Trickle-Down Stupidity

March 20, 2010

Ever since the exhausting, and mildly controversial, reports I filed on the twin Route 66 and The Fugitive DVD debacles of ’08, I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid filling this space with too many bad vibes.  Infighting among internet outposts is one of the least attractive components of the blogosphere.  It’s inside-baseball, it’s often uncivil, and it’s almost always a big waste of time and energy.

But some days, you just need to call an asshole an asshole.  This is one of those days.

The Home Theater Forum, for those of you who don’t follow home video matters obsessively, is a website that covers the content that comes out on video disc, and the equipment used to enjoy it.  It’s large and, by internet standards, venerable.  As the word “forum” suggests, the site is structured as compendium of conversations in which readers drive the discussions and contribute most of the content.  But, while the name is democratic, the management is despotic. 

For a few years I’ve been an occasional participant at the Home Theater Forum (HTF) – occasional enough to tune out the epic obnoxiousness of its founder, Ronald Epstein, and some of his moderators.  Finally, that obnoxiousness has caught up with me.

Earlier this week, I visited the HTF and left a few comments in its TV section, including one in a discussion of Universal’s donation of copies of the entire run of the fifties anthology GE Theater to the Reagan Presidential Library.  Reagan, of course, was the host of GE Theater.  I’m guessing that the tapes of the show were discovered (along with some other intriguing rarities, like the western Whispering Smith, which is due on DVD next month) during Universal’s inventory of what survived the disastrous, embarrassing vault fire last year.  This is what’s called a “silver lining.”

On the Home Theater Forum, I remarked that I’d like to see those GE Theaters emerge commercially, since the show was produced by William Frye (of Thriller), and attracted some talented writers and actors during its later seasons.  I also suggested that it might be nice if Universal sent another set of the shows down to Hell, so that Ronnie Reagan could see them again, too.

A few minutes later, I received a message from an Epstein lackey, Michael Reuben, who is an attorney.  (I happen know that because Reuben, in his HTF posts, avails himself of the opportunity to point out that he is an attorney quite frequently.)  Reuben, who is an attorney, informed me that my comment had been deleted because it was “political.” 

Now, I’m not sure that my kind thought for ol’ sweat-drenched Ronnie down in aitch-ee-double hockeysticks really amounted to political commentary, and I noticed that nobody saw fit to remove any of the tired political lies about Reagan’s legacy from the AP story posted (in violation of copyright, incidentally) at the top of that thread.  But, whatever.  Rather than argue that point, I asked Reuben, who is an attorney, what happened to the inarguably apolitical remarks I made about GE Theater.  Why had those been censored?  “Move on,” was the non-responsive response from Reuben, who is an attorney.

But wait – it gets better!  I also received a message from the Home Theater Forum entitled “Infraction Issued.”  Oh, no – an infraction!  Now, let’s see, is that more or less severe than a demerit?  When I posted my polite question about the deletion of my GE Theater comments, Reuben, who is an attorney, informed me that “the HTF Rules also prohibit public arguments with moderator actions.”  Well, it would seem that I just can’t win.

Hmmm … a forum in which talking back to the teacher isn’t allowed?  Wouldn’t a better name for such a place be the Home Theater Podium?  I’m expecting that the next communiques I receive from the HTF will inform me that I’ll need to cut myself out a dunce cap to wear while standing in the corner during recess, and that I won’t be allowed any dessert after dinner.

I have to wonder: what kind of person spends most of his time handing out “infractions” to other adults?  Punishing readers and commenters whom some of us bloggers would consider ourselves lucky to have?  And what kind of person would submit to that kind of treatment on an ongoing basis?  The ones who stick around seem to have gotten used to looking over their shoulders.  Moments after I loosed my little Reagan quip, I received one furtive message from another Home Theater Forum poster who urged me, with lots of exclamation points, to “watch out”! 

What mostly happens, of course, is that the people who have the most to contribute get fed up and follow the advice of Michael Reuben (who is an attorney): they move on.  I know, personally, at least a half-dozen knowledgeable historians, writers, or collectors who have left the HTF as a direct result of its draconian policing.

(Reuben, who is an attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.)

*

Of course, I have indulged in a bit of ill-tempered mockery here, but I also have a serious point to make.  The Home Theater Forum could be an essential resource, and yet it isn’t, solely because of the hostile, constipated, professional hall-monitor attitude taken by its leadership. 

The Home Theater Forum aggregates a lot of valuable information.  At the moment, for instance, there’s a very useful thread going about which of the many Spanish DVDs of older American films have acceptable transfers, and which look like mud.  But the unfortunate reality is that that kind of information always comes from the readership of the Home Theater Forum, rather than the management, which consistently takes an indifferent or even hostile attitude toward it. 

Consider the way Ron Epstein and company reacted to the June 2008 revelation that the original music had been removed from CBS’s second season DVD release of The Fugitive.  An HTF reader was, I believe, the first person to break the story anywhere on the internet.  Epstein quickly leapt into the fray – with a knee-jerk defense of CBS, before any of the facts were known.  When the chorus of complaints grew louder, Epstein locked the thread to staunch further discussion.  Eventually the thread was reopened, after numerous readers (including myself) complained, only to be closed again, for good, after the initial furor died down. 

In the meantime, the HTF moderators deleted comments directing customer complaints to individuals within CBS’s home video division, and banned members who posted them.  The issue that seemed to concern Epstein most was not the violence committed by CBS against the artwork under its copyright, but (quoting one of Epstein’s final comments on the subject) “the poor guy at the studio who fell victim to a rash of nasty e-mails.”

Is that really an acceptable priority?  A pro-industry bias makes sense for a trade paper, but for a public, user-oriented website like the Home Theater Forum, consumer advocacy should be a given.  When the HTF abdicates that role, it is worse than useless.  A first step in the right direction?  The HTF could stop treating its members like chattel.

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