The Playgoer: NYT Disses Bloggers Kendt, Hunka?

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Monday, October 30, 2006

NYT Disses Bloggers Kendt, Hunka?

As you may recall, Superfluities blogger George Hunka had a play on this month, "In Public." Hunka has also been freelancing as a reviewer for the Times for much of this year. The Times agreed to still send someone to review his show, someone not a full time staffer, as per understood policy when reviewing their own. They chose Rob Kendt, who has also freelanced for them on occasion. Kendt, as it happens, also blogs.

Kendt went to the show and wrote it up. Positively, as it turns out. But the Times decided not to run it after all, citing "conflict of interest."

Isaac Butler, who directed "In Public," and is also a blogger, has now gone public with this story and written a letter to the Times. So you can see more details there, as well as his well reasoned complaint. As Isaac points out, it's important to note that Hunka and Kendt may have written for the same paper, and may each blog, but never met before the night Kendt went to his show.

It is indeed weird that the Times didn't seem to figure out Kendt and Hunka were "colleagues" until after assigning Kendt to the show. Unless they mean--could they???--colleagues in the blogosphere. But that would be acknowledging blogs now, wouldn't it.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

While we're on the subject of ethical squishiness, I don't find the idea of a writer who is reviewing theater for the New York Times while trying to get his own work produced particularly appealing, blogger or not.

Anonymous said...

Hello Margo Jefferson. Hello Michael Feingold. Quick, think of two critics famously antipathetic towards new plays...

Abe Pogos said...

anonymous...

I'd agree with your point about "ethical squeamishness" if George Hunka was trying to get his work produced by the same institutions that were producing the work of other playwrights that he was reviewing. This means he'd be reviewing the work of writers with whom he was in direct competition. That would be a conflict of interest and at the very least would demand a disclaimer of some kind at the end of any review. But if his intention is to continue producing his own work with his own company, I don't see where there's any ethical problem.

Anonymous said...

The ethical problem is that all playwrights being produced in New York are essentially in competition with all other playwrights being produced in New York--they're in competition for ticket buyers and for press attention. Would this particular play even have had the potential publicity boon of getting a Times reviewer assigned to it in the first place if George Hunka hadn't also had an NY Times connection? And should readers have to wonder about this, or to take into account his other career path while reading his reviews? That's where it gets problematic.

Anonymous said...

This whole relationship thing, really doesn't stink as bad as say...paying a publicist to get an NYTimes critic to the show. That's really worse I think.

Sorry to hear the Times is still somehow paranoid over the Jason Blair scenario. Will the scars ever heal ?

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

Anonymous said...

What's the Jayson Blair parallel here? Blair fabricated stories, cribbing from other writers and ginning up descriptions by looking at photos of places thousands of miles away instead of doing the traveling he was claiming to do (and claiming expenses for). He lied about having lost someone in 9/11 to get out of writing rememberances of 9/11 victims. In other words, he was a liar and a fabricator. No parallel here.

That said, I am rather persuaded by the first anonymous point--that if critics are also playwrights, their subjects are just as much rivals as colleagues.

The Playgoer said...

Well let me come to George's defense a bit here...

And, of course, a disclaimer: I count him as a friend and very much a "colleague", though our relationship is much more professional than personal. (Inasmuch as this blogging thing can be "professional.") In other words, think of us as fellow "gamers".

I find the suggestion that someone would plot to be a NYT critic as a path to success as a playwright kind of absurd, respectfully. It's probably the worst way to go about it since every review you write you risk alienating all sorts of people. Plus, succeeding as a critic raises your cred as an artist not one bit--in fact decreases it. Like teachers, the public assumes those who can't...critique.

I also am troubled by this "competition" talk. Yes, it is unfortunate that there are only so many theatre companies and a small number of "money" slots for new plays... But let's not reinforce their power by internalizing the capitalist ethos that pervades their thinking. Must all theatre artsists THINK of themselves as cutthroat competitors? Bless those who do not. Plus, when you self-produce and put up your own work--as George did--you basically take yourself out of that equation.
I actually agree 100% with Buddha Cowboy that I'm far more disturbed by what I imagine (but can't prove) is rampant payola and cravenness to topline press agents in the selection of the reviews we read every day. Not to mention beholdedness to B'way above all else.

From what George tells me, he pulled no strings whatsoever to get NYT to cover his show. He simply sent in a release just like everyone else does. I'm sure the theatre desk now wishes it did spot him as a "conflict of interest" case from the start and just bypass--but I suspect they might not even have recognized his name, so infrequently does he work there.

I will say that, once they did take on the assignment, they would have been wiser to go completely outside the regular rotation and not assign a fellow regular freelancer like Kendt (even thought the two men didn't know each other), but a total outsider or someone from a different division. I also think it was unwise to assign a fellow blogger to George's show since, hey, it's a small community. But, honestly, I don't even give the theatre editor credit for knowing anything about theatre blogs.

In short--have at George if you will. But I will gladly defend his (or anyone's) right to write, in whatever and in as many media he chooses.

Anonymous said...

"I don't find the idea of a writer who is reviewing theater for the New York Times while trying to get his own work produced particularly appealing, blogger or not."

But Michael Feingold can still get his adaptations produced?

And, going back in time, what about that Shaw fellow? Heard he burned the candle at both ends...

Alison Croggon said...

I'm totally with Garrett here on the question of competition between artists. That perception of the small pie makes artists impotent by the "divide and conquer" strategy. There's another way of looking, which is that the pie is as big as you make it.

As for the critic/artist issue: all it requires is a bit of honesty and common sense. Brustein as I recall simply disclosed any associations with artists if he happened to be reviewing them, and I do the same. Artists very often (not always) make good critics, because they know and care more about the work they're looking at. This of course can make them fussier rather than otherwise. Expertise in an artform often goes with being a practitioner and expertise itself can be considered suspect. I think there's a kind of strange hypocrisy at work here: by this logic, the ideal critic is someone who knows nothing at all about what they're seeing. Mind you, the recent kerfuffle about those "ordinary guy" critics suggests that this might be the case...

first anonymous guy said...

One of the dumbest things that angry artists tend to say about critics is "Oh, they're all just frustrated playwrights." So it doesn't help the reputation of criticism when that's actually true (and before you dispute it, please, somebody show me a NON-frustrated playwright).

I can't imagine many playwrights WANT to be critics, so let me admit a bias here: it's not an appetite I find especially trustworthy in an artist, or useful when it is given play in The New York Times. I don't particularly enjoy reading Feingold review somebody else's Brecht in the Voice either; we can disagree about whether he has an axe to grind, but it's a disservice to the productions that we have to wonder about it at all. And a "full disclosure" line in the review doesn't cut it for me; if I read a sentence saying (for instance) "I did my own Chekhov translation, but I promise you that I've considered this one carefully", why should I necessarily trust the critic's assessment of whether his own review is agenda-driven or not, when there are many qualified critics who don't have this conflict? Just as it was wrong for Margo Jefferson to be working on having a play produced in New York when she was at the Times, I think it's not too much to ask that the Times not use playwrights as regular or semi-regular critics.

The Playgoer said...

Okay, anonymous #1, forgive me taking this to extremes, but...

If I once played the role of Friar Laurence in college does that disqualify me from ever publishing a review of Romeo & Juliet?

If I wrote a high school paper on imagery in Glass Menagerie, should I recuse myself from publicy critiquing a director's interpretation on B'way?

No doubt you'll think I'm travestying your point, but honest to god, I hardly see why we should be deprived of Mr Feingold's insights into Brecht just because he happens to be a very successful translator and authority himself! Am I wrong for that making me MORE look forward to his reviews of others' Brecht work? Where exactly is the subterfuge in what you're describing?

(And, yes, I do know Feingold. So sue me.)

anon #1 said...

Well, since you ask...yeah, I think you ARE travestying my point. To extend your Friar Laurence example, no, of course not--but if you're a Shakespearean actor auditioning around New York now, then actually, I don't think you should be moonlighting as a reviewer of Shakespeare for the New York Times.

This isn't about Michael Feingold or George Hunka or anyone being dishonest or employing subterfuge or malice; it may be worth pointing out that bias is not always apparent to those who have it. And it's not for me to say you're right or wrong for looking forward to Feingold's Brecht's reviews. But I don't look forward to them. Doing a translation involves a series of phenomenally complicated and personal esthetic choices. As does writing a play. And I don't want a critic reviewing any show from the perspective of "This isn't how I would have done it" (a trap into which Feingold and other critics have occasionally fallen). That's not a critic's job, and to me, that approach doesn't make for particularly valuable or enduring criticism. Just my two cents.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, some of this commentary seems to suggest that critics can be "objective" and don't have "agendas". Good art critics don't pretend to be objective: they rather offer a well-informed, responsive and judicious subjectivity (I emphasise all adjectives). The more interesting their minds (given that they can write, another important aspect - not all interesting minds can write well) the more interesting the response will be. For me, it's the interest of the response that counts, not whether it is positive or negative. And an interesting response is always dialogic: in dialogue with the work itself, and with its potential readers. But I guess the "three stars" consumer guide idea of reviewing that dominates rather mitigates against this view.

The people I trust least of all in arts commentary are those who claim to be "objective", as if they are above preference. This point of view posits them, first of all, as irrefutable judges, whose opinion is beyond dialogue because it is "objective"; and secondly, it has the effect of concealing their own prejudices and agendas. Most often, these prejudices are conservative and conventional, because these are the least visible (just as it's only dissentingstuff that's considered "political"). I can't think of a single critic without an "agenda". Some might be more petty than others. But to rule out artists as critics is ridiculous - some of the critics I most admire - Octavio Paz, Yves Bonnefoy, John Berger, Charles Baudelaire - are also artists. And they're great precisely because they do have an aesthetic, and because art matters to them: ie, they think about it.

blogless joe said...

well said, ms. croggon. well said.

nick said...

If an artist has a practice they have an aesthetic and intellectual stake to defend or explain or propagandize. Their criticism of other’s work will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of this practice as its foundation. They are able to speak from this specific base of knowledge, define and delineate borders between their practice and others. This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the art form itself.

The critic/artist needs to refuse to hide under the pretense of journalistic objectivity that the non-artist critic most often employs. The non-artist critic needs that pretense in order to play consumer guide. Nothing wrong with these commodity based reviews if their limitations (and disguised biases) are accepted. They rarely have any value to art practice beyond servicing their marketing and PR.

However, the gripe here is most of all about the market. The New York Times review would add value to the production and the careers of those involved, including the critic’s career in this case, but the discourse on the work would not have varied an iota.