The Playgoer: Playgoer makes London Times

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Playgoer makes London Times

Thanks to Clive Davis for including Playgoer in his op-ed in praise of arts blogging for the Times of London.

Davis, a Conservative-leaning arts critic, is also a pretty hip blogger. (And, yes, the Times is a Murdoch-owned venture. But typical of Davis's fairness is his interest in the free speech debate surrounding "Rachel Corrie" while totally objecting to that play's politics.)

More notable than his Playgoer plug, though, is Davis' eloquent case for the value of an alternative criticism.

Arts centres roll out their latest, best-ever autumn season, publicists prime journalists with advance copies of the latest Great American Novel, press junkets give reporters ten minutes each with Ewan McGregor. At its best, the system helps the informed reader to sort the gold from the dross. At its worst, it degenerates into an exercise in log-rolling. And as newspapers expand into ever larger, multi-section entities, critical voices grow more and more diffuse. Blogs, at least in these early, innocent days, add a nonconformist voice to the conversation. While some of the more messianic members of the online “community” talk of overthrowing the “dead tree” media, the real function of blogging is that it supplements mainstream output (without which most blogs, whether they admit to it or not, would wither away overnight).

As someone who regularly criticizes the NY Times, for instance, I couldn't agree more about this relationship between the "real" media and the "supplementary" conversation that has grown around it in the blogosphere. Moreover, I agree that the A-list media as Davis describes it here, is so in need of supplement. For serious arts readers, at least.

In that spirit, let me say something positive about the NY Times. I think the reporting Campbell Robertson has been doing lately (here and here) on the corporatization of Broadway has been terrific. Only thing is, because it's the NY Times and Robertson is a "reporter", nothing can be said about this phenomenon after it has been so lucidly laid out. There seems to be no space in the Times arts pages for someone to cry out, "Shouldn't we be concerned about the effect of this on the New York, nay the American theatre?" So if there's any readership interest at all in amateur, part-time websites, it's because readers want to have that conversation. (And not just in the chaotic hatespeech zoo that is the messageboards.)


Anonymous said...

congrats on the good press!

Larissa said...

can I have your autograph?

PeonInChief said...

Wow, Playgoer! We who merely read are humbled before you.

And you'd better get a free ticket to My Name is Rachel Corrie.

Anonymous said...

true, the nyt overplays its "neutrality" requirement for reporters, but despite your new fame, you do have to grant that journalists, even in the msm, actually REPORT and BRING FORTH NEW INFORMATION from THEIR OWN DIGGING and they have to GET RESPONSES from people who are criticized in their stories and DOCUMENT THEIR FACTS and provide SOURCES. They don't just offer their opinions and comments on other people's reporting (valuable in othe ways.) I can launch a Chomskian critique of MSM as vigorous as anyone's, but these are significant differences from most (not all) bloggers. (In a newspaper, for instance, Playgoer's "where's Tony Kushner" question of a couple of months back would have required that he call up Tony Kushner and ask. That's journalism 101 -- and just basic fairness. And just one of innumerable examples. ) So yeah, it's weird that Robertson has to maintain that disengaged Timesy tone (which makes me all the sadder that hard-hitting advocacy journalism like the Village Voice used to do is harder and harder to find) but at least he's giving bloggers something to comment on.

Playgoer said...

Dear Anonymous,

I couldn't agree more with your basic point actually. And I don't think I said otherwis. I actually don't think it's "weird" that Robertson doesn't comment on his stories. I understand full well what objective reportage is supposed to be. And I understand full well the difference between reporting and commentary.

What I was regretting is not that Campbell Robertson can't express an opinion, but that the Times doesn't ALSO have a theatre "editorial" space for someone else to comment and analyze the hard news. (Yes, I know some are thinking they DO have such people called "critics" but their job is explicitly to express opinions on particular productions. Yes, I know the Times allows an occasional "critics notebook" piece, but that doesn't do the work a regular theatre "column" would.

Also: Let me state unambiguously, I have no desire to see blogs REPLACE the NY Times. I will gladly admit that without the NY Times I would have far less to comment on. But I strongly second Clive Davis's point that blogs have provided a valuable "supplement", not replacement. My reading includes going back and forth between both, which makes for the most enriching reading.

And lastly, on that Kushner post from long ago: FYI I had it on "deep background" at the time that Kushner had indeed been contacted and declined to publicly comment. I had it on good authority that his silence was not due to just no one asking him. Did I call him up myself? No. Not just because I don't have his number but I felt pretty sure he wouldn't give such a scoop to a random blogger and not more recognized outlets. So I hope that clears that up.

As to the value of a blog getting away with such a post, while the MSM can't... Of course, there are good reasons for journalistic rules of engagement. And that frames how we read newspapers. But, then, isn't it ok for there to be some alternative approach--on the fringes--that can air general frustrations and criticisms without the same vetting process?

But that's part of a whole big messy debate about blogs in general, hardly just in the arts. So I'll leave it aside for now.

Anonymous said...

We dont' fundamentally disagree, Playgoer. As I said in my post, commentary is important in other ways than reporting -- and I bemoaned the dearth of good advocacy reporting that combines the best of both. (Remember Erika Munk's great reporting/commentary on sexual harrassment in acting training in the Voice in the 80s? The Voice used to do lots of such stuff--ground-breaking reporting combined with critical analysis. Feingold on regional theater acting among many other things, Solomon on the increasingly corporate structure of non-profits or the dramaturg's case against Rent, the late Robert Massa on arts organizations and health insurance . . . ) It's a pity there isn't much space for - -or more to the point, I guess-- inclination toward -- such engaged reporting. I guess I'm wishing bloggers might take up some of that slack.
On the Kushner thing -- which is only one example -- I don't think what you said clears things up at all. This was a relatively innocuous instance, but it's dangerous when people can publish anything about anyone without having to back it up with something more than rumor (which is what third-hand info is, no matter how sound the source. Anyway, I was hearing quite otherwise at the time.) That crosses a perilous ethical line. Yeah, maybe someone doesn't take your call. (Reporting 101 note: Call someone's agent if you need to get a question to them.) But then you at least can write that the person declined to respond and you get the credibility of having tried.

Playgoer said...

I think the one thing we disagree most on, Anonymous, is that I believe blogging ISN'T journalism. And to insist that amateur bloggers follow the same procedures as professional paid journalists is to misunderstand the whole enterprise and significance of blogging. (And unfair to expect from those of us without the resources or credentials of a major newspaper.)

Having said that, I will admit to something: now that I have more readers I do indeed feel a little more responsibility as to what's posted here. But you have to remember that before the Rachel Corrie story I basically considered this a personal webpage viewed by a handful of friends and other theatre lovers. I still feel bloggers are not necessarily journalists and that if readers feel their posts are too unsourced and speculative (or just lies) they should stop visiting the site. But I myself want to be open and honest with my readers and post the best information I can.

Still, not to keep defending myself ad nauseum on that post, but... Looking at it myself now, it's so clear that I'm openly speculating and qualifying it as such. All I was saying was that he hadn't publicly commented at that point--which was true! (Of course, he did comment soon afterwards, and I duly reported it.) No matter what he may have been saying in private, you can't show me another published statement of his before that date. So I merely--and, again, openly wondered why that could be, and offered a few different imagined scenarios and clearly personal opinions. Would it have been a better post if I could have said "Playgoer contacted Kushner's agent, but received no response." Rhetorically, yes. And let readers fault me for that. Do I come off as a jerk? Yes. I had a strong opinion, and some theories, and I expressed them. But I was hardly slandering the man by asserting something was true that was not.

Anyway, this is only of interest now as a debate about the ethics of blogging. And I feel we'll just have to agree to disagree. And I invite anyone to go back and read the original post and see who you agree with on this.
( Please also note I did post when Kushner DID comment seven days later.

Anonymous said...

Yes, precisely: The ethics of blogging. I totally agree that blogging is not journalism. But it IS public, no matter how many people are actually reading it. And all people should try to act decently and fairly toward others, whether they are bloggers, journalists, or anything else. One does not require resources or credentials of a major newspaper for that. (Anyway, you'd be surprised how much real reporting can be done -- in fact, is done -- without any such resources.)

PeonInChief said...

I went back and read the original post and frankly thought it was pretty mild. And it was entirely speculative. This kind of thing happens all the time in the MSM. Some of the speculations turn out to be entirely right; others turn out to be out in right field.

But Playgoer was merely speculating, and nothing in his comments indicated that he had some inside information. We did as much at another point on Alan Rickman's silence on the Rachel Corrie issue after his initial statment. But none of us suggested that we had any inside information, and we all recognized that. (And I doubt very much that Alan Rickman's agent would want to answer a question like, "I know that doing this play is not like advocating for rent control or the abolition of private schools, but is he keeping quiet at this point to protect his career?")

The importance of Playgoer's Rachel Corrie coverage had little to do with "hard" news, and much more to do with the issues surrounding the Rachel Corrie controversy, issues that aren't covered very well in the MSM, particularly in the US.

I am, of course, leaving aside the issue of the quality of the reporting in the MSM. I will admit, however, that I have on occasion had to write to newspapers and assert that a statement indicated "stunning ignorance" or could easily be shown as incorrect by a "simple Internet search."

Anonymous said...

I went back and looked at the post, too. Actually it was kind of mean-spirited, not just speculative. It didn't say, "Gee, I wonder why Kushner hasn't said anything." It said, if he doens't say anything soon, we'll have to assume he supports Nicola's position. Given Kushner's personal relationship to the theater, the fact that lots of other things were going on in his professional life at the time, and his almost unique outspokenness on Israel and Palestine in the theater community, that was a really unfair thing to say to suggest that he supports censorship. Remember that Weiss, in the Nation, compared the posting to something nasty like wanted posters or war criminals or something like that, so people did pick up that tone -- even if Playgoer didn't intend it.

But it seems silly to flog this dead horse and anonymous himself said this is a relatively innocuous example. I think his point is that the public nature of blogs makes ethical factors matter and that even if blogging isn't journalism (and of course much msm journalism isn't as good as it should be or could be) there still might be some things for bloggers to learn from its best ideals.