In the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz has noted the carnage of movie critics at newspapers. He isn’t weeping.
Movie criticism has been a feature of American newspapers for a century, and sadly, one can count the standout critics throughout that time on maybe two hands. Many of these jobs were filled by reporters or editors who didn’t get another plum assignment and were thrown a bone by a gruff but kindly managing editor. Nothing much good was going to come of that.
This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have happened to the field. Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting sensibility. The more self-consciously educated one is in the field–by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has–the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person who isn’t all that interested in the condition of Finnish cinema.
Gee John, I suppose one could say something similar about political pundits. This kind of denigration of expertise and celebration of the wisdom of the “common” man is a familiar trope in some political circles.
Podhoretz clings to an old and unsophisticated definition of expertize. In this view, experts are supposed to be infallible by definition. Since no one is infallible, experts are to be inherently distrusted. In this view, experts are “them” and there is more natural wisdom in the “us” who don’t declare ourselves expert. This is the view that declares that being able to have a beer with the President is a more important qualification for the job than experience and skill.
First Podhoretz denigrates the role of newspaper movie critic by setting up a premise meant to ridicule: “Many of these jobs were filled by reporters or editors who didn’t get another plum assignment and were thrown a bone by a gruff but kindly managing editor. Nothing much good was going to come of that.”
Translation: newspaper movie critics became movie critics not because they knew anything, but because they couldn’t hack it in “real” journalism. For Podhoretz, the movie critic job was a consolation prize for fuck-ups. Nothing much good was going to come of that, indeed.
So where is the bar set for “good” critics, if indeed there were only a few in the history of newspapers? I could say that there were only three great baseball players in the 20th Century and I’d be right by my own standard, but it doesn’t mean anything. Podhoretz, having dismissed the value of professional critics, generously allows that yes, there were a few worthies, just in case someone brings up the likes of Roger Ebert. But no, in the broader Podhoretz view, the disqualifier comes when one decides to study something and make a job of it. And guess what? He shows us that newspaper readers agree with him!
There is a story told about a major American newspaper that was among the first to do a huge readership survey in the early 1980s. The survey cost several million dollars. And in those days, the editors expected to learn that their lead political columnist was the most popular in the paper, that people really followed the sports columnists, and that the area rose and fell with the opinions on the editorial page.
To their absolute horror, what the editors discovered was this: No more than 5 percent of the readers looked at the editorials. The lead political columnist was one of the least-read. And the most popular item was “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” a column of questions and answers about celebrities which appeared not in the newspaper itself but in Parade, the independently published Sunday supplement.
And nobody, but nobody, knew the names of the critics. This was at a time when the paper in question had two movie critics, two theater critics, two television critics, two book critics, a dance critic, a rock critic, a classical music critic, and an architecture critic. It took the paper nearly three decades to get around to it, but the lead critics in all but one of these fields have taken buyouts and are not being replaced.
So there. Nobody knew the critics, so they should go. Except that that’s stupid. Without knowing the questions and methodology, it’s impossible to argue the specific points, but readership surveys notoriously have failed to measure what people really value in their newspaper. They might not know the byline, but they read the work. They might not specifically buy the paper for city hall coverage, but they notice it when it’s there (and when it’s not).
The larger issue is this. It’s all well and good to ask an audience what it wants. It’s important to understand the market. But no publication ever became great by following rather than leading. There is an important place for the wisdom of crowds. But there’s also a significant role for those who become experts. You’d think that Podhoretz, with his limited, elitist and subsidized audience at the Weekly Standard and Commentary would understand this as much as anyone.