Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Complicated Deal: Reporting on the Stars-DOJ-FTP Agreement

A Complicated DealStill experiencing a kind of delayed amazement at yesterday’s news. I suppose after years and years of the bad, it’s hard to know how to react to something that appears undeniably good.

The agreement reached between PokerStars and the U.S. Department of Justice involving Stars’ acquisition of Full Tilt Poker’s assets, its intention to reopen FTP to much of the rest of the world, and the plan to refund U.S. players’ FTP balances as well as make those balances available for withdrawal by ROW (rest of world) players is easily the most positive development we’ve seen in online poker since Black Friday. Heck, it’s probably the best news we’ve had since the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 became law.

For many players the recovery of bankrolls long thought to be forever lost is the main reason for excitement. But looking at the larger picture, this turn certainly seems to help pave the way for a brighter future for online poker in the U.S. -- one that could even theoretically include PokerStars once again, although as I noted yesterday much will have to happen first for that possible future to unfold.

This morning I perused a few mainstream reports on the story. As always seems to happen, the imprecision of reporting on anything having to do with online poker -- not to mention outright inaccuracy -- can be remarkable.

The worst example of such comes in today’s New York Times where we find Michael Schmidt reporting “2 Poker Sites Will Forfeit Millions.”

Even the headline of that one is misleading. Whereas PokerStars will indeed forfeit $547 million to the U.S. government over a three-year period, Full Tilt Poker is mostly forfeiting assets, various “property,” rights, records, data, and so forth. Of course, FTP will also forfeit whatever its various companies have left in all of those many bank accounts they had, but I haven’t read any specific numbers stating how many “millions” FTP might be handing over. Furthermore, as the DOJ’s release spells out, PokerStars ultimately will be acquiring those “Forfeited Full Tilt Assets,” which means the headline sloppily simplifies the nature of the transactions.

The 'NYT' tries to correct a mistakeWorse, though, is the howler that originally appeared in the third paragraph stating “The $547 million will be available to victims of PokerStars activities and another $184 million will be made available from PokerStars to foreign victims of the Full Tilt Poker site.”

For one, not all $547 million is going to the “victims.” And secondly... “PokerStars[’] activities”? (Italics -- and the needed apostrophe -- added.)

A correction was later affixed to the end of the piece awkwardly clarifying that “an earlier version of this article misidentified the company that had taken money from the accounts of bettors and distributed it to its owners, according to court papers. It was Full Tilt Poker, not PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker.” However, the original “victims of PokerStars[’] activities” phrasing remained in the web version of the article until just a short while ago. (It made it into today’s print version of the NYT.)

There’s other evidence in the report that Schmidt probably hasn’t been on the Black Friday beat for more than a day or so, particularly when he leans on the “according to court documents” attributor to share facts that have been known for a year or more. But we’ll just shake our heads and move on.

The story also made the front page of CNN’s Money section late last night. There we read “Full Tilt... resolved allegations that it operated a Ponzi scheme,” which makes it sound as though all charges against the site and individuals associated with it have been dropped (they haven’t).

That story also originally featured the following picture as illustration...

Hey, it's all cards, right? So what if it isn't poker.

...which this morning was revised to this one:

Oh, right, right... this is a poker story, not blackjack.


Meanwhile Australia’s Daily Telegraph is reporting that “Online Poker Sites Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker Fined $700 Million.” No less than three errors in that headline -- not (simply) a “fine,” wrong sites, wrong amount. Please.

Mainstream reporting on the story isn’t all bad, though. Nathan Vardi of Forbes -- who has been reporting on Black Friday-related matters (in particular Full Tilt Poker) for quite some time -- does a good job reporting yesterday’s news while providing some historical context. He also looks forward a bit to speculate in an informed way about what the future might hold for online poker in the U.S.

Alexandra Berzon of The Wall Street Journal (who has also been reporting on the story for a while) does well, too, to present the salient facts in her piece from yesterday, although her headline (“Poker Site Pays $731 Million Fine”) also kind of glosses over things. I should note that having written for newspapers before, I realize in many instances the reporters don’t write the headlines for their articles, a practice which can often create unintended problems if those who do aren’t reading the articles carefully enough.

I also appreciate Ryan Faughnder of the Los Angeles Times starting his explanation of the agreement with the qualifying clause “In a complicated deal....” ’Cause it is complicated, and really none of these guys are going to be able to explain it all in the 500-700 words or so most are given with which to try.

It’s interesting to consider how even correctly reported versions of the story may not necessarily translate into “good news” about online poker for a mainstream audience. After all, regardless of how well or poorly the specifics are being related, the story essentially boils down to a similarly-themed narrative that (1) online poker is bad/illegal, (2) criminals were arrested for trying to offer it, and (3) criminals were punished and/or appear to have admitted guilt and settled their cases.

Those of us inside this little online poker bubble know there is a lot more to the story than that, of course. But it’s obviously still going to be a long while before online poker might exist in the larger culture as something other than “criminal.” Especially if the mainstream media isn’t willing to look at it specifically enough to describe what’s happening accurately.

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