A few personal observations and comments in no particular order:
1) Yes, you can tell PR folks just to send you the games. I've had this discussion with PR in the past and I'll probably have it again in the future. Most "swag" is crap, though t-shirts are useful for the gym. Getting the game early is always the most important thing.
Does this mean I've always turned down swag over the years? No. Most of it gets given away or thrown away (when I've worked at an office it usually went to interns, when I've worked freelance it would either go to Goodwill, friends, or if particularly valuable, be given away on one of the outlets I was writing for).
That said, I have kept a handful of things over the years. My favorite piece is a laser etched plastic block (like the stuff you can find in mall kiosks). It has the Vic Viper image inside. Was a paperweight that was produced for Gradius V on the PS2.
For the record, my review copy of Halo 4 is the standard edition. Which means I got the disc, the case and the 14 day live trial. There's not even in instruction manual in there. I'm playing it exactly like the vast majority of buyers will play it. ;)
2) Yes, readers are interested in this sort of thing. For Tolito to dismiss it as a non-issue is an error in judgement, IMHO. The story is not about Wainwright. Her actions are merely an illustration of what Florence was talking about.
3) Most PR and journalists are honest. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I've dealt with some of those exceptions over the years; the trick to doing so successfully is to never compromise the rules you lay down for yourself.
Some of the more standout exceptions:
a) I had a PR director from a major publisher tell me point blank that I should include a recommendation for one of her games in a holiday buyer's guide even tho I had yet to play it. Now this is from two generations back, so it is a paraphrase, but was basically "You don't need to play a game to write about it." I was surprised to hear something that blatant come out of someone's mouth, but simply reiterated "If I haven't played it, I can't recommend it." What's funny is that prior to this I'd been on something of a blacklist for having published a negative review a few months earlier (I was writing a newspaper column at the time) and hadn't been getting any review code for awhile. I figured that conversation would simply confirm my blacklist status. Instead, I got a surprise FedEx the next day with both the new game she wanted me to cover and all of the prior releases the company had never sent. My reaction was to laugh.
b) Some PR folks love to throw parties. While it can be great to see a bunch of games in one place there are parties that are useful showcases (games are organized, people are available to demo, answer questions, etc.) and then there are just parties. One company which tended to do the latter had a lull in releases one year and as such decided to scale back the parties and go with standard press demos (meet in a hotel room, get a game demo, etc.). After one of these meetings I dropped a friendly note to the PR rep saying how I appreciated the meeting and how it was much more useful (from my perspective) than the company's typical events because it was quiet and offered direct access to the information. I encouraged them to keep doing more demos like that. In response I had a nasty letter sent to myself (and the EIC of one of my outlets) telling me how I shouldn't be telling PR how to do their job and how a lot of effort goes into their parties. I have declined to attend any of their events since that email. I suppose you can call it a permanent, personal blacklist.
c) Lest you think it's just PR who have bad apples, I've had editors disappear off the face of the earth when it comes time to get paid. For a one-off piece it's not worth making a stink (and the cost in pursuing it is usually more than the check anyway), but it does happen.
Despite these, I always strive to not let it color my opinions of others. PR or media, I always assume someone is honest and truthful unless they give me a reason otherwise.
4) Metacritic's influence on the industry is stronger than many think. Why do you see so many sites run the same review for multiple versions (PS3, X360, etc.)? Because MC doesn't like it when separate, platform specific reviews are written by the same person. It's fine if the review text and the score are the same, but if the review text and score are different MC thinks that's a bad thing. From a media perspective this presents a conundrum for all but the biggest outlets. After all it's easy enough to have a single staff member play though a single game on multiple platforms and then write up the differences in separate reviews. Having three different people write up three different reviews not only takes up 3x the resources, but it also doesn't ensure a direct comparison. The fact that MC's editors are trying to exert this sort of control over how other outlets produce their coverage is scary.
5) Ubisoft didn't send out a $2,000 flag. Well, not on purpose. The promo flag wouldn't have cost anywhere near that. It makes a nice headline when people pay crazy prices on eBay and the PR team is sure to get a kick out of it because it means publicity for the game, but they probably spent less than $50 on the package.
6) Unboxing videos in and of themselves are not bad. I don't understand why they get traffic, but they do. That said, the reason Kotaku is getting flack in here for the Halo 4 bit is twofold. One, it gives the impression that Kotaku's EIC thinks unboxing a game console (and reiterating a bullet point from a press release) is more important than taking a hard look at the interactions between press and PR in the industry. Given the size and readership, they are in a good position to research such a story and put the proper resources behind it. The second point has to do with how it creates the appearance of a conflict with the stated gift policy. Tolito ran a story about the $300 Capcom Chess set in which he said he didn't want to use it for a contest and wasn't sure what he was going to do with it. For the Xbox 360 unboxing, there was no mention of what is being done with the console. In short, for a site that makes a big deal about its ethics policy of not accepting anything, these pieces give the perception that said policy is not all that strict.
And that brings us full circle to Florence's original thesis. Many of us in the games media are doing things that could be perceived as wrong/biased/improper even if they are totally innocent. That doesn't mean the perception is true, but we should all be taking a hard look at what we're doing and make sure we don't contribute to that perception. If we don't, we shouldn't complain when others assume that perception is reality.