Gerstmann was relieved of his position at GameSpot last Wednesday. Rumors immediately began swirling that he was fired in part because of his negative review of IO Interactive's Kane & Lynch: Dead Men (PC, PS3, X360).
At the time, publisher Eidos was heavily advertising the title on GameSpot. It was speculated that Eidos had pressured GameSpot parent company CNET into axing Gerstmann, a theory apparently backed by the removal of Gerstmann's harsh video review and an edit of his text.
Though GameSpot admits Eidos was upset by Gerstmann's negative review, the site states that its displeasure was "absolutely not" the cause of Gerstmann's termination, the removal of his video review, or the editing of his review text, citing GameSpot policy to "never let any [expressed publisher disappointment] result in a review score to be altered or a video review to be pulled." As before, GameSpot continues to decline to comment on the particular reasons for Gerstmann's termination.
"Realistic or not, I think readers should demand [a church and state separation between editorial and sales] from a publication," Gerstmann told MTV in response to recent events. "Some people probably think that's a little old-fashioned or hopelessly idealistic, given the changing nature of advertising these days, but there you go." His comments seem to suggest a belief that the editorial and ad separation may not always be at the level it should be, but that readers should call for it regardless.
According to GameSpot, the changes made to Gerstmann's review text were a result of a staff consensus that "the review's negativity did not match its 'fair' 6.0 rating," and to add clarifications about the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 multiplayer modes.
As for the removal of the video review, GameSpot points to what it calls "inferior" audio and limited video footage. The original, unedited video review has now been reposted on the site "in the spirit of full disclosure."
Meanwhile, the disappearance of the heavy Kane & Lynch advertising presence shortly after the rumors started was "purely coincidental" as "site-wide ad campaigns automatically change at midnight" and the campaign ended on November 29, 2007.
Generally, I'm siding with the "advertising buys review scores" perspective of this whole debacle, but I'm unwilling to call it finished till everyone's told their side of the story in detail. I will take this as Gamespot's response. Gerstmann, rebuttal?
I don't think advertising explicitly buys review scores. It's more that there is an inherently co-dependent relationship between the gaming press and gaming publishers, and that can lead to fairly direct pressure and expectations. In a regular magazine or newspaper, all sorts of companies advertise--in gaming publications, it's almost ONLY gaming companies that advertise. That can be very dangerous, because the publications are completely dependent on the companies they cover.
It causes problems in regular newspapers as well. Huge amounts of their revenue comes from things like car companies which makes it a lot harder for the paper to publish stories about cars/pollution/etc. which would piss off advertisers and make them consider spending their money elsewhere.
I know this all to well myself. I was a professional film critic for two years (still the best job I've ever had). Every time you leave a press screening, there's a studio agent who takes your name, media affiliation, and wants to know what you will likely say in your full review (you have to send in your full review as well once you get it complete) to send back to the studio.
The biggest thing I started to notice was that the more I spoke my mind on a film I didn't like, the fewer press passes I would get to that studio's film. Certainly the seperation is greater and more respected in the film community, but those screenings, which are the lifeblood of the industry, are vehicles for the advertising of a film. If there's a grumpy critic who hates everything, he won't last long because he won't be able to review anything.
<self-promotion> I'm freelance now, and run a site at www.zerospoilers.com if anyone's interested. </self-promotion>