The Playgoer: Everyone's a (Times) Critic!

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Everyone's a (Times) Critic!

Well, you simply must read Michael Riedel's extended excerpts today from the Scott Rudin-NYT flap. I've been hearing all week about the Times being mad that the mega-producer's "Year of Magical Theatre"--after getting less than a money review from Mr. Brantley--decided to lift some pull quotes from some other "critics" at the paper. Namely, readers who posted comments on

Sounds pretty shifty, eh? David Merrick must be smiling somewhere, I say.

For as deceptive as this seems at first, it brings up all kinds of hypocritical idiosyncrasies of how the Times regards the Web.

For instance, as Rudin points out in his defense, the Times theatre page has for a while solicited not just reader comments but "Reader Reviews". How is the general "reader" to interpret that word here, "reviews" as different from the paid critics' reviews? Open to question?

Consider the following exchange. Times's ethics & standards point man Craig Whitney complains:

We think that when you attribute a quote to "The New York Times Online" . . . readers are entitled to trust that the appraisal came from someone actually employed by the New York Times - not from a letter from a reader. The New York Times Online did not describe your play as "An evening of magical theater."

A reader, not vouched for in any way by the New York Times, said that.

Rudin replies:
You refer to these online reviews as "letters from a reader." They are not letters from any reader. They are reviews. You - the paper - label them reviews.
Now Scott Rudin may be a wackjob tyrannical asshole (as is often alleged of him) but he is pretty unimpeachable about this. The word "review" seems to be reinforced about 150 times on the pretty specific guidelines for said feature....Also, as for reader-reviewers "not vouched for in any way," well there is this:
Why do I have to register for Readers’ Reviews?
We want you to enjoy writing reviews, and reading reviews written by your counterparts in our outstanding audience. We ask you to complete the simple Readers’ Reviews registration to ensure that you are a “real” person (have a valid e-mail account) and that you accept our review terms and conditions. The registration process serves to facilitate the development of our online community, and ensure that members take responsibility for their writings.
No, not quite a degree from RADA. But clearly there's some kind of "vouching" process going on.

Rudin's other beef is that enabled (nay, encouraged) readers to post reviews of "Magical Thinking" before the official press opening--i.e. during previews. Now web gossip on pre-op shows has been common for over a decade on silly amateurish blogs. But I agree that is notable to point out that such scuttlebutt now can and does appear on the paper's official website.

All in all, I think Rudin has a case that to the web-surfing public at large, the distinction between a paid "official" critic and a posted reader comment may just be a distinction without a difference, functionally at least. (It all shows up on Google after all...) So his case is he is simply capitalizing on what the Times enables.

I also have to hand it to Rudin for turning in what may be a brilliant piece of subversive "theatre" himself. I mean, think back to that recent "arbiter of culture" remark hurled by Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson in response to David Hare's protestations to the contrary. Isn't pulling a quote from John Q. Times-Reader the ultimate travesty of the Grey Lady's Imprimatur? (Like Merrick's legendary search through the phone book to find citizens with the same names as leading critics.)

Now consider this, too: think back to earlier this week and the Times' official inhouse annual report, where the reading public's supposedly slipping standards for mistaking blog rantings for quality journalism was blamed for the paper of record's slipping revenues. Who's ranting now, eh?

(This is also an opportune moment to ask: have you ever seen a more crude form of "civil discourse" than the online reader forums? Typical of the cynicism of big media outlets who just want to increase their hit counts for ad campaigns, they couldn't care less what's said on their digital property. At least crazy bloggers generally read most of their comments, sometimes respond, and step in to police the more outlandish racism and crayon-worthy tirades.)

This raises some interesting web-criticism questions. Should media continue to delineate hierarchies of employed critics and then everyone else? Or is nothing going to stop cyberspace from continuing to level the playing field--so that Ben Brantley eventually has little more cultural capital than a guy with no more qualification than a browser and a working email address (which is all that's required to "register" as a "reader reviewer"). Let alone perhaps some learned and experienced albeit unemployed bloggers?... Or, to look at another angle: can big media outlets maintain those hierarchies and still go through the motions of "empowering" readers to provide "content"--which of course is the modus operandi of all web-commerce?

By the way, here's what seems a late breaking development. I would happily link you the page where you can post "reader reviews." But, hark, what's this?

Notice to Forums Participants:

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We invite you to express your views on our blogs, answer our daily question and submit questions for Times editors in our 'Talk to the Newsroom' feature.

Soon we will be introducing more ways for you to express your views on We value the participation of our readers and hope that you will explore these new features when they are introduced.

Thank you for your continued participation on

"New Features!" Such as, perhaps, signing off all reader comments with: "I am not a critic and do not authorize Scott Rudin to quote me."

May you live in interesting times, Mr. Times...

PS. The Daily News' gossip man Ben Widdicombe first broke the controversy here on Monday, with more on the quote itself. (Hat tip: Mark)

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