Us Against "Them" (That Anti-Expert Thing Again)

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.

siskelandebert.jpgFirst 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.

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  1. says

    SERIOUSLY. You have to go WAY down the ladder of salaried arts critics to find one who doesn't englighten their readers at least a bit about their subject. Yet you only have to open the op-ed page of the Washington Post, or a national opinion mag like the Weekly Standard, to find people who willfully distort and misrepresent their "beat" for personal gain and aggrandizement. If we're talking hack to professional ratios, there's just no contest…

  2. says

    Your piece is excellent — I am SO glad you wrote it. I posted something in response — well, more like inspired by what you wrote and motivated to really consider what Podhoretz is getting at and how mistaken it is. It's at the Clyde Fitch Report, Thank you again. Your essay should win a prize.
    Leonard Jacobs

  3. J.D. Considine says

    Am I the only person who finds it odd that Podhoretz hangs much of his argument on "a story told about a major American newspaper" which he never bothers to name? Obviously, he has been following the story, since he writes "the lead critics in all of those fields but one have taken buyouts and are not being replaced."
    What was this journal, the Straw Man Times? If it's a real example, give us a name.

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