Fewer newspaper reviews, criticism erodes life of the mind

I saw a movie last night. It sucked. And: I read a book last night. It was great.

That’s the extent of my abilities as a reviewer. Like many of you, I know when I like something and I know when I don’t. But my ability to tell you, before you go see it or read it, why you should or shouldn’t is limited. I have no background in film history or criticism. I don’t follow film (or theater or modern pop music or avant-garde art) closely. I know a thing or two about books, but even there I don’t have the expertise to offer cogent criticism beyond those areas I’m supposed to know as a journalism prof.

When it comes to penning criticism of such things, I suspect many folks think they can do it as well as the professionals. Given the supposedly democratic, interactive nature of the Internet, amateurs like me can expose themselves to “art” and promptly go online to tell all who would attend why the author is a moron, the musician can’t play worth a damn or the movie doesn’t have enough car chases or really big explosions.

Professional reviewers generally work at newspapers and some magazines. A few are famous and highly paid; others are not-so-famous and generally toil in obscurity — except, of course, in their own backyards, where they critiques carry some weight.

However, it seems newspapers, ever mindful of expenses, are cutting back on reviews, particularly book reviews, an action one blogger calls “the new book burning.” (Hell, newspaper companies are cutting back on everything else to hold on dearly to their average 17 percent profit margin, so we shouldn’t be surprised.)

A May 2 New York Times story (TimesSelect; sorry) by Motoko Rich summarizes the trend:

The decision in Atlanta [at the Journal-Constitution] — in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage — comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year The San Francisco Chronicle‘s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.

But the reason most often given, according to LA Times film critic Richard Schickel, is publishers’ perception that criticism and review of all things artful can simply and easily migrate to the Internet (and, says me, not be a drag on the bottom line). There, they reason, any hack can write ’em.

It’s a mistake, Schickel argues:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Opinion — thumbs up, thumbs down — is the least important aspect of reviewing. Very often, in the best reviews, opinion is conveyed without a judgmental word being spoken, because the review’s highest business is to initiate intelligent dialogue about the work in question, beginning a discussion that, in some cases, will persist down the years, even down the centuries. [emphasis added]

I may not be able to write informed criticism of art of all kinds, but it’s important to me that criticism be widely available so I can read it as much as I can. Without it, I am missing a means to stuff my mind with ideas I have never considered before.

(Sure, editors could shunt it off to newspaper Web sites, but the withering attention paid to criticism and reviews will probably lead to fewer critics and reviewers. That means less material — even online — by the professionals.)

We grow intellectually by considering ideas previously uninspected. Good criticism, good reviews help us do that. We all need that growth of the mind. Society has become too dumbed-down for us to allow a decline of Schickel’s “intelligent dialogue.”

A dumber society has consequences for its members. Six years ago, Hoover Institute fellow Diane Ravitch wrote:

… [A] democratic society pays a price for widespread ignorance. … The Princeton Review obtained transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debate of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858. It analyzed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational level needed for a reader to understand a document. This test is ordinarily used to evaluate textbooks and other educational materials.

The results? In the debates of 2000, George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7); Al Gore spoke at a high seventh-grade level (7.9). In 1992, challenger Bill Clinton scored in the seventh grade (7.6), President George Bush in the sixth grade (6.8), and Ross Perot at a sixth-grade level (6.3).

Is that what politicians think of us? Idiots to be instructed in sub-teen language? How did this come to be? This country (and the world at large) has significant, severe problems that cannot necessarily be expressed in sixth-grade-level, 10-second-soundbite language. Yet the language in which politicians yammer at us — in their stump speeches and ads — treats us as if we are not capable of sophisticated consideration of those problems.

Collectively, perhaps, we’re getting dumber and dumber. But, more likely, we increasingly are treated as if we’re moronic lemmings incapable of creative, constructive thought. I’ll leave it to others to comment whether the dumbing down is a result of conspiracy, a dwindling lack of intellectual interest, fallout from decades of economic assault on the middle class, the collapse of the American educational system because of “teach to achievement test” mandates — or invasion of alien mind-snatchers. Pick your poison, please.

Newspapers and other media ought to leave reviews and criticism alone for the simple reason that they’re needed to engage us with ideas. Yes, I know, plenty of ideas exist on the Internet (Oy!) . Seek them out and determine their worth for yourselves.

But for the sake of protecting a profit margin, newspaper ownerships are taking a whack at the intellectual life of us all by cutting back on reviews and criticism.

Be mindful of George Carlin’s observation:

The IQ and the life expectancy of the average American recently passed each other in opposite directions.

Newspapers, which were given special mailing privileges by the Founders for acting as the nation’s educators, shouldn’t be party to accelerating our rush to intellectual ineptitude.

xpost: 5th Estate

6 replies »

  1. But why do we need a bunch of elitist eggheads telling us what to think when we can just have everybody vote on things?


    So here’s the question that I think weighs on me more with each passing day. To wit: are excellence and democracy ultimately incompatible goals? Isn’t intellectual and cultural leveling a natural function of true democracy?

  2. Shorter Schickel –

    The great unwashed public has no business trying to be more clever than I am,
    and just to prove it I’ll name drop some dead French guy they never
    heard of….

  3. Following your logic, Sam, wouldn’t that lead to surgery by anyone who decided to do it? Wouldn’t that be democratic? Why should some bozo who’s had decades of education/training/experience and experience be the one to operate on us? Why shouldn’t we just get the neighbor who’s a barber to do it? After all, barbers were once surgeons – why couldn’t they be again? It’s a free country….
    Maybe there’s a confusion of democracy as a function of political science and government under which all should be equal – and work, which is a function of those things I mentioned above – education/training/experience. The two are SEPARATE THINGS, dammit. It’s their conflation that’s got us into this mess….
    I think the problem is the attempt at the “democratization” of EVERYTHING ELSE is a beautiful cover for politicians – it dilutes the focus of the people (as in “We the…”) from the important issues of governance by making choosing the next American Idol or Star Dancer into a media event as big as the election of the leader of the free world. Or maybe that’s backward and there’s diminution of the importance of electing our leader to nothing more than selecting the next AI….It’s why we’re not seeing enough public anger about voting irregularities. They trust those vote counts on American Idol – why not trust those in FL or OH?
    You, Denny, and I could all protest as much as we want, but we’re going to be labelled elitist eggheads ourselves. This shows how badly things have devolved. When being an informed person with reasoned opinions puts you into a despised minority, things have reached a pretty pass.
    I leave you with this thought from Jefferson: “Information is the currency of democracy.”
    The less information we have, or get, the more “We the…” become what you see around you – and despair about….

  4. I’d personally love to see the levelers apply that logic to every facet of their lives. The fact that somebody has a PhD in history DOES NOT mean that person is smarter than they are – after all, they made a C in history in high school and can name at least half the presidents on Rushmore.

    We know this for what it is. So I’d love to see that philosophy carried over. Need a surgeon – they’re all the same. Financial adviser? It would be elitist to go to a pro instead of a bus driver. And so on.

    You know me. You know how hard I have fought in my life to stick to my populist guns. You know my roots and you know how hard I had to work to escape it. You also know, in painful detail, the intellectual sloth that keeps almost everybody else stuck there.

    I’m done with it. People want to be stupid – let them be stupid. But I have no obligation to go down with them. I’d really love to explore some of the assumptions inherent in the Constitution – assumptions we have bred out. Like the assumption that only the most educated people are even allowed to vote. Honestly, I’d be good with bringing that one back….

  5. As a journalist, columnist, and book reviewer, I’m absolutely offended by the “anyone can do it” claptrap emanating from the business side of things. I agree with Jim Booth’s surgeon example. Not everyone can do it and few can do it well. Unfortunately, the problem is not just the decrease in the amount of criticism but also a decrease in its quality even in major papers and magazines. Anyone remember the discussion of Wesley Clark’s sweaters in the 2004 elections? Or how about the media blitz over John Edwards’ haircut?