Comment: Watching the Watchdog – Tim Lucas and The Spiderbaby Scandal

Tim Lucas is a man who has the well earned respect of nearly everyone you would care to name in the field of genre journalism. As the editor of Video Watchdog, Lucas led the charge in bringing real academic film analysis to genre cinema and as such his reputation and accomplishments loom large. For a writer, to be published by Lucas and to enjoy the stellar bona fides that come with the name Video Watchdog is an enormous privilege.

Unfortunately one of his writers abused that privilege in the worst way a writer can. Lianne Spiderbaby was caught red-handed in not just one instance but a scandalous string of plagiarism that touched every aspect of her career. As one of the key minds behind a more rigorous genre press many waited for Lucas to react with great anticipation. Surely there had to be some explanation for all this?

His actual reaction drew international ire. Originally posted online at the Latarnia forums – an internet gathering-place for horror media types – Lucas scrubbed the comment after overwhelming negative response that made his reaction a key component of the story when it eventually hit Gawker and then the mainstream press.

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He posted after the removal:

I have removed my original post in this thread. I can’t very well remove the excerpts which others have quoted and responded to, but it should be known that I no longer stand by what I posted here. Though I meant well, it’s now obvious to me that I entered the fray armed with more trust than fact, and I now regret this. I have made a statement on Video WatchBlog, and that is what I will stand by.

You can read the full text of his Video WatchBlog posting here.

It was early in the scandal, one might be excused for not having all the facts and the wounds of the whole thing were fresh. More interesting then are the editorial statements from issue #175 – published well after the scandal and fallout. In theory they should represent a more mature understanding and perspective on the situation. With time to fully consider what happened and to see the full scope of the scandal unfurled you might think Lucas would have a more nuanced view. Some highlights and commentary follow.

Various online forums and discussion boards were able to trace portions of Lianne’s work for FANGORIA. FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and the website Fearnet to bases in other printed and online work. and the chain of infection even-tually led to her article on Pedro Almodovar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN (VIDEO WATCHDOG I70). which was found to contain cribbings from writers Laura Mulvey and Shawn Levy.

Not off to a bad start.

Needless to say. had we known this. or that her most recent article ”Emmanuelle el Emanuelle” (VW I74) was similarly compromised. neither would have been accepted for publication.

Nothing controversial yet. Nobody seriously believes Tim Lucas would knowingly publish stolen material. Not with the reputation for integrity he has worked hard to cultivate.

His decision to omit some information here is interesting though, not because the information isn’t relevant but because the information is somewhat unflattering. You see, Lucas had previously acknowledged that the Skin I Live In article she wrote was compromised but she had promised him the Emmanuelle piece was legitimate. He says it right in the post he deleted at Latarnia:

As for the upcoming EMMANUELLE feature, our associate editor John Charles ran it through Google to see if anything too similar showed up and found only two short instances of similarity to online sources…

Lianne did confirm for me today that the EMMANUELLE piece is entirely her own writing. She is proud of it and I am proud to be presenting it.

So did John Charles miss something? Why not address this? Lucas laments the state of internet journalism and the dilution of professionalism but it strikes me that internet journalism is the only thing that brought these issues to light and presented a well-researched and accurate accounting of the extent of the plagiarism. I don’t see Lucas and the supposed “professionals” stepping in to lend a hand.

What’s done is done. and all we can really do is apologize to our readers and to Lianne’s uncredited sources.

Is that all you can think of doing? Again, from a journalistic perspective there are a bunch of threads here you could pick up and pursue. Lucas, by contrast, wants to close the case. Maybe you could run a series of blogs on the issues raised by the scandal? Maybe you could share some of the changes you’ve made to ensure this doesn’t happen again? I’m sceptical that one of the leading “journalistic” minds on the scene couldn’t imagine there was a story here that could be told and perhaps try to right some industry wrongs. Lucas is no fool.

“I apologize for the plagiarism in my work. l am leaving journalism behind for awhile. l‘m so very sorry to everyone esp (especially) those l‘ve wronged.”

She posted this confession and apology in a prompt and timely fashion. However, by admitting her wrong-doing, by subsequently removing her appropriations from online display and by suddenly withdrawing her online presence (website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Lianne was widely perceived as depriving those whom she had wronged the opportunity of a public shaming.

Now Lucas shifts the gears from self-serving omissions and into omissions and contortions designed to shame the critics into silence. The rhetorical tactics on display here are transparent when you understand what really happened.

Yes, Lianne posted the apology on Twitter. She did so after begging everyone she knew not to run the story of her theft. She did so after allegedly (according to several sources close to the scandal) attempting to lay blame at the feet of a 17 year old intern she had recently taken on. She did so only after Mike White exposed the story and it began to spread across the internet.

Then she posted this apology tweet and immediately buried it under dozens of retweets of almost random celebrity accounts. She promptly shuttered her blog and the day after her apology she scuttled her Twitter account as well.

I get wanting to get out of the spotlight when the news is really bad for you. I understand her just wanting this to go away. I also understand that if this was a real act of contrition it would have been something she stood behind, not something she immediately attempted to hide and pretend never happened. Posting images of her fun-time life in LA during the same period did very little to convince anyone she was truly sorry.

If you read the Tim Lucas account of events though, she apologized and then removed herself from the internet. No mention of the comeback attempts. No mention of the tweet burial. His editorial makes you think her apology something very different than what it was – a cynical exercise by a desperate manipulator.

Lucas also takes the time again to chastise anyone who wanted to voice criticism or use the scandal to raise issues of ethics and integrity in genre media and suggest that all that was wanted was some vile public shaming. I don’t think he could have possibly read the mood more wrong.

I do recall some vile comments during the outbreak. There were definitely people taking too much joy in her downfall and making awful comments who likely wanted to drag out the personal humiliation of Spiderbaby as long as possible. I concede that sentiment was out there – but it was such a small fraction of the response. It also shouldn’t invalidate the legitimate issues.

Overwhelmingly though the sentiment was disgust and anger. People were upset that they saw the game really was rigged – someone had risen to the top but they cheated every step of the way. There was outrage that largely unpaid writers were stolen from and that she not only profited from that stolen work – she won awards for it. It upset a sense of justice in people to discover so many of their favourite writers were not being paid by their favourite outlets while a thief commanded good rates and got into more and more publications. They asked how such prolific theft could have gone unnoticed by professional editors for so long.

These are all questions that should be asked and answered in a healthy media environment. That Lucas makes no concessions to the legitimate criticism – he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge it exists – or attempt to address it is concerning.

Everything so far has been better than his past comments, but not without issues. This next passage is where Lucas shows how little his thinking has progressed.

It’s an uncomfortable question for some. pundits as well as victims. but who is really most damaged by acts of plagiarism. the plagiarist or the plagiarized? The publisher or the reader? The original writer, however annoyed they may rightly be, survives this abuse with their properties, copyright and good name intact: the plagiarist, on the other hand, once caught, loses their integrity, their hireability, and forfeits a reputation and friendships years in the building.

This is hyperbole but go ahead and replace plagiarism with rape. Go ahead. Read it again that way.

Making the perpetrator the victim isn’t exactly the right move morally here and I’m baffled at the contortions Lucas has to bend himself into in order to present an argument so prima facie absurd.

I’m sure the original writers are feeling so much better that they retain their copyrights – copyrights rendered useless by thieves like Spiderbaby who has already taken the money made from the article – to the articles they largely never received a dime for in the first place. I bet the knowledge that their name remains “good” is comforting – that many have only the tiniest fraction of the “name” Spiderbaby had gained through ripping off their work is of minor consequence I’m sure.

Yes, the original writers get all the comfort of knowing someone else was made famous and got to enjoy a kind of lifestyle most human beings can only imagine in their wildest fantasies on the fruits of their labours. The warm fuzzy feeling that none of the people who profited have offered them more than passing platitudes and absurd requests that they consider the losses of the person who stole from them as somehow greater.

Well that’s all very nice but Lianne Spiderbaby took their talent and got something for it many of them could not – an actual paycheck and a wide fan base. If you want to do something for these people how about you start by paying them something? You profited from their work – maybe you can throw them something? Maybe you can demand Spiderbaby return any money she received from Video Watchdog and distribute that among the victims? Maybe you could use the major audience of Video Watchdog to call attention to the writers who actually did the work?

The final paragraph is really where I have to wonder what has happened to Tim Lucas. How is it possible that this great mind and powerful voice in the industry can sink to this:

Of course this is an outrage to those who were ripped off, writers and publishers alike, but it is not their tragedy. The tragedy is Lianne’s, though
shared—in an altogether different way—by those sometimes anonymous people who feel justified in tieing weights to the ankles of persons who, professionally speaking, have already hanged themselves.

How many paragraphs has Lucas devoted to shaming people who want to talk about the scandal now? Because as long as it’s more than zero it’s more paragraphs than he’s devoted to speaking to any of the various issues people actually raised in the days and weeks that followed the scandal.

Lucas has a fascinating sense of what tragedy is. If you read his account you might think Lianne Spiderbaby was a talented up-and-coming writer who had strong credentials and a portfolio of strong, proven work who rose too far too fast and succumbed to vanity and the pressure to succeed by fudging a few articles here or there. That sounds like a classic tragedy to me.

Sadly, that isn’t the story of Lianne Spiderbaby and Lucas should have known this very well by the time this editorial was going to print. Far from being a stumbling block in an otherwise unblemished career – plagiarism was discovered in every instance of her work for her entire career. From her articles to the monologues in her Fright Bytes web series and even an ad for her tutoring services – all were utterly and thoroughly tainted by theft. This was no fall from grace – there was no grace to begin with. This was a cynical, calculated attempt to cheat ones way to the top of an industry. I fail to see the tragic consequences for Spiderbaby here.

Tragic is the writers who toil in obscurity to create original work who can’t manage to squeeze a nickel out of publications only to find their work stolen for profit by an arch-poseur and the very publications they dream of finding a home in reaping the rewards. That is tragic, Mr. Lucas.

Tragic is editors who cynically publish the work of a charming hack because she can bring an audience. Why didn’t they care enough to see the flaws and failings in her work? Why didn’t that stop them from publishing her? The media marketplace right now is very tough – it’s understandable that publications want to bring people on who can put eyeballs on pages or screens – but couldn’t a smart guy like Lucas see the obvious pitfalls in valuing marketing and hype over quality work?

It’s hard to read these words and imagine they come from someone as respected as Lucas. One has to wonder why he is so insistent everyone just move on and stop digging into these issues? I also find myself puzzled at how wilfully deceptive Lucas is willing to be about the circumstances of the Spiderbaby case – his impression omits and diminishes the facts at every turn. Lucas knew by this point her theft was not an aberration but rather the hallmark of an entire career of amoral and manipulative abuse of a broken industry. So why does he minimize everything?

Could it be that Tim Lucas just wants all this to go away? Is it possible that a man who took a watchdog as the namesake of his publication is now turning tail on accountability?

I invite Tim Lucas to let us know the answers. La Politique Psychotronique is ready for an interview on this any time Mr. Lucas would like to join the real conversation about Spiderbaby and not the strawman that resides in his editorials.

Note: A reader has pointed out that Spiderbaby almost certainly did not get rich from her writing and pointed out that my article makes it appear that way. It’s more than a fair point because it is without question true. By all estimates she was paid a relative pittance when she got to the point where she could demand compensation. The point being illustrated here is that she was paid at all – unlike many of those she stole from – and that she used the writing career to further a life of privilege most cannot fathom. Nobody is getting rich in the writing game these days.

 

 


Comments

Comment: Watching the Watchdog – Tim Lucas and The Spiderbaby Scandal — 6 Comments

  1. Sorry, did you not plagiarize the word “Psychotronic” in relation to genre media from its creator Michael Weldon? Perhaps you didn’t research your branding very carefully. Or maybe you paid Michael a licensing fee?

  2. Editors Note: Please see our About section where the site is dedicated to Michael Weldon.

    http://www.psychotronique.anidealforliving.com/about/

    We leave readers to judge the charge of “plagiarism” here, including the notion you can plagiarize a single word which has become part of the common vernacular. This comment section belongs to readers and we want to interfere as little as possible so tell us what you think.

    If Michael Weldon takes issue with our use of a term he appropriated himself and became part of the genre lexicon after the landmark publication of Psychotronic Video magazine I’m sure he will be in contact.

  3. Pingback: The Death of a Disco Dancer – Interview With the Anonymous Source That Caught Spiderbaby | La Politique Psychotronique

  4. Some may consider this topic a dead horse. However, since I’m behind the times & only recently caught up on all this, I’m glad to see a blog exists where someone is dealing with the issue of ACCOUNTABILITY. FYI, I’m not involved in journalism or a creator, just a horror consumer who occasionally reads Rue Morgue & Video Watchdog. I learned about the issue through Mr. Lucas’ editorial when the latest VW arrived in the mail.

    Then Google led me to the various forums where the plagiarism was being discussed, and to the episode of The Cutting Room podcast in which you were interviewed, Dave. It sounds like this whole issue has really caused you to question your reality! I, for one, am glad that someone is continuing to ask the questions. As a humble horror consumer who lives by the motto “Give Credit Where Credit Is Due,” it doesn’t feel to me like the issue has been given a satisfactory probing. Yes, it received *attention*, but a lot of that attention wasn’t particularly thoughtful. The only outlet that addressed the issue in a satisfactory manner, IMO, was the editorial in Rue Morgue.

    As for Video Watchdog… rather than brush it under the rug, I think the plagiarism issue would make for a great Roundtable discussion. However unlikely that may be! I would love to read a Roundtable discussion between you Dave, Tim Lucas, Mike White, Chris Alexander…

    But seriously, up until now the issue seems to have been fragmented across social media outlets. I look forward to this blog continuing to defrag the fragmentation. Keep it up, Dave.

  5. Interesting study in compare/contrast:

    Tim Lucas, 2005. Re: “Dark Side Accused of Plagiarism.”
    [quote]”… our investigations did reveal the disturbing fact that many of the so-called ‘ripped off’ reviews can be found on a number of different sites under a number of different names… showing that there’s plenty of this sort of thing going on among the netheads!”

    I can’t imagine anyone reading the above who would not take deep offence. Excuse me: “so-called ‘ripped off’ reviews”? (Is he actually suggesting otherwise?) As for “our investigations,” it sounds like these amounted to no more than him looking around online for excuses, and looking around online is exactly how THE DARK SIDE got into this mess in the first place! The Internet can be (and often is) a cesspool of anonymous, thieving, slandering misbehavior; this doesn’t give anyone free license to behave as disreputably in a print publication, where different rules and traditions should and do apply.

    There are actually some sound reasons why a reviewer’s work may turn up in multiple places online. For example, Amazon.com has a Top reviewer named Harriet Klausner whose reviews appear on literally dozens, maybe hundreds, of different review sites of different names, but Ms. Klausner’s name is always on the byline. You won’t find this out by Googling, which would show only the shared text; only by actually visiting the site will you see her byline. This sort of thing is not uncommon, I suppose, but nor is it done without the author’s awareness or consent.

    By the same token, it’s true there have been cases of people taking critical remarks posted on various boards online and posting them under their own bylines as Amazon.com reviews. But because such transgressions occur online, does that make them an acceptable or defensible journalistic standard?

    As Mirek’s research has shown, the DARK SIDE plagiarisms run into significantly more examples than just “a few.” They also predate Mr. Bryce’s “Gordon Booker” scapegoat. Short of accepting responsibility and stepping down from one’s post, the only reasonable reply to such abuse of the public trust (in this case, THE DARK SIDE’s readership and fandom in general) would be to at least make a show of contrition, however phony. Instead, this editorial chases its own buried apology with a chuckle of embarrassment as it rushes to pass the buck of blame — back to the source that was raided in the first place.[/quote]
    [url]http://monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com/reply/139831/Dark-Side-accused-of-plagiarism-Continued#reply-139831[/url]

  6. Interesting study in compare/contrast:

    Tim Lucas, 2005. Re: “Dark Side Accused of Plagiarism.”
    “”… our investigations did reveal the disturbing fact that many of the so-called ‘ripped off’ reviews can be found on a number of different sites under a number of different names… showing that there’s plenty of this sort of thing going on among the netheads!”

    I can’t imagine anyone reading the above who would not take deep offence. Excuse me: “so-called ‘ripped off’ reviews”? (Is he actually suggesting otherwise?) As for “our investigations,” it sounds like these amounted to no more than him looking around online for excuses, and looking around online is exactly how THE DARK SIDE got into this mess in the first place! The Internet can be (and often is) a cesspool of anonymous, thieving, slandering misbehavior; this doesn’t give anyone free license to behave as disreputably in a print publication, where different rules and traditions should and do apply.

    There are actually some sound reasons why a reviewer’s work may turn up in multiple places online. For example, Amazon.com has a Top reviewer named Harriet Klausner whose reviews appear on literally dozens, maybe hundreds, of different review sites of different names, but Ms. Klausner’s name is always on the byline. You won’t find this out by Googling, which would show only the shared text; only by actually visiting the site will you see her byline. This sort of thing is not uncommon, I suppose, but nor is it done without the author’s awareness or consent.

    By the same token, it’s true there have been cases of people taking critical remarks posted on various boards online and posting them under their own bylines as Amazon.com reviews. But because such transgressions occur online, does that make them an acceptable or defensible journalistic standard?

    As Mirek’s research has shown, the DARK SIDE plagiarisms run into significantly more examples than just “a few.” They also predate Mr. Bryce’s “Gordon Booker” scapegoat. Short of accepting responsibility and stepping down from one’s post, the only reasonable reply to such abuse of the public trust (in this case, THE DARK SIDE’s readership and fandom in general) would be to at least make a show of contrition, however phony. Instead, this editorial chases its own buried apology with a chuckle of embarrassment as it rushes to pass the buck of blame — back to the source that was raided in the first place.”
    (http://monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com/reply/139831/Dark-Side-accused-of-plagiarism-Continued#reply-139831)

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