Metabolife: Read This! No, Wait, Don’t Read This!

Chatterbox was intrigued by Bruce Orwall’s Oct. 6 story in the Wall Street Journal about how the diet-pill maker Metabolife International, Inc., was launching a preemptive strike against ABC News’ 20/20, which is investigating the company. As explained in the Journal story, and in a full-page ad Metabolife took out the same day in the New York Times, Metabolife is inviting consumers to view, unedited, the 20/20 interview (of which Metabolife, following an increasingly common practice, made a videotape of its own) on a special “screw you, ABC News” Web site. The stunt has generated scads of publicity in the media, and has prompted ABC News to make the blustery threat that from now on interview subjects will be forced to sign away their rights to make public whatever it is they tell its intrepid reporters. (How any interviewee who isn’t also guaranteed that the story will be a puff piece could possibly be induced to sign such an agreement remains to be seen. Perhaps those who don’t sign will be forbidden to take their children to the forthcoming Toy Story sequel.)

Chatterbox believes that sunlight is the best disinfectant for everybody, including the press, and looks forward to comparing Metabolife’s raw footage to 20/20’s segment whenever it airs. (It has yet to be scheduled.) Chatterbox clicked on to the Metabolife Web site to give his readers some preview of what the controversy in question is all about. Being only human, Chatterbox was especially intrigued by the Journal story’s claim that in the 20/20 interview, Metabolife’s chief executive, Michael Ellis, was asked

to address some embarrassing personal baggage: his 1990 conviction for using a telephone to facilitate drug trafficking, after he was arrested in connection with a methamphetamine lab that was operated out of a house he rented. Mr. Ellis received five years’ probation in the case.

But when Chatterbox actually got to the Metabolife Web site, he was confronted with an unbelievably complex “user agreement” requiring Chatterbox to promise in advance to eschew any “reproduction, broadcast, retransmissions, or nontransient storage” of the matter contained therein.  The Web site’s contents “are only for your personal, noncommercial use.” Hmm. Is Web journalism “commercial use”? (Chatterbox does get paid to write this column.) The user agreement went on to clarify:

[Y]ou will not access or use, or permit others to access or use, this website for (1) print, video or audio publication, broadcast, retransmission or any newmedia use [italics Chatterbox’s]. …In its sole discretion and in addition to any other rights or remedies available to it, Metabolife International, Inc. reserves the right to determine whether the User(s) is (are) engaging in Improper Conduct, [and] charge the Registered User (whose facilities or access rights have been used for Improper Conduct) an Improper Conduct service fee. … You may not download, display, reproduce, create derivative works from, transmit, sell, distribute, or in any way exploit the Site or any portion thereof for any public or commercial use or any news or media use without the express advanced written permission of [Metabolife]. …

The threat of litigation tends to scare Chatterbox out of his wits, and by now Chatterbox wasn’t at all sure he wanted to press ahead. Instead, he phoned Metabolife, which referred Chatterbox to its public relations firm, Sitrick and Co., where a senior associate named Julie Fahn assured Chatterbox that all the legal mumbo-jumbo “basically is just to make sure that nobody goes off and duplicates the exact videotape we have because Metabolife owns the copyright. … You can quote the transcript.” Fahn then passed Chatterbox on to her boss, Mike Sitrick, who repeated these assurances. “We’re not trying to take what ABC has done here and say, ‘NBC, you can use parts of Arnold Diaz’s interview.’ ” Er, why not? What’s it to Metabolife? Indeed, shouldn’t Metabolife be thrilled at the idea that NBC News would stick it to a competitor that Metabolife believed was out to get them? (Oddly, neither NBC nor any other broadcast outlet has requested the videotape so far; though Time and Newsweek received special permission to run photographs of the Web page in this week’s issues.) Sitrick responded diplomatically that “we are hopeful that 20/20’s newscast will be fair and objective.” To summarize: Metabolife wants everybody to see the 20/20 interview. But Metabolife says it will sue any reporter who tries to disseminate this information. But Metabolife says it isn’t really going to sue reporters who disseminate this information. It just wants to protect ABC News from its broadcast competitors. Or something.