Theatrical Fratricide, Prop 8 vs. the Arts, and Milk « PREV | NEXT »: At 17

December 5, 2008

Readjusting My Navel...

At the risk of annoying John further, I want to spend a bit of time talking about Roger Ebert's column on the state of film criticism from last week. It contains, among other things, a helpful list of departed movie critics. But it also offers this argument for critics in newspapers:

Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should "reflect the taste of the readers." My friend said, "Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald's?" The editor: "Absolutely." I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, "You are correct, sir!" A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.

Here here. Unfortunately, many newspapers have long ago moved away from offering this. It's now replaced by:

At one time all newspapers by definition did those things on every page. Now they are lascivious gossips, covering invented beats. On one single day recently, I was informed that Tom and Katie's daughter Suri "won't wear pants" and shares matching designer sunglasses with her mom. No, wait, they're not matching, they're only both wearing sunglasses. Eloping to Mexico: Heidi and Spencer. Britney is feeling old. Amy is in the hospital. George called Hugh in the middle of the night to accuse him of waging a campaign to take away the title of "sexiest man alive." Pete discussed naming his son Bronx Mowgli. Ann's jaw was wired shut. Karolina's belly button is missing. Madonna and A-Rod might, or might not, spend Thanksgiving together. Some of Valentino's makeup rubbed off on Sarah Jessica. Miley and Justin went out to lunch. Justin and Jessica took their dogs for a walk.

True. But so what? Ebert worries that:

The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.

Okay - I'm a huge consumer of news, probably more so than most people. But did I see any of the stories Ebert listed above? No. Yes there's a lot of celebrity news, and if you're looking for it, you're like a pig in s... er slop. If you read your news indiscriminately, you'll stumble over more than a little of it. Ten or 15 years ago this would have been a problem if you were interested in movie reviews.

But it's actually easier if you're a movie fan to read intelligent movie reviews now than it was a decade ago. I can go to and find 112 reviews of Synecdoche, New York, and get a much wider range of opinion and exactly the kind of provocative criticism Ebert cherishes. I can follow Broadway or the travails of the LA art world much more easily than I could before. Yes, lots of this coverage is still being published in the daily newspapers. But increasingly

 it's also coming from erudite blogs and other online publications.

It seems to me that this bluster about arts journalism leaving the daily newspaper is more about the crumbling state of newspapers and their reinvention than it is the disappearance of intelligent reporting or criticism. Intelligent journalism isn't going away. There's definitely a market for it. Newspapers are killing themselves as they take away readers' reasons to pay attention to them. Fine. Let's get over it and go to where the good stuff is.

Just before I started ArtsJournal nine years ago, I had the idea to start a TV arts magazine. It seems like a natural to me, and the format I had in mind had not been tried successfully. The premise was that if 60 Minutes (then the top-rated show on TV) could get people interested in tainted meat and auto safety, we could give a compelling sense of the world through a cultural lens.

I spent a lot of time talking to foundations, preparing budgets, and building support for the idea. Then a very smart foundation person asked me a show-stopping question. It's a great idea, he said. But why would anybody see it on TV? At the time, I dismissed the question. TV is a huge medium. If my arts show was a quality show, people would watch. This would give people good TV and expand their consciousness of the arts because it's interesting and fun.

But in the years since, I've come to think that what he was really questioning was the viability of the medium itself for such a show. Culture was not something people used TV for. It's not that they don't consume culture. It's just that they had learned to find it elsewhere - just not on TV. 

We make these kinds of genre choices all the time. We don't expect blow-by-blow coverage of Wrestle-mania in The New York Times just as we don't look to The New York Post for in-depth explanations of Wall Street's meltdown. Doesn't mean that compelling coverage of both stories doesn't exist in abundance elsewhere. Who looks at local TV news for what's really happening in your city? Only if you're interested in the fire- or missing-child-du-jour. And cable news? C'mon. Why should we expect any of these to be what they're not?

So our expectations of the newspaper have to change. Its position of authority in our culture is on the decline as its slavish pursuit of raw clicks drives editorial at the expense of news judgment. Will newspapers survive? Of course, just not in the form that we have been used to. And they'll have an audience. Just not the audience of those interested in what Ebert understands as the more important stuff. That meatier stuff isn't going away; it just won't be in the newspaper.

Ebert is frustrated because his newspaper-reading habits have been invaded:  

The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a wall

The solution is to develop new reading habits, find new places where the kind of reporting and criticism you value is flourishing. It's out there. More and more people are finding it. And then you never have to read about Suri's pants again. 

December 5, 2008 8:42 AM | | Comments (0)

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