Posts about criticism

Who needs Borat?

Who needs a British comic to make fun of America when The Telegraph can find plenty of material on its own. See these two frightening slideshows there about religious nuts and nutty stage mothers screwing up little kids’ lives.

: And while we’re on Borat, I agree with David Brooks when he says that Borat took the safe route by not ridiculing Volvo drivers:

Cohen understands that when you are telling socially insecure audiences they are superior to their fellow citizens there is no need to be subtle. He also understands that any hint of actually questioning the cultural suppositions of his ticket-buyers — say by ridiculing the pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market — would fatally mar the self-congratulatory aura of the enterprise.

But I disagree with his argument that snobbery and mockery are in any way new forms of entertainment. Game shows are built on making fun of our fellow man from the comfort and safety of our own couches.

Criticism is free

The Guardian has taken the Comment is Free model and extended it to arts and entertainment.

That model: They take their columnists and throw them into the conversation (whether they like it or not). They add in new voices and opinion leaders from many different perspectives to broaden the conversation more than the bounds of paper could ever allowed. Then they open the gates to anyone to comment and converse, discovering more interesting voices. It’s a wonderfully rich and spicy stew. In a short time, CiF has become a platform for opinions and, like its foremother, HuffingtonPost, has been used as a place to announce positions (e.g., Jimmy Carter and the Euston Manifesto on CiF, John Kerry on HuffPost).

So now the Guardian brings this to arts and entertainment, which makes perfect sense. Now critics find themselves in the conversation . . . with other critics (formerly known as the audience). What’s so right about this is that the conversation is going on anyway; by helping it to come together, the Guardian puts itself in just the right position, in the middle of the talk. It becomes the water cooler. If I started Entertainment Weekly today, it would look like this, with links to stories, clips, sites, and more.

I can see this working beautifully in sports because, again, it only facilitates the conversation that is going on already among fans — and any opinion there is about as good as the next. [UPDATE: Proving once again that I am not a real man, I never look at sports sections and thus didn’t see that the Guardian had already put up its sports columns CiF style; thanks to the real man in the comments who informed me.] The paper becomes the pub. I wonder whether it might work in business or at least in market coverage — why not provide a place for the crowd to dissect, for example, the Google/YouTube deal because we are doing this already. And I think a variation of this can work in local, only instead of trafficking mostly in opinion, this becomes a means for people to share reporting as well. More on that in a minute.

Many months ago, I sat in the office of Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger as we talked about the extension of the CiF model and he drew a diagram showing the new relationship of the journalist — columnist and critic but also, I believe, reporter and editor — to his or her public. He drew a funnel with talk flowing in and out and I can’t recreate that now. So I’ll give you a very mixed metaphor: Journalists should no longer act as choke-points in that funnel but instead as pumps and filters, keeping the flow of opinions and information going in, around, and through — and contributing to and improving that flow along the way.

And that is the important thing to watch here: What is the role of the journalist in this new, networked world? Moderator. Enabler. Even educator. I think the Comment is Free model works beyond merely opinion and conversation as journalists’ roles change.

First, there is the informational role. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the journalists saw questions, curiosities, or misinformation swirling around the conversation and then went and fixed that with reporting: ‘Since you asked . . .’ ‘Here are the facts. . . .’ That is their first contribution. Of course, this is what jounalists do already: They report. I’d like to see the reporting and the conversation around it come closer together in the CiF model. And then, of course, the reporters aren’t the only ones reporting. This becomes an example for anyone; it empowers us all to go get facts, to improve the conversation, to make the crowd wiser.

Second, I think the journalist-as-moderator needs to be more of a magnet, to both attract and actively go out and find the really interesting voices and the knowledgeable experts and bring them into the conversation. Again, this is what reporters do already when they find the right people to quote. But now they can do more than quote those people; they can invite them to the party. And the party only gets better.

Third, editors should see themselves more broadly. I hesitate to say that they should edit and educate the crowd, for I can hear the crowd shouting back at me, ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ editing!’ But at CiF, when comments started to go wild, I suggested that instead of concentrating on the bad guys, they concentrate on the good guys and they found and highlighted some great new voices. That is one role of an editor: finding and cultivating talent. I also think an editor’s contribution to a conversation — as to an article — can and should be to push to make it better, to ask the right questions, to focus the narrative, to push for more reporting. That is how editors will operate in Yes, in this sense, we are all editors. Except I think what’s missing is for the paid editors to bring those skills to the conversation. And the conversation will be better for it.

I think that the CiF model is an important step on the way to networked journalism, for it brings together the pros and the ams to do new things together.

Critic, pan thyself

Bob Garfield gives himself a lousy review. Now that’s transparency.


I haven’t been a fan of Virginia Heffernan, The Times’ TV critic, but now she has done something to make me like her: She’s diving into online TV on her blog, obsessing about the lonelygirl15 series and whether it’s real or how real it is. She even appeared on On the Media this week to gab about it, calling it something to the effect of one of the most compelling TV shows going. TV explodes.

First thing we do, let’s kill all the critics

I’m finding critics so hard to take. And I was one. This Romenekso letter from Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer typifies the snotty, isolated, egotistical, haughty uselessness of them. She writes condemning star ratings for movies (though she gives them herself):

In 10 years of reviewing films, I never found a single colleague who considered stars (or 1-10 scales, or boxes of popcorn or whatever grading gimmick) to be anything but an abomination. They are worse than meaningless; they are dishonest.

The very fact these “grades” exist suggest to readers that there is some sort of objective standard by which any and all critics rate all movies. This ludicrous notion is so easily absorbed that even journalism professionals carp about “the critics” in the same way Fox News commentators carp about “the media” — as if there were a single, monolithic entity following some secret, authoritarian rule.

Even worse, ratings suggest that they convey information about the movies themselves. They don’t. At best they are no more than a crude shorthand for how much one particular critic liked or disliked the films. Four-star or one-star, ratings tell you nothing about why critics liked or disliked a film, or what they liked or disliked about it, or what qualities they value in film in general — the kind of information that lets readers judge a critic’s opinion on how it compares to their personal tastes.

Oh, ferchrissakes! She must think her audience — whatever there is of it — is a bunch of idiots who can’t figure out that stars are shorthand for the opinion of one person, the critic.

I started grading TV shows — which later became the critical conceit of Entertainment Weekly — when I faced a huge pile of new series one fall and wanted some way to help readers through it without having to plough through all my blather (though, this being at People, there wasn’t much of it). Fellow critics complained: ‘But they’ll read just the grades, not the reviews.’ And I said: ‘So? If they don’t want to read the review — if they really don’t care about a grade C Tony Danza show — they shouldn’t have to. They’re busy people.’ But McGurk wants to force her readers to read all her prose. This is why I say the critic is in danger of extinction.