Whores and the Whoring Whores Who Sell Them Out

Credibility in Criticism

For reasons defying logic, the role of film criticism has generated intense, steaming national debate this summer.

This, of course, is a gross overstatement, but one fully appropriate given the hilariously serious pitch of the discussion.

In the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein summarizes:

“The media have been full of stories questioning the relevance of print critics in an Internet era that has ushered in a new democratization of opinion. The prospect of babbling blogmeisters being the new kingpins of cinema has left many critics in a sour mood.”

Jim Emerson counters that these discussions are based on a false premise:

“This is that kind of story that is based on ‘overturning’ assumptions that never were. ... If you honestly did not realize how preposterously false the original premises were in the first place, then perhaps you’ll get fooled again into thinking the second non-story qualifies as ‘news.’”

Emerson rightly argues that critics have never mattered that much in the first place in the context of Hollywood movies and the general population:

“Reviews rarely keep people away from mega-marketed studio product. The studios do a great job of that all by themselves, without any help from critics.”

(For further reading, start here and here. I’ve written on the subject here.)

While it’s worth debating the aims and functions of criticism, there’s a larger issue that’s rarely discussed: ethics in entertainment journalism. Critics have a credibility problem, and I think it’s the primary source of their diminished stature these days.

Let’s start with Eric D. Snider.

Snider attended the press junket for World Trade Center, under the pretense of pulling back the curtain on the mutual masturbation between movie studios and the news media.

And yet:

“My friend couldn’t go on the junket himself because his newspaper, like almost all reputable news outlets, has rules against such things. It’s not kosher to accept free travel and other perks in exchange for writing a story. For him to go, the paper would have to cover his expenses, or he’d have to cover them himself, to avoid the appearance of ‘Paramount spent all this money on me and lavished me with gifts, so I wrote a story about how awesome their movie is.’”

The long and the short of it is that the author and his friend circumvented the ethics rule while violating its spirit.

This is a long and involved saga that unfortunately emphasizes Eric D. Snider at the expense of important issues. Snider has been cast as a martyr, but fundamentally he’s just as bad as the process about which he writes. To borrow his own metaphor, he’s a whore who wants the world to know how skanky his johns and fellow prostitutes are.

(Incidentally, I’ve been bothered by Snider since I first read his junket review. My gut feeling might have been justified. Equal time.)

The real issue? A vast majority of entertainment journalism is bought and sold. And it’s not just junkets for the latest blockbuster wannabe. Entertainment Weekly appears to have reasonable ethical standards, but its journalism model is premised on access, and its revenue model is premised on ads from the entities and objects about which it writes. The combination of those two things neuters the magazine and renders it merely a promotional tool.

And it’s one of the more upright citizens of a disreputable lot.

To return to film criticism, perhaps one reason that the ticket-buying public feels disconnected from newspaper and magazine critics is that they represent media outlets only marginally less compromised than Entertainment Weekly. They don’t pay to see movies, generally. They get special screenings. And they get paid.

Web-based critics might not write as well, and they might not have the film background of old-media scribes, but they’re more likely to share the common movie-going experience: waiting in line, paying for a ticket, etc.

And they don’t have nearly the advertising and access conflicts of interest that stain print and broadcast outlets.

D.K. Holm has a recommendation:

“I for one think that the studios should drop all critics and not screen their films for any of them. Let the critics pay and see the films the first weekend like everyone else.”

It’s an intriguing idea, but framed poorly. Newspapers, magazines, and television and radio programs should force their critics to pay their own way for movies, even if they later reimburse them. And they should hold freelancers to the same ethical standards as their staff members. They should develop ethics policies. And they should publish them.

These don’t address the fundamental credibility problem of advertising-driven media, but they’re a start.

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