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Freedom of Speech, Just Watch What You Say

I think it was poet laureate and musical rapper Ice-T who named a 1989 album, “Freedom of Speech … Just Watch What You Say.”  That seems appropriate given the story that wine writer W.R. Tish related in his email newsletter about his recent experiences on the Wine Spectator message boards.

Tish, in his occasional email newsletter from his web site, www.wineforall.com, noted a startling tale of being booted OFF of the Wine Spectator message boards for challenging the venerable James Laube.  Freedom of Speech, apparently, rings through the halls of democracy at the Wine Spectator offices as long as they agree with what you say and they are not challenged.

In the interest of fairness and balanced blogging, I will say that message boards are usually policed with a vigilance that would make an angry lynch mob in a dark alley look tame by comparison.  Usually there are plenty of rules, regulations and codes of conduct and while often spirited, most posters are sycophants to the people that run the message board.  And, finally, Spectator being a profit-loving entity (They charge for their online content, after all) can pretty much do what they want.  In addition, I can’t actually fact check against Tish’s account of the proceedings because, well, Wine Spectator erased ALL posts from Tish.

Now that fair and balanced is out of the way, I’ll say that this reminds me of the Presidential “Advance Manual” that has been designed to squelch any type of negativity or protest at any presidential speech.  In fact, it took the ACLU to get involved to even have the manual released publicly and even at that point it was heavily edited.  Unbelievable.  Excerpted from this Washington Post article:

The manual offers advance staffers and volunteers who help set up presidential events guidelines for assembling crowds. Those invited into a VIP section on or near the stage, for instance, must be ” extremely supportive of the Administration,”

To counter any demonstrators who do get in, advance teams are told to create “rally squads” of volunteers with large hand-held signs, placards or banners with “favorable messages.” Squads should be placed in strategic locations and “at least one squad should be ‘roaming’ throughout the perimeter of the event to look for potential problems,” the manual says.

“These squads should be instructed always to look for demonstrators,” it says. “The rally squad’s task is to use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform. If the demonstrators are yelling, rally squads can begin and lead supportive chants to drown out the protestors (USA!, USA!, USA!). As a last resort, security should remove the demonstrators from the event site.”

Advance teams are advised not to worry if protesters are not visible to the president or cameras: “If it is determined that the media will not see or hear them and that they pose no potential disruption to the event, they can be ignored. On the other hand, if the group is carrying signs, trying to shout down the President, or has the potential to cause some greater disruption to the event, action needs to be taken immediately to minimize the demonstrator’s effect.”

Ahem. Real democracy in action … for the people, by the people.  My point is that people in power positions—real or perceived most frequently do not like to be questioned, second-guessed, or challenged when they’re on the throne.  That’s too bad, too.  I’m not sure if WS and Bush keep company, but their sovereign rule, insulated from detractors, seems similar. 

Below is the entire story from Tish on his experience on the Spectator boards:

I got kicked off the Wine Spectator blog comments board this summer too! Yes, I am officially persona non grata, after responding strongly in response to Jim Laube’s inane two-part post about Napa Cabernet-maker Randy Dunn’s “open letter” to the industry regarding rising alcohol levels in wines (read more), particularly in his own ’hood.

I may never really know exactly what the tipping point was (perhaps it involved the word “cop-out”?), but basically I challenged JL and WS in general to take Dunn’s suggestion that alcohol levels be included in reviews. Laube’s second post, which referred to “one reader” (apparently moi) making that point, rejected the notion simply because alcohol-by-volume measurements by definition are imprecise. My point was: SO WHAT? The percentages printed on labels are accepted as legal data, and moreover represent the only concrete alcohol information we have at our disposal. I added that I thought the real reason WS wouldn’t want to do this might be that people would see a clear correlation between high scores and high alc wines. Duh!

In sum, Wine Spectator doesn’t like non-fawners bothering their thin-skinned critics. I had been an earnest contributor to the Spectator blog boards for months, and in fact at several points had had certain posts rejected—with explanation. I did not always agree (for instance, they nixed my comment asking James Laube to explain why he called Kendall-Jackson’s $100+ Cardinale a “Bordeaux knockoff” when it seems no more of a cheap copy than any other Napa Cab-Merlot), but whatever. On the other hand, when I caught James Suckling throwing around ratings like confetti, seemingly in conflict with “official” ratings of the same wines in the WS Buying Guide, the blog editors actually went back and inserted “(non-blind)” after each of his flaming numbers, to make the distinction obvious. Most important of all, I participated in the boards under my own name (albeit misspelled as Willim Tisherman) and never even once referred to my pen name, my web site, my past position or my current status in the industry; I was a subscriber, period.

I can live without being part of the WS blog boards, but the surreally hilarious part of my getting the ol’ cyberspace heave-ho is the fact that I have now been erased completely from WS blog history. ALL of my past posts (20+, I estimate) evaporated, not unlike the way Communist regimes used to erase all mention of historical figures they didn’t want people to read/hear/think about. I was told this total removal was a technical issue, not a political statement. Maybe so, but it certainly fits with the Spectator’s well-earned reputation as an 800-lb. gorilla.

Kudos to Tish for publicizing this little Godfather-like shakedown.  This is just a simple reminder to me that Wine Spectator, the 600-lb Gorilla to Parker’s Silverback 800-lb Gorilla, still isn’t in touch with the fact that the way to operate in an online environment is to give control over to the people.  They want to continue with their subscription model and rule from an ivory tower—it’s obviously working to a certain extent, but I wonder what would happen if they opened the gates to more freedom and less restriction earning some friends along the way and engendering some goodwill and, of course, some freedom … of speech.



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Comments

On 09/07, Jill wrote:

This isn’t just unique to the WS boards. I have been downgraded to “moderated” status on other wine sites, and I have had a board on a forum or two “locked” after I posted some dissenting remarks.

Personally, I have the ability to delete comments on our blog, but I only do so when they involve viagra, cialis and car sales (yeah, for some reason we get a ton of car sales spams).

On 09/07, Paul Mabray wrote:

I have seen the BBS’s and some of the challenges associated with “rules.”  These “rules” are often not explicit and moderated in a very aggressive manner.  They are very, very different than the conversations that occur on social networks like facebook or others and often seem more like a “clique” than a community.

On 09/09, el jefe wrote:

Well, from email discussion groups to blogs to full blown forums - these are all publications that are owned and operated by people and corporations that do have the right to decide what words and thoughts they want associated with that publication.  Just like a newspaper editor choosing which letters to publish in the opinion section, back in the day…

That said, I do agree that the right approach is to not squelch thoughtful dissenters. Just because you have the right does not mean you have to use it! Just like a smart editor publishes the best dissenting letters rather than ignoring them…

On 09/10, Tish wrote:

THanks for the coverage, Jeff. This is not so much a freedom of speech issue as it is about freedom of discussion. Wine Spectator has every right to exclude individuals from their proprietary blog boards. But I intend to hold them accountable by making sure others know about it. In the end, I still have a great deal of respect for individuals there, but the overall attitude smacks of America’s last great bastion for wine snobbery. And the Greek word hubris comes to mind when I think about their numbers-flaunting critics. Ratings are becoming more numbing and less relevant with each passing year. Smart wine drinkers are catching on to the dysfunction built in to the 100-point system, and the overall wine scene is improving for just that reason.


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