Outsourcing Criticism

By Martin Bosworth

Yesterday my esteemed colleague Denny wrote an eloquent essay discussing how the removal of criticism from the newspapers contributes to our cultural and social erosion. The keystone for his essay was a column by Time magazine book critic and reviewer Richard Schickel decrying the democratization of criticism via the blogosphere.

There’s a right and a wrong here. Denny is absolutely right in that diminishing exposure to and exploration of the arts lowers our intellectual bar, as it were. Schickel is absolutely wrong in blaming the blogosphere for the erosion of criticism as an art form, when he should be looking at the move by newspapers to reduce themselves to advertising centers–as well as himself for coming off like a total elitist, egotistical asshat.

Let me elaborate: How does one become a critic or reviewer? Is there a degree or diploma certifying such? Is there specific training or credentialing you have to go through? Not to my knowledge.

Then what makes a good critic from a bad one? The same thing that makes a good writer, a good musician, or a good director–the content. If the content appeals–if it provides amusement, insight, education, or entertainment–if it makes you think, it can win the day, and thus win a following to it. That’s why, despite the constant stream of spoon-fed pablum we are subjected with in movies, music, art, and literature, the good always shines through.

My favorite movie reviewer is a fellow named James Berardinelli, who runs a movie-review site called ReelViews. I’ve been reading his work since he published his critiques on the rec.arts.movies Usenet group over a dozen years ago. As he himself says, he has no formal training or degree in journalism, writing, arts, or anything of the kind. He’s just a guy who loves movies, sees a lot of them, and built a site to share his thoughts. His work appeals because he has such a knowledge of the subject and a comprehensive understanding of what makes a good movie and what does not–and that can only come through hard experience, through love of the craft.

I myself write regular reviews and recaps of television shows and movies I like on my personal blog. They regularly get attention from my readers and other passersby. Why? What makes my opinion more worthy of digestion than the next guy’s? Not a damn thing. Yet they have credentialed me as the guy who knows a lot about “Heroes,” or comic books, or “Battlestar Galactica.” It’s the content. You create something worthy, and people will notice.

Schickel’s angst comes from his realization that his area of employment no longer values him–to them, he is just a commodity that can be downsized and reduced to save profit margins. As commenter Melinda Barton (who has a cool blog of her own) notes in Denny’s post:

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?

Newspapers are no longer in the business of reporting news, providing commentary, and offering opinion. They are fueled by advertising and designed to get people to spend money. That means playing it safe, avoiding any controversy, and sticking to the simplest and most facile discourse–thus stupid fluff like Edwards’ haircut, Clark’s sweaters, and such. Anything more substantive will get people questioning assumptions, and we can’t have that.

It’s a vicious paradox….readers have fled mainstream news sources for the blogosphere and online journalism because they’re DESPERATE for real content, and yet newspapers, radio stations, and media conglomerates continue to gut and destroy everything that makes them what they are, and wonder why they’re losing ad revenue, eyeballs, subscriptions, etc.

Schickel knows this–yet he knows he can’t bite the hand that feeds him, because he’s hanging on when others are falling to their deaths–so he vents his frustration at the unwashed masses of the blogosphere. But it’s not our fault that your profession is no longer valued, sir. We’re simply venting our own frustration for how the formerly trusted media institutions are letting us down on every level, and realizing that we don’t need them to develop interesting discourse–we can do it ourselves.

Schickel and those like him are either going to have to step their games up and make their content compelling, or take a hard look at why their valuable work is no longer valued in a profession now dominated by MBA bean-counters and bottom-line Philistines.

22 replies »

  1. Sad, but true. Newspapers have always been a “common denominator” medium … but that denominator has changed considerably over time in ways you articulate well.

    As Sam wrote on his biz blog earlier, providers of goods and services are doing a lousy job of listening to their consumers.

    The newspaper industry hasn’t learned that lesson yet, either.

    [Me? “Esteemed”? Mom will be so proud. :)]

  2. Tell Mom I said “Hello.” 🙂

    The newspaper industry is overrun by business-school types who think only of revenue and profit margins. They have no understanding as to what it takes to create compelling content, or why people want more from a news source than placeholders between ads.

  3. “Schickel is absolutely wrong in blaming the blogosphere for the erosion of criticism as an art form, when he should be looking at the move by newspapers to reduce themselves to advertising centers

  4. See, I think I want to pick a couple things here. Not everything, but I do want to poke that word “elitist.”

    Elitists come in many forms. I think we all probably detest those who were born to their alleged elitist state and think they’re somehow owed our worship, or those who have attained some credentials and believe that credentials automatically make them right. (People who aren’t paying close attention even accuse me of this last one, in fact.)

    But other elitists are people who earned their way to their positions. They may be credentialed, but the credentials are backed by brains and thoughtfulness. They’re not right because of their credentials – but they probably went and earned the credentials as a function of the intelligence that frequently makes them right.

    They know that a PhD or MBA or ten years at the arts desk or the fact that they held a director level title at a Fortune 500 doesn’t make them smart or automatically right, but they DO understand that those things don’t mean nothing, either.

    Nothing taught me respect for other PhDs – even those I thought were morons – more than subjecting myself to the process. It’s just about impossible to describe to those who haven’t endured it – and I use that word “endured” for a reason.

    One of my biggest problems with the Internets is the uncritical leveling that passes for democratization. I get that my credentials don’t make me right, but if you don’t think they count for something, that might mean you should have paid closer attention in school. (Not you personally. You in the indefinite sense.)

    It’s not an either/or thing. I’ve slowly, after years of trying to romanticize the populist stance, admitted that I’m something of an elitist, and I mean that word in this sense: I value intelligence and education and believe that we ought to respect people who have those things more than we do.

    Maybe this makes ME an elitist, egotistical asshat, and if so, so be it. The Internet gives me plenty of opportunities to see the alternatives, and I prefer whatever I am to the majority of what I see out there.

  5. “I value intelligence and education and believe that we ought to respect people who have those things more than we do.”

    Agreed. I do not, however, think that anyone is above me just because he holds a PHD.

  6. Martin,

    I agree with you in principle. But let’s be honest. There are bloggers and bloggers – there are sites like S&R where everyone is an accomplished professional and sites where some vapid individual is enamoured of his/her own opinions.

    And, of course, Schickel’s covering his own ass. It’s an expensively dressed ass – and he wants to keep it that way. I understand the orchestra continued to play as the Titanic sank, too…and they were in evening dress….

    As for ReelViews, the guy has all the earmarks of a professional critic – you’re sort of right that there’s no school for being a critic (well there are some, but they’re not necessarily schools for, say, film criticism – they’re film schools, for example). But there’s also self-education – and I’d say your guy Berardinelli is an educated film critic. Whether one attended an Ivy League school or taught oneself by firelight in his/her log cabin, a la Lincoln, an educated person is an educated person. What makes you read and trust Berardinelli is that he shows in his writing that he’s educated himself and can be trusted. It’s the application of a rigorous course of study and thought – whether by an institution or by self – that makes one worth listening to – or reading.

    That’s the new reality that we should be discussing more. As newspapers and magazines profit-margin themselves into a kind of oblivion, worthwhile content will become a new kind of currency. The real issue will be, then, how we spend that to build an intellectual culture via the Net.

  7. Jim,

    Your response was superb. Beautifully written and of course I did enjoy your reference to the log cabin.

  8. Sam,

    You didn’t think I forgot about you, did you? 🙂

    I am not as credentialed as you are, and thus I see the question from the opposite side–does my comparative lack of credentials (I have a Bachelor’s degree, plus the odd certification) make me presumptively less right than you (who has a PhD)?

    Of course it doesn’t. But your own words actually give away the game–the process of “enduring” what it takes to get the higher-level degrees is intellectual hazing. You respect people more because they’ve taken the same hardships you have. It’s actually kinda like why conservatives oppose welfare, particularly if they themselves bootstrapped up from bad conditions. “I had to work hard to get where I’m at, so why can’t they?”

    There is no effective standard that says one person’s cred makes them right–remember, our current president got an M.B.A at Harvard (or was it Yale?), and he’s already recognized as not only one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had, but a genuinely dumb and ignorant person all around. People like Bush give the lie to Schickel’s argument that not everyone can do something–if a guy as dumb and unaccomplished as that can be a President, what does accomplishment really mean?

  9. Thanks for linking to my “cool blog”. I agree with everyone here that credentials don’t always mean as much as the “impression” they give. Personally, I am a credentialled journalist (M.A. from NYU), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’d make a better columnist or reviewer than someone who isn’t credentialled.

    Let me put it another way. If you’ve read my blog, you’ll note that I write a lot about science. I could be a credentialled journalist and have nothing but the most vapid opinions about the subject. My credentials are meaningless when it comes to much of what I cover. What means something is that I make a point of writing about topics on which I am highly informed already or of informing myself extensively on any topic I’m going to cover. So, my commentary and reviews are restricted to my areas of greatest expertise, my “beat” if you will. I would never do a review of a book on fashion or Tuscan winemaking, because I’d have absolutely no idea what’s going on.

    In the same vein, a person who is extremely well-versed in science but not credentialled as a journalist (or perhaps even as a professional scientist) could do a great job writing about science. Having one or the other type of credential would help a great deal, however. The important thing ultimately is that this person is committed to knowing the subjects he/she covers and committed to crafting well-thought out criticisms.

    Credentialled or not, well-versed or not, however, few can be truly gifted at the art of criticism. In general, like with most arts, those who are the best in the field are generally both credentialled and well-versed, like many of the best voices of the blogosphere. (Ironically enough.)

    Does that make any sense or am I just talking in circles here? it’s hard to construct a coherent argument when you’re sneaking net time at work.

  10. Hi, Melinda. I think some of what I’m trying to communicate – perhaps not so elegantly – relates to a pieces I’ve been threatening to write for months about what I mean when I use the word “smart.” Ultimately, smart is a function of several things, include innate mental horsepower, education, critical thinking, and onboard database. It’s certainly not an either/or equation. It’s a both/and equation, and I think the same is true when we’re talking about credibility and credentials, as you do so nicely here. Any one of the pieces by itself is probably insufficient to help you speak credibly on a subject, but when you take innate interest, add the things you learn from working the beat (experience), and then pile an on-point education on top of it, you begin to cultivate a very rich capability.

  11. Martin,

    Actually, no, that isn’t it at all. Yeah, there was some intellectual hazing – the first year was a relentless beat-down. But looking back, it’s amazing how beneficial that year was. But THAT wasn’t where my respect came from, because that actually made me a worse no-respect-for-anything punk than I started out being. It was after I have completed the dissertation that my attitude changed. It was the magnitude of the effort and the sense of accomplishment. It was like the intellectual analogue to climbing Everest or swimming the channel – there was a tangible sense that I had done something VERY hard and very worthy.

    I think you’re reading me as saying things I’m not saying. I make pretty clear in my comments that credentials alone don’t = credibility – I make that point loudly, in fact. I don’t imagine the simple fact of having climbed Everest means you know everything about mountain climbing, either. After all, there are bound to be some lesser climbers who tagged along with people a lot better than them, and there are people who haven’t done Everest who are superior climbers, right?

    But when a conversation about climbing breaks out at a dinner party, the one guy in the room who HAS climbed Everest probably deserves a measure of respect – a hearing, if you will. And when the rest of the room dismisses him BECAUSE he climbed Everest, you know you’re in a room full of monkeys.

    Credibility is, as I noted in my comment to Melinda above, a function of many things, all of which work together in ways that amplify each other. A guy with 20 years experience – that’s serious street cred, right. Then he gets a PhD on top of it. You don’t think that PhD is adding to his credibility in dramatic ways?

  12. Re: dissertations equalling climbing Everest.

    Maybe in your field this is true, but it’s not necessarily true in other fields. When I got my MSEE, I chose to do a thesis option instead of a coursework option because it would be harder and would thus earn me more respect when I went out into the real world. And after I presented my thesis defense, when I left the room, the then Assistant Dean of Electrical Engineering (who was on my thesis committee) asked “so, why aren’t we giving Brian a PhD?” The fact I’d done PhD level work for a Master’s degree is still one of the things I’m most proud of – and it’s why my profile says I got a Master’s degree because I didn’t want a PhD, not because I couldn’t have earned one.

    That said, since I earned my MS, I’ve done work in my field that required a great deal more design rigor, more detailed analysis, more kinds of analysis, more documentation, and longer, harder, and more sleep-depriving presentations than even my thesis required. And you know what? As proud of my thesis as I am, I’m even more proud of my accomplishments as an employed engineer as I am of my accomplisments as a student.

    Dragging this back a little closer to on-topic, my point is that you cannot judge my credibility by my degrees, if for no other reason than the fact that I’ve done even more impressive work since, even if no-one outside my employers and their customers ever sees it.

    What a degree (or massive amounts of experience, or both) should grant is not credibility – that must be earned in all cases, without exception – but it should make people more inclined to listen with an open mind. It’s what you say, the thought behind it, and how you say it that makes you credible.

  13. Dangit, Brian, what do you think credibility IS? We need to let go, once and for all, the idea that I have said things that it’s being implied that I said. I’ve been pretty clear – degrees don’t make you right. Lack of degrees doesn’t make you wrong. And yeah, the rules are different from field to field – I’m proud of my doctorate, but in some situations I don’t even tell people I have it. In some American business circles it can be seen as a negative – some hard-boiled types will immediately conclude that I’m an egghead with no sense of the “real world.” Hardly true, but why give them the chance to think that?

    By the way – your son was sick recently. When you took him for help, I hope you didn’t insist on seeing somebody with one of those MD degrees. After all, doctors should be judged on the outcomes of their work, not some kind of artificial, undemocratic credentialing system. 🙂

    By the way, aren’t you the guy who was just, on another thread, insisting on the primacy of results from “peer-reviewed journals”? If so, is there anything in the world you could possibly say that’s MORE about the primacy of credentials than that?

  14. IMO, credibility is more than people being willing to listen to you. It’s being good enough at what you do or what you say that people are willing to act because of you. People being willing to change their minds or their behaviors because of what you’ve said or done.

    Being willing to listen to you is only the first step to credibility. It’s a vital step, but it’s still just step one.

    (I don’t recall talking at all about peer-reviewed journals recently at all, BTW….)

  15. Hmmm. Go here and check comment #15, for starters:

    On the cred question, it’s not an either/or issue. Credibility is multiple things: getting people to give you a listen and getting them to accord your views greater plausibility are two of the main ones. Getting them to act, that’s yet another one.

    Think of it like you would buying a house. A lot of things go into the decision. Location, price, style, potential for appreciation, size, amenities, etc. ALL of them matter to some extent or another. Some more, some less, and in most cases there isn’t one that’s 100% of the equation.

    Credentials are like one of these factors. Say it’s like location. Location matters almost all the time, although some times it matters a lot less than other factors. It’s almost never all that matters. Perfect location – great. Price is twice what you can afford? Okay, now location matters less.

    Ultimately, it’s just odd to hear you anywhere near the other side of an argument that education and experience ought to count for a whole lot.

  16. What’s you point about credentialling programs, though? Maybe its ignorance on my part, but I don’t see how that ties into our “degrees don’t equal credibility” discussion. Credentials are not the same as degrees – there are independently verified requirements that must be met to receive a credential that are not required for a degree.

    However, I do admit that the structure of governing bodies over universities are beyond my general ken, so I could be wrong about this. I thought that what qualified you for a degree (of any level) was set by the university without any oversight from third-party governing bodies.

    Even if that’s not the case, it is fact that I cannot call my self a professional engineer because I have not ever taken the professional engineer exam. I may have an MSEE, but I’m not a credentialed engineer. Does that mean I have less credibility than a credentialed engineer? IMO, no – it just means that, in certain circles, I’ll have to work a little harder to prove I’m credible.

    When you talk doctors, however, the credentialling process is so intense that anyone who makes it through is automatically deserving of a certain level of credibility. What happens AFTERWARD, however, is what truly defines the doctor’s credibility – does the doctor succeed in healing people, or do they fail and have patients seriously injured or dead because they screw up a lot? If it’s the latter, nothing that a credential or degree can do will change that they have no credibility.

    I have no problem taking my kids to see their normal pediatrician for ear infections, shots, etc. But if they need tubes in their ears, you can be damned sure I get a couple of opinions and have a credible specialist do the actual surgery rather than their standard pediatrician.

  17. Degrees are a type of credential. Certifications are as well. And in a general sense, we also include things like experience, employment status, etc. Any of the official or quasi-official things we can bring to the table that suggest that we might be qualified to speak on an issue.

    What counts varies from context to context, obviously. Certain kinds of credentials are more broadly applicable than others – an MA in cultural studies gives you a broader, more theoretical scope of knowledge than does a certification as a dental hygienist, which is a very specific, more applied credential.

    The sort of powerful, broad-spectrum education platform I favor would afford people a measure of credibility when talking about a wide range of subjects (ideally). A BA = more than a HS diploma, an MA more than a BA, etc.

    I’m honestly not sure what I’m saying here that’s complicated or controversial.