Famed US movie critic Roger Ebert has a fascinating piece up on his Sun-Times website about the death of film criticism and rise of the “CelebCult”.
In it he blames America’s (in particular America’s newspapers’) fascination in the trivial and trite when it comes to pop culture and celebrity, for the death of more thoughtful analysis and prose in newspapers.
Film critics, he says, are the canaries in the coal mine of America’s newspapers. Having worked in newspapers for a fraction of Ebert’s career in print, both as a news writer and a feature writer, I was both deeply touched by his analysis and a little put off.
I hate to say this, but Ebert is just noticing something that has been going on for years. Perhaps it’s just come to his notice because he is walled away in the sacrosanct tower of not just criticism, and film criticism at that, but as THE film critic. Perhaps he never took notice of those fighting this same good fight over a lifetime of dailies, blurbs and briefs in America’s news sections.
It’s as if he awoke one day in France’s 1789 to discover that perhaps cake wasn’t a good replacement for bread.
When Ebert says that newspapers want to devote less of their space to considered prose and more to ignorant gawking, I don’t disagree. It’s true, but that’s not something new. You can trace the slow, mournful death of newspapers back years, perhaps decades.
If you want to assign blame I suppose you could point a finger at USA Today, at how that national McPaper turned every story, no matter how important, into a glorified brief with colourful charts.
Over the years, papers across the country scrambled to follow suit, shrinking their stories to fit smaller and smaller holes in the paper. Sure, some of this was done because of the desire to run more ads in a newspaper, but most of it was the product of focus testing, of hitting the streets and asking people what they wanted. What they wanted, apparently, was not to think too much about anything.
So papers, first small, then large, begin to cater to the lowest common denominator, what they thought was a genuine desire for short, fast reads. I remember working at a large newspaper when an edict came down that all stories had to be a certain word count, that the first sentence of every story had to be only so long, rather short.
But, some would argue, news can be brief. Perhaps the soul of journalism is brevity.
And so it goes. Until that slow creep of small stories and smaller thinking hits features. I was at the Rocky Mountain News when that happened. When a group of features writers were told they had to move back to news, not because their coverage of pop culture wasn’t important, but because news was more important.
So the creep got a toehold in the untouchable world of features, a place born of long ledes and stories slow to unwind. Soon feature stories starting shrinking. “Think pieces” went away. And next on the cutting board? Critics.
If you don’t have the space to cover news properly, to write long features, why take the space to cover a movie? Or so the thinking went. So Ebert’s right, well sort of right.
There is a canary in the coal mine of American’s newspapers, but they’re not the movie critics, they’re the writers, the men and women who fought daily to get more than just the facts in the paper, who worked to not just report the news, but explain it.
I’m not dismissing the importance of criticism. The fashion writers, the video game writers, the music and, yes, the movie critics, the people who cover all acts of expression and deep thought, are the barometer of today’s modes and morals.
It is through these writers that we discover ourselves and are reminded daily that life isn’t all pain and suffering, city council meetings and school board elections. But their loss isn’t the sign that it’s time to get the hell out of the mine, it’s the last thing you see before a deep, unending sleep.
So I don’t join Ebert in mourning the potential passing of a great institution, but only because I’ve been mourning its death for years.