By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Poll du Jour: The Rules Of Journalism?
This week, two New York papers decided to break the decades long tradition of not reviewing a show until the producers say it’s complete. It’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark… a hot story and a record-breakingly expensive show.
I see only one reason for the breach… to get attention. It’s not to inform the public. The show has had enough negative press to fill a stadium (or the Foxwoods Theater, which is almost as big). It’s not because people are paying to see the show, since that is the case with every single show that has previews, which is all of them for decades. (The issue of reviewing out of town is more complex, as the shows that play out of town do have openings and do get reviewed locally… when they open locally.) And it certainly isn’t because reviews are going to change the box office outlook for the show… people are going to pay a fortune to watch this circus… and the more people who get broken, the more people will come.
In a Twitter exchange, internet journalists seem to take the position that if there are paid shows, it’s open season and that in this era, you can’t expect a show to go unreviewed, And indeed, S-M:TOTD has been reviewed by people on the web… but not by professionals… not until this weekend. What is the difference between professionals and everyone else with web access? Intent, access, and rules… all of which, in the entertainment coverage business, are the product of relationships.
Theater rules are not movie rules. “If there is a paid screening, embargoes are off” is not the standard. Never has been. Perhaps the people who are tweeting this meme are just ignorant of this history. Dear God, I hope so. Or are we so disinterested in the standards of professional conduct that we need to go to the, “Is it okay if I kiss you? (explicit consent) Is it okay if I touch your breast? (explicit consent)” game?
And I am talking about professionals, not the public at large. Is this some game we are all playing with the businesses we cover? Is the standard, “If you don’t explicitly restrict it with my consent, sod off, I can do what I please and keep the moral high ground.”
“Uhhhh… really good date… you like me well enough to sleep with me… and I have gotten a pretty good idea that you are either completely unwilling to be anally penetrated or you are very cautious and selective about when you do that… but you didn’t tell me not to, so “Surprise!!!”
Something a little less extreme? “It doesn’t say in the menu that the food hasn’t been spit in!”
More mundane? “There is no rule about leaving the shopping cart next to my car when I leave so that no one can part in the spot that was next to me!”
Making excuses to serve our selfish needs is not good behavior. And as professionals, we have higher standards. Ask the publications who haven’t published all the WikiLeaks stuff… or the New York Times, which took a long time to vet the Pentagon Papers, for that matter. That would be the NYT that hasn’t run something from their critics… like the NY Post, where Riedel is infamous for pushing the envelope… and hasn’t here.
One gentle soul tweeted that the show may close before previews, so the critics should see and review now. But sorry… that’s bullshit. News is news. And there has been plenty of it. No one is saying that the news should not be reported. And really, there is zero reason why critics can’t buy a ticket and see the show now, in case it does close (less than 5% chance of that). But there is no excuse to review an admittedly unfinished show… period. Not for pros.
Movie studios try to run the inverse con sometimes, taking a film to a festival, pushing for media coverage, but claiming it’s not finished and shouldn’t be reviewed. That’s BS too. Sometimes, an event that is seen as private is suddenly seen as a “real” festival – Butt-Numb-A-Thon comes to mind – and overnight, rules change. I think that’s bad hoodoo too, on both sides, but a much grayer line… and once crossed, those rules are The Rules.
Of course, studios are chicken shit about enforcing their own rules. If you are muscular enough, after you screw them deep and hard, they will slap your wrist before they buy you lunch to kiss your ass for the next thing they need you to promote. If you are a little guy, they will disinvite you from all-media screenings and not even listen to your pleadings for mercy (as in, “Every major paper in the country has reviewed it and you’re going to beat me up for running it two days before opening?”). If studios simply enforced their own rules with an even and decisive hand, none of this would be much of an issue.
And believe me, I’ve been right in the middle of the old “this isn’t really a review” scam, which, in the end, is a half-ass lie the serves neither the writer nor the studio that is splitting hairs in the writer’s seeming favor.
Anyway… I guess some people are comfortable living under “there’s no honor amongst thieves” rules. Outraged when they themselves get tweaked… perfectly comfortable looking the other way when someone else is getting squeezed. Or even better, perfectly happy to hold people who they think are too powerful to a different rules than the ones to which they would like to be held in their real lives.
If I am in a relationship, of any kind, I try to adhere to The Golden Rule. I screw up… too often. As a journalist, the rule is not “do unto others as you would want them to do to you.” The people I write about are public figures and choose to be public figures. (This is one of the reasons why I don’t rush to scoop and rarely write about hirings and firings anymore with execs who are not really public figures.)
When someone forgets to tell me about the embargo and i know it’s an issue, I ask and don’t write the review and then make excuses. (This was not always true a decade ago.) It’s not just about the movie, but someone screwed up and it’s a shitheel move to leave them in danger to satisfy my urge to publish a review FIRST.
On the other hand, a festival screening or a sneak preview in theaters and all bets are, indeed, off. And I let the studio know it’s coming. And they can hedge all they want… they crossed that line, hoping to win, and lost. These are the rules. I don’t get to tell them when to screen for Peter Travers, but I sure as hell get to mention publicly the vomit that comes into my mouth when I see him quoted before the other quote whores (or after, really).
How far do I go? What endangers relationships built up over years and decades? If you do this job and do it honestly, you are going to piss people off. You are also going to be well loved at times. Some studios will call you “relentlessly negative” while willfully overlooking the movies they release that you LOVE. Some studios will only notice when you they feel like you are shiting on them… others only express emotion when they feel like you are licking their asses. Many stew silently, whether you are being kind or cruel. It’s like any other relationship… truth is subjective and personalities mean a lot.
“Us vs Them” is not a relationship. And in most cases with most professionals, it is a lie a journalist tells themselves to get over their self-loathing. There is an adversarial nature to this business. The producers of S-M:TOTD surely didn’t enjoy all the articles about injuries on the set, delays, etc in Newsday and elsewhere. But they had no argument. It is the fact. It is, for the most part, news. That doesn’t make it a free for all. That doesn’t negate long, long symbiotic relationships.
It may make you a “man” to punch the bully in the face in the playground. But it doesn’t make you a man to punch the most popular kid in the school in the face in that same playground because a bunch of people would love to see him/her knocked off of her “high horse.” That makes YOU the bully.
But you tell me…