[Update: More ethical breaches involving Ben Kuchera have been added to the article here]
One of the biggest issues that a lot of gamers have with the current landscape of the video game journalism ring (though, some would prefer we call it the “video game advertorialism” ring) is the lack of transparency, disclosure and honesty. In fact, #GamerGate exists explicitly because of the unprofessional impropriety by select journalists who opted to run damage control instead of taking accountability for their nepotistic behavior and industry-defaming antics.
Before getting to Polygon editor Ben Kuchera, it’s important to first consider that the two biggest issues that kicked off #GamerGate involved Kotaku journalists Patricia Hernandez and Nathan Grayson. Hernandez has been noted for covering live-in roommate and personal acquaintance Anna Anthropy on several occasions, as highlighted in a very detailed and thorough account on Talking Ship.
Grayson’s indiscretions are far more serious, as he’s been tied to undisclosed promotion of his intimate friend Robin Arnott, and also found to have ties to Zoe Quinn since before their relationship allegedly became romantic in early April, 2014. In fact, Grayson was mentioned as far back as February of 2013 in the special thanks section of Depression Quest. Personal comments were also spotted between Grayson and the developer dating back to June, 2012. He also mentioned on January 10th, 2014 that he would be willing to “burn down” the gaming industry if Zoe Quinn quit the gaming scene. In the two articles he wrote for Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Kotaku, this relationship was never disclosed.
Grayson was also on the infamous Game Journo Pros secret e-mail list and was never reprimanded or told about the appearance of the conflict of interest that he created by being in a relationship with Quinn whilst failing to disclose that relationship. But reproach never came from the group because some of the prominent members of the Game Journo Pros were also either very close friends with or paying money into Zoe Quinn’s Patreon… but more on that later.
In any other respectable industry a reputable editor-in-chief would have suspended a journalist or fired them as soon as the public firestorm started when that Games Nosh article kicked off community rage back in August, followed closely by the subsequent measures by the powers that be to censor the whole thing.
In fact, one journalist was fired from the L.A. Times following the public fallout of a misreported piece that also involved the reporter being involved in a sexual relationship with a source. He used a similar excuse as Nathan Grayson, in order to cover his tracks, with the article stating…
“Felch also revealed that he had had an "inappropriate relationship" with one of his sources for the piece. He told the New York Times that the article in question came out before that relationship developed and that he didn't use that person as a source after it.”
Many have claimed that game journalism isn’t important because it’s attached to the games industry. However, keep in mind that according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ estimates the industry will be worth $86 billion by the end of this year. And just for a bit of extra perspective – even if you think the games industry or the media attached to it isn’t important, keep in mind that, according to Quantcast, Kotaku generates 9.9 million monthly uniques, nationally. The CBC, the mainstream broadcasting corporation in Canada, is only estimated to reach 7.0 million uniques between 2014 and 2015, according to their annual financial report. So even though the CBC ran a series of ethically inappropriate hit-pieces on #GamerGate, they actually have smaller national reach than Kotaku. Let me rephrase that: Kotaku has a higher national reach than the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Let that sink in.
Of course, Grayson being on the infamous Game Journo Pros meant, in some way, that he was protected, and protect him they did. Grayson has not yet once made reparations for the damage and publicly slanderous effects that the gaming industry has undertaken as he avoids taking accountability for his indiscretions.
But the same also applies to other former members of the Game Journo Pros. Conflicts of interest seem to be a recurring theme with many of them, some who were at the forefront of the attack on the gaming audience in the early goings of #GamerGate. This includes the editor-at-large of Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander, who was a previous member of the Game Journo Pros.
Alexander was found to show an air of nepotism to select developers within an inner circle, including those such as Porpentine, Christine Love and Naomi Clark. The last of which has recently appeared in an article on Gamasutra as recent as November 3rd, 2014 without any disclosure about the personal relationship shared with the individual. This kind of tendency was evident as far back as 2010, when a Babycastles afterparty was hosted by Alexander (which included the mention of familiar faces throughout this fiasco, such as Phil Fish and IGF Chairman and former Game Journo Pros member Brandon Boyer) that ended up being an article on the L.A. Times… no disclosure, of course. On September 17th, 2012, another article appeared about Babycastles, this time on Gamasutra; but as noted in a KiA thread, no mention of disclosure.
I did contact Alexander about one of the individuals covered on Gamsutra that could have posed as a conflict of interest, but there was a lot of evasion regarding the matter. In the end Alexander stated…
“I'd suggest leaving this one alone unless you know exactly what's going on and people are coming to you with facts.”
But what are the facts? The fact is that the Game Journo Pros allegedly partook in blacklisting Allistair Pinsof in 2013 (with Kyle Orland and Ben Kuchera playing pivotal roles in that scenario). The fact is that the members on that list either had direct influence or relation to blowing up #GamerGate into a global phenomenon by misappropriating their platforms to spread misinformation and narrative spins throughout August and September.
Kyle Orland started the group four years ago back on August 31st, 2010. The group was mirrored after Ezra Klein’s JournoList. Klein also happens to be Vox’s current editor-in-chief. Orland stated…
“JournoList, the inspiration for this group, was actually brought down when someone decided to reveal its private messages in a way that made it seem like a vast left-wing conspiracy.
“I'm proud that this list has existed for over four years now without anyone of our members violating the shared trust by spreading group messages to the outside world, as far as I'm aware.”
After Breitbart exposed the list to the public during the #GamerGate scandal as it moved through September, Orland made a public apology on Ars Technica, but failed to completely own up to the group’s role in the controversy, stating…
“Ars Technica management did not know of the list's existence, and while a few other writers at Ars were nominally members of the list, they rarely participated in discussions—and as far as I know, none participated in group discussions of Zoe Quinn or 'GamerGate.'”
It is true, the Ars Technica members did not participate in the group discussions surrounding Zoe Quinn, but did act on what Orland had mentioned in the group regarding the 4chan IRC chatlogs and the conspiracy theory surrounding them. This included one article in particular by Ars Technica culture editor Casey Johnston (who was also a Game Journos Pro member) that was steeped in factual misinformation and, in some cases, outright lies; much of it based on what Orland had propagated in the GJP. The article had to be amended following reader complaints to Ars Technica’s editor-in-chief, Ken Fisher.
Orland, despite knowing the facts of the situation, opted to have a one-sided hit-piece published on Ars Technica. This is the same thing that happened with Paste Magazine’s game editor Garrett Martin, who also opted not to run an editorial a year before that was pitched, for free, by Jordan Owen to work as a counter-argument to all the pro-Anita Sarkeesian articles that popped up during that time. Unsurprisingly, this was also an identical situation to what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Monique Schafter admitted to when confronted about the one-sided hit-piece on #GamerGate that blatantly ignored the censorship, collusion and corruption angle.
However, Orland wasn’t quite the big dog of the Game Journo Pros that you might have assumed. He may have had sway over the blatantly biased pieces about #GamerGate that appeared on Ars Technica, but it was Ben Kuchera who oftentimes took the role of the alpha dog in the group.
Kuchera had originally joined the Game Journo Pros on September 16th, 2010, barely a month after Orland started the group. He was one of the early, founding members. This played a pivotal role in Kuchera’s jockeying within the group.
In one conversation Orland admits that he only managed to acquire a job at Ars Technica as the senior gaming editor because of Kuchera. On December 7th, 2013 Orland posted the following message in the Game Journo Pros thread…
“Ben's move to PAR and his recommendation at Ars are pretty much the reason I have my current position,”
You see, this explains why Kuchera had such pull in the Game Journo Pros, why fellow member Ryan Smith was nearly kicked out of the group for snidely putting Kuchera in check on one occasion, and why Kuchera was allowed to bully Greg Tito in an attempt to close down the The Escapist’s #GamerGate discussion thread – a thread, I might add, that only stayed open thanks to a lot of intervention from The Escapist co-founder Alexander Macris, the same man who completely reorganized all of Defy Media’s ethics policies following the early days of #GamerGate.
Moreover, Orland joined Ars Technica back on January 23rd, 2012. He wrote, with great ebullience…
“Ben has left some incredibly big shoes to fill, and I hope I'll live up to his legacy of providing exemplary gaming coverage of the kind you can't find elsewhere.”
So where did Kuchera end up after helping give Orland a leg up at Ars Technica (a move that also helped Orland orchestrate biased and misleading coverage of #GamerGate)? Why, he ended up at the Penny Arcade, and following his exit from Penny Arcade he landed a gig at Polygon barely a month later, as noted on Game Politics (where the managing editor was also on the Game Journo Pros list).
Coincidence? Not at all. Why? Because Polygon’s editor-in-chief was also on the Game Journo Pros list, having joined on January 18th, 2012 . Also, Ben Kuchera was offered a place to stay from Chris Grant when he was in town, just earlier in the previous year.
Having a future employer on a private list of major employers from different tech and gaming websites also helps a ton.
Instantly people are probably wondering, “Was Ben even qualified for the job?” Possibly. “Did he land the job simply because he was on a private list, and happened to be friends with the editor-in-chief?” Possibly.
Being friends in the industry can certainly help in many different avenues, especially across the developer and journalist front, which is what Gearbox Software’s Anthony Burch admitted to, in regards to his friends from Destructoid helping out and reviewing his Borderlands 2 DLC. One of the people who reviewed Burch’s DLC was Destructoid writer Joseph Leray, who – yes, you guessed it – was on the Game Journo Pros list since October 8th, 2010. Let’s also not forget that one of his other friends who used to write at Destructoid, Nick Chester (now a Harmonix press representative), was also on the Game Journo Pros list.
Getting back on track… Ben Kuchera used his platform at Polygon to discuss subject matter from people he had personal financial ties with. Before Kuchera bullied Greg Tito to close down The Escapist forum thread about #GamerGate in an attempt to protect Zoe Quinn, Kuchera had written about Quinn earlier in the year on March 19th, 2014; specifically highlighting her game on Polygon in an article titled “Developer Zoe Quinn offers real-world advice, support for dealing with online harassment.”
At the time of the original posting, Kuchera made no mention that he had personal financial ties to Quinn. Yes, Kuchera pays into the Patreon accounts of various individuals, including Zoe Quinn and IGF judge Mattie Brice, amongst others. Following the rise of #GamerGate, Kuchera was forced to make the financial ties known; this looks especially bad considering that before #GamerGate was a thing, he could have continually used Polygon as a platform to enable nepotism.
[Update:] Anons from the /v/ imageboard also dug up some new information and ethical breaches by Kuchera. Back in 2012 Ben Kuchera contributed to a Sportsfriends Kickstarter. Kuchera’s name shows up on the backer’s list on this page here, under the “Sportsfriends Forever” category. Before the Kickstarter went live and before he contributed to the project, Kuchera previously wrote about one of the Sportsfriends’ mini-games called Johann Sebastian Joust, back during his run on the Penny Arcade Report in an article dated February 27th, 2012. Later on when Kuchera wrote about Sportsfriends at PAR, he revealed he was a $100 tier donator to the project. However, after PAR shutdown Kuchera did not disclose his financial ties to the Kickstarter of Sportsfriends when he wrote his piece on Polygon on February 24th, 2014. A common case of a lack of disclosure.
@EddieMakuch Yes. Full stop. You can't invest and then cover a company you have a financial interest in.
— Ben Kuchera (@BenKuchera) December 15, 2011
It was because of #GamerGate that Kuchera was forced to take accountability for his lack of ethics; it was certainly something that had gone unenforced and unchecked by the professionals in the Game Journo Pros. Is this really someone you want gate-keeping information and dictating industry trends? Someone who can’t even disclose the most basic conflicts of interest?
However, if you recall the comments from Chris Dahlen, a Game Journo Pros member, he was convinced that crossing the line and breaching the threshold of ethics was something to be determined by individual writers, even when an action that should require disclosure had the appearance of a conflict of interest.
But it’s not just about disclosure… sometimes it’s about what’s laid public and bare for all the world to see. Kuchera’s prominence in the Game Journo Pros could be owed to helping Orland land a cushy job at Ars Technica. However, outside of the GJP his attitude and impetuous behavior became infamous.
Kuchera tried utilizing his position at one point to get Eric Kain, from Forbes, pushed out of the industry. In a series of tweets – captured with commentary by Something Awful – Kuchera makes it known that he wants Erik Kain driven from the industry. Kuchera angrily wrote…
“When you post bad information it should hurt you. Your one job is to not do that. Fail, and it's bad news.”
So what about Orland approving Johnston to write a story based on lies? By that measure, they should all be out of jobs.
Kuchera also made it known that if he couldn’t get rid of Kain he would at least hurt his career…
“At the very least it's going to hurt his career, which is a step in the right direction.”
All because Erik Kain, mistakenly advocated the use of emulators. I asked Kain if he had ever managed to bury the hatchet with Kuchera, to which he stated “it’s buried enough.”
But that wasn’t all.
Breitbart recently did a piece on how Kuchera’s ill-informed report on allegations regarding Stardock’s CEO, Brad Wardell, contributed to the CEO’s harassment and public shaming, especially when it turned out that the allegations weren’t true. Some of the writers who covered the event apologized for writing articles without having the full facts, such as Game Politics. Kuchera, however, has yet to issue a formal, public apology.
Kuchera also attempted to get people to stop helping a fellow games reporter… Ben Paddon. Kyle Orland had made a comment in the Game Journo Pros about Paddon – someone who had become famous for railing on video game journalists – and posted something positive about him, writing…
“They’re” quite good? Yes, they are. Orland and Mitchell were the only two in that thread; Orland the only one praising Paddon. Why? Well, because Kuchera had a serious alt with Paddon over his blog posts railing on the incompetency of video game journalists.
At one point Paddon had fallen on hard times and was in a financial rut. He mentioned on Twitter that…
“I lost my job in 2010 and ran out of savings, so for most of 2011 I was surviving on donations from fans...I'd asked fans for help paying my rent. Promised 100% of the donations would go to paying rent. But my girlfriend at the time was sick, she needed medicine and we had no insurance. I ended up using part of the donated funds to pay for the prescription. I made a blog post about it, was very transparent about it. People understood.
"Kuchera's response, though, was that I was using the donated money to buy "luxuries" for my girlfriend. He also said if I couldn't afford meds or rent that I should go back where I came from. Classy guy.
“That's basically it. Before that, he was annoying. But that actively pissed me off.”
Well, what exactly was Kuchera’s response? Because most decent people would understand the value of human life; most people would understand such a predicament, no matter what someone may have said about them in the past.
Nevertheless, here is what Kuchera had originally said about Paddon when he found out that the money was used for laundry and to help a very sick individual…
I reached out to Ben Kuchera regarding his contemptuous relationship with Ben Paddon, as well as tweeted to him multiple times about his involvement with the Game Journo Pros. However, at the time of the publishing of this article, Ben Kuchera has not responded regarding any of the above matters.
Reputable journalists have been fired for far less, as noted on Knight Center. So what does that say about the people engaged in this level of cronyism who currently work as the gatekeepers of video game news, opinions and information in an estimated $86 billion dollar industry?
[Disclosure: I was a former member of the Game Journo Pros e-mail group]