. He put me in touch with K., the features editor, and I went in for a job interview. It went well, K. liked me, I liked her, she was less interested in my past (I’d been fired from a newspaper a few years earlier) than in my ideas for the future, and things looked good.
Later that same day, July 19, I flew to Seattle for the junket.
A few days later, I published this column. Though “Snide Remarks” was available only by subscription at that time, I opened this one up for everyone, because I thought the subject matter would be of wider-than-usual interest.
On July 31, after it had been online for a week, the people at Paramount discovered it and immediately called the WW offices. They spent the better part of the next couple days yelling at D. and K. and who knows who else. Paramount’s Seattle-based publicists, Allied Advertising, got in on the act, too.
Now, remember: “I Was a Junket Whore” was not published in WW. I had submitted a regular interview story to the paper, as promised, and the junket whore article was printed only on my website. The people at Willamette Week hadn’t even known the article existed. I was not their employee. They had nothing to do with it.
Paramount didn’t see it that way, though. They considered me to have been on the junket as an official representative of WW, and thus anything I wrote about the junket was the newspaper’s responsibility, regardless of where I published it. Hence the yelling.
Well, that made things a bit awkward. Here I was trying to get a job at this paper, and now I’d done something that got them in trouble with Paramount. Not any real trouble — Paramount didn’t pull their ads or anything — but still, no one likes being hollered at for two days straight by angry film publicists.
The yelling that Paramount and Allied did had a curious effect: It led K. (and maybe D., though I was never sure of that) to believe that the article I’d written was somehow “wrong” or “bad” — at the very least, that I shouldn’t have written it. That meant there were now two entities in all the world that felt I was in the wrong: Paramount, and the people Paramount yelled at for two days. Everyone else seemed to think that while maybe it wasn’t very nice to go on Paramount’s junket and then make fun of it, it certainly wasn’t unethical or dishonest of me to write it.
Paramount had never said, “You can come on the junket, but you have to promise only to write about the interviews!” They hadn’t told me, “You can only write articles for Willamette Week, and no one else!” I hadn’t broken any contract. I hadn’t lied to anyone. I did write the usual interview story, as expected; I just chose to write an additional article, too.
Paramount’s reaction was to ban me from its press screenings forevermore. Willamette Week had no official reaction at this point, except to indicate general displeasure and to decide not to run my Oliver Stone interview story. K. hadn’t decided yet whom she was going to hire to replace D., and they were still taking applications for a couple more weeks. I hoped the whole thing would blow over.
I also thought this: WW is an alternative newsweekly, supposedly a rabble-rouser and a trouble-maker and an “edgier” news source than the daily papers. (I’ve since realized that all this really means is that they like to use swear words.) Wouldn’t they WANT someone who occasionally raised corporate hackles by criticizing absurd practices? All that Internet attention I’d gotten for the column — wouldn’t they have loved for it to be WW getting all those extra eyes, instead of EricDSnider.com?
Anyway, on Aug. 1, in the midst of all the yelling and whatnot, I sent D. and K. this e-mail:
I just wanted to officially, formally apologize for the grief this Paramount business has caused you. I feel awful that it’s created headaches for you guys, who had nothing to do with it and didn’t even know I’d written it.
I didn’t realize on the junket that I was officially representing Willamette Week — I thought I was a freelancer, or representing my usual outlet, EFilmCritic.com — and while I didn’t think Paramount would like the article, I didn’t think they’d harass the paper over it.
I also understand your decision not to run a straight interview piece from me, either, and I’m sorry for whatever trouble that causes on your end, with scheduling stories and whatnot.
I truly did not foresee this level of anger from Paramount over the story, and I’m sorry it had a negative impact on you. I hope we can continue to work together.
Neither of them responded. Two weeks later, on Aug. 15, with the deadline for job applicants having arrived, I e-mailed K.:
Hi K. —
How’s it going? This is about the point where a job applicant sends a “just following up” message, to remind the potential employer of his existence and to make one last case for himself. But I’ve been worried that the Paramount unpleasantness has left W Week soured on me, so I’ve been hesitant to contact you sooner.
I hope all that business doesn’t paint me as a liability in anyone’s eyes. I don’t try to cause trouble, at least not the bad kind. I didn’t foresee W Week being the object of Paramount’s wrath, and I regret that. If the junket whore article was representative of anything, it’s my tendency to write things that get people’s attention, which (usually) is a good thing. I hope you will see this as an asset rather than a liability.
Anyway, let me know if there’s anything else you need from me. If you decide to go with someone else for the job, I’d be grateful for notice of that, too.
K. replied as follows:
Hello there Eric:
Thanks for your email. I will not be considering you for the Screen Editor position.
I think the choices you made in the Paramount situation shows a lack of understanding when it comes to editorial responsibility and what makes a critic credible. As the Screen Editor you would not only be responsible for your own ethical judgements, but you would also be making ethical decisions for your freelancers. I’m not comfortable with you making those decisions on behalf of Willamette Week at this time.
I wish you the best of luck in your writing career and enjoyed getting the chance to meet you face-to-face.
See you at the movies,
And that was it. No one ever officially told me they didn’t want my freelance reviews anymore, but I stopped submitting them anyway. They kept running reprints, though, for months afterward (they run mini-reviews for as long as a film is still in theaters), so my name continued to sully their pages and damage their good name well into December.
D. left a couple weeks after all this happened, as scheduled — and the paper spent two months after that with no full-time film critic before they finally found someone.
Just as a point of reference, here are two other articles that Willamette Week ran in the months after I proved too lacking in good judgment for them:
– They had a staff member lock up a bicycle in various places downtown, go away for a while, then come back and try to “steal” it, to see if passersby would stop him. And when not enough people did, the paper criticized the citizenry’s lack of civic-duty-doing. (“Steal This Bike,” Aug. 23, 2006.)
– They had a staff member go to an anti-war rally posing as a pro-war person, to see what kind of treatment he would get. He was not treated very well. The article’s message: Shame on you, Portland! Oh, and joke’s on you, too! (“The Anti-Protester,” March 21, 2007.)
Attending a movie junket and then writing an article about how the junket system is screwed up, though — that’s crossing the line.
All’s well that ends well, though. While it would have been fun (in some ways) to work full-time at a newspaper again, and while the money would have been better than I make as a freelancer, I’m happy enough with things the way they are. Life’s just a big ol’ kick in the pants, isn’t it?
Here’s to another, slightly less eventful, 10 years of “Snide Remarks”!