Newspapers Got Small

Roger Ebert has posted one of the most persuasive, alarming, and best-written laments about the death of serious print film criticism, and the cancerous spread of trashy celebrity gossip-mongering. It’s Thanksgiving Day, we’ve got the time — here’s the whole article. Read it as the glory that was newsprint Rome burns to the ground.

“A newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine. When one croaks, get the hell out. The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip.

“The crowning blow came this week when the once-magisterial Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on all of its entertainment writers. The 500-word limit applies to reviews, interviews, news stories, trend pieces and “thinkers.” Oh, it can be done. But withSynecdoche, New York?

“Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for. The AP, long considered obligatory to the task of running a North American newspaper, has been hit with some cancellations lately, and no doubt has been informed what its customers want: Affairs, divorces, addiction, disease, success, failure, death watches, tirades, arrests, hissy fits, scandals, who has been ‘seen with’ somebody, who has been ‘spotted with’ somebody, and ‘top ten’ lists of the above.

“The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. [Access Hollywood] has announced it will cover the Obama family as ‘a Hollywood story.’ I want to smash something against a wall.

“In Toots, a new documentary about the legendary Manhattan saloon keeper Toots Shor, there is a shot so startling I had to reverse the DVD to see it again. After dinner, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe leave the restaurant, give their ticket to a valet, wait on the curb until their car arrives, tip the valet and then Joe opens the car door for Marilyn, walks around, gets in, and drives them away.

“This was in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have not been able to do that once in their adult lifetimes. Celebrities do not use limousines because of vanity. They use them as a protection against cannibalism.

“As the CelebCult triumphs, major newspapers have been firing experienced film critics. They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking. What they require doesn’t need to be paid for out of their payrolls. Why does the biggest story about Twilight involve its fans? Do we need interviews with 16-year-old girls about Robert Pattinson? When was the last time they read a paper? Isn’t the movie obviously about sexual abstinence and the teen fascination with doomy Goth death-flirtation?

“The age of film critics has come and gone. While the big papers on the coasts always had them (Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles Times), many other major dailies had rotating bylines anybody might be writing under (“Kate Cameron” at the New York Daily News, “Mae Tinay” at the Chicago Tribune — get it?).

Judith Crist changed everything at the New York Herald-Tribune when she panned Cleopatra (1963) and was banned from 20th Century-Fox screenings. There was a big fuss, and suddenly every paper hungered for a “real” movie critic. The Film Generation was upon us.

“In the coverage of new directors and the rediscovery of classic films, no paper was more influential than the weekly Village Voice, with such as Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas. Earlier this year the Voice fired Dennis Lim and Nathan Lee, and recently fired all the local movie critics in its national chain, to be replaced, Variety’s Anne Thompson reported, by syndicating their critics on the two coasts, the Voice’s J. Hoberman and the L.A. Weekly ‘s Scott Foundas. Serious writers, yes, but…

“Meanwhile, the Detroit Free-Press has decided it needs no film critic at all. Michael Wilmington is gone from the Chicago Tribune, Jack Mathews and Jami Bernard from the New York Daily News, Kevin Thomas from the Los Angeles Times — and the internationally-respected film critic of the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum, has retired, accepted a buy-out, will write for his blog, or something. I still see him at all the screenings.

“My shining hero remains Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, as incisive and penetrating as ever at 92. I don’t give him points for his age, which anyone can attain simply by living long enough, but for his criticism. Study any review and try to find a wrong or unnecessary word. There is your man for an intelligent 500-word review.

“Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should ‘reflect the taste of the readers.’ My friend said, ‘Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald’s?’ The editor: ‘Absolutely.’ I don’t believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, ‘You are correct, sir!’ A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.

“The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down — it is about snuffing out.

“The news is still big. It’s the newspapers that got small.”

  • DavidF

    Ebert’s review of Four Christmases is genius too. The man might be getting better with age…

    http://tinyurl.com/6psz3b

    It might be the funniest bad review I’ve read since he said, of Freddy Get’s Fingered that “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. .. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”

  • lazarus

    Anyone who’s been reading Ebert’s blog knows his writing has gone up a huge notch recently. It was pretty impressive to begin with. And he’s writing about a pretty wide range of topics, some of them very moving, like the one about his appearance since his medical troubles.

    Love the Ed McMahon reference.

  • Mark B

    What a terrific and insightful piece. Incredibly sad as well, unfortunately.

  • BurmaShave

    When he shuffles on, may that day never come, I bet they don’t replace him with another critic at the Sun-Times.

  • TVMCCA

    Maybe the death of film criticism that Ebert fears is coming has already arrived: witness Richard Corliss and Kenneth Turan giving passes to TWILIGHT (something I can’t imagine Turan doing a decade ago).

    Get along, go along and avoid being fired.

  • http://www.lytrules.com LYT

    ‘Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald’s?’

    The food critic needn’t necessarily like McDonalds, but ought to at least be able to understand its appeal to the public.

  • Rich S.

    Movie critic as harbinger of all western culture? BOY does Roger have a big opinion of himself and his profession.

  • TVMCCA

    “Judith Crist changed everything at the New York Herald-Tribune when she panned Cleopatra (1963) and was banned from 20th Century-Fox screenings. There was a big fuss, and suddenly every paper hungered for a “real” movie critic. The Film Generation was upon us.

    I thought Pauline Kael made a bigger splash in terms of “real” criticism by panning THE SOUND OF MUSIC in the pages of McCALL’S magazine–resulting in her exit and re-entry at THE NEW YORKER.

    Face it, we have an ascendant generation that doesn’t question and/or examine anything and hates to read as much as 500 words on a given topic (100 is probably preferable). They’re very busy and have precious little time to waste while making their corporate overlords happy.

  • mauberley

    “A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.”
    I like Roger as much as anyone but does anyone seriously expect all of this from a film critic?

  • TedM

    Mauberley,

    The fact that you even ask that question sort of makes the point of what Ebert was saying in the article.

    There’s a difference between what I call “reviewers” (those who reduce a movie to its basics and offer an I hate it/I love it response) and those serious critics (Farber, Agee, Kael, Ebert, — and I would add Jeff Wells in there too) who actually take the time to think about the film and offer an opinion on it in a well-written piece.

    So yeah, one should expect that a CRITIC would be all of those things and more.

  • corey3rd

    A food critic that can’t appreciate the McRib is worthless.

    Ebert missed the boat as to when newspapers started going downhill. It started when they started shrinking the comics page a long while ago. Then they started messing with the Obit section. Two of the three biggest sections in the newspaper that get read by loyal readers are the comics and the obits. The third is sports.

    My local papers is a farce. They’ve shrunk the page size to nearly tabloid. The front cover barely has 4 articles along with what seems like a full color poster photo. And because the owners spent way too much cash on this paper and another in our state, they decided to fire half the staffs and have the remaining crew write articles for both papers.

    The movie critics here are being replaced by freelancers who will write 500 words for chump change. And this way the newspaper no longer has to deal with insurance or unemployment or vacation days. The movie critic has always been treated with a sense of contempt by journalists who view them as lazy and spoiled. Sure we’ll miss Ebert when he finally gets the door in Chi-town, but will his paper’s owner care? Doubtful. They’ll be happy to not have to pay his insurance.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/ vp19

    I’m a copy editor at a small daily and periodically peruse the AP entertainment wire. What Ebert says is dead on — the AP is now focusing on light celebrity news, rather than serious reviews and significant entertainment industry news. (Was unaware of the newly-imposed 500-word limit, though it doesn’t surprise me.)

    The consultants are ruining newspapers, depriving them of their distinctive personalities, just as other consultants have made commercial radio largely unlistenable. (The difference: radio of today is syndicated to the nth degree, with little if any local content. Newspapers have become hyperlocal, barely acknowledging there’s a world beyond their circulation areas.) Yes, give the people what they want — but what if the people are wrong?

    Thank you for another Ebert gem.

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