Ethics And The Audiophile Press

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Many years ago, when I was writing for another publication, the manufacturer of what (rumors had it) was the hot new high end product at the time, submitted one of their latest units for review, saying to the reviewer that, if what he wrote was good enough and if the product got pictured on the front cover of the magazine, he could keep the product for his own system.

Sound familiar? There's been lots of talk on the audiophile forums lately about what, if it's true, amounts to nothing more than good ole fashion' payola: You know what I mean: the old "I give you something; you give me something in return." As the rumor goes, it's usually a manufacturer offering to buy advertising in return for a good review. But, as just mentioned, it could also be a product that's offered, or a bottle of wine, a trip, or something else, entirely. It could even be the publication that's doing the offering, and the manufacturer that's faced with signing the check or maybe never getting his products reviewed at all.

The whole issue brings up lots of questions. I can't answer them all, but I'm going to try to answer some as well as I can. For reasons I'm sure you'll understand, I'm NOT going to name any names, but please believe me when I tell you that everything I say here is absolutely true and every incident actually happened.

Before going any further, though, to show you that the issue of buying (or selling) good reviews is neither new nor confined to the United States, here -- exactly as they were actually published, with no editing or addition at all -- are a couple of excerpts on advertising policy from a manual for foreign distributors that I first wrote nearly two decades ago.

 

The first might seem to support the idea that a manufacturer (or exclusive national distributor) might want to influence publications to its own benefit. "The decision to print a review always lies with the Editor of the publication, not the reviewer.  Unless the Editor approves it, and makes space for it in one of the issues of his magazine, no review will ever be printed. For that reason, it's obvious that you should make the acquaintance of the Editor, as well as the reviewers at any publication. That way, if the Editor needs some convincing to allow a review to be written or printed, you can do the necessary convincing yourself, instead of having to rely on your reviewer friends to do it for you. Remember that, because they work for the Editor, the amount of influence the reviewers can exert for you will always be limited."

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The very next paragraph, however, sets the limits on just how far an attempt to influence a publication can go: "Never, ever try to use the fact that you are an advertiser to influence the Editor in any way.  People in the publishing business are very much aware of the possibility for conflict of interest between the sales and editorial departments of any magazine, and they know that if their reputation for unbiased reporting is compromised in any way, it can hurt them badly. For that reason, every reputable magazine enforces a strict separation of powers and responsibilities, with the editorial department having near total independence.  Any attempt to influence the Editor by referring to your advertiser status will not only fail, it will also (by implying that he CAN be influenced), insult the Editor and eliminate any possibility of friendly future dealings."

Is that still true? Was it ever? Stories abound about the reviewer who bought his $35,000 speakers for an unusually special price or the manufacturers who found that, unless they showed proper obeisance (and possibly a dinner and a bottle of a suitable vintage) to a reviewer or editor, reviews of their products might never be written or published. There are also countless instances where products submitted for review have never been returned, either because the manufacturer hoped they might continue to be listed as part of the reviewer's reference system, or simply because neither party ever got around to asking for them or sending them back. 

Is this an indication that the system is corrupt? Does it mean that what you read about a product is not necessarily true, but could be the result of somebody getting (or, if it's negative, of somebody NOT getting) "greased"? Maybe, but I strongly doubt it.

Just as I did when I wrote those earlier paragraphs, I still believe that the overwhelming majority of the audiophile press and the people who publish it, edit it, and write for it, are scrupulously honest.

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The proof of that can be seen in what happened as a result of the incident of attempted corruption I used to open this article:  As soon as the manufacturer approached the reviewer with his offer, the reviewer reported it to his editor and publisher, and not only did the manufacturer not get a good review from the magazine, it got NO review.  It also had to make a written apology to the magazine and to the specific reviewer who had been approached.  And, in order to keep the whole attempted bribery incident from being printed as a feature article, the company had to fire its marketing vice president and its national sales manager. 

Offering bribes, advertising, or any other kind of incentive - especially product - to buy a good review is just plain crazy!  If the product isn't good, why would the reviewer or editor want it, or be willing to sacrifice his integrity to get it?  And if it IS good, it's going to get a good review, anyway, so why should the manufacturer or distributor offer to pay for what it's already going to get for free? 

Corruption is not only dishonorable and bad business, it also makes no sense! Don't worry about it; most of the rumors really are just rumors.


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