“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.”
– Scott Adams
I deeply regret opening this piece with a Scott Adams quote if only because I never want to embolden so tremendous a dingbat hack nor lend any legitimacy to anything that dribbles from his mewling gape. However, when someone is right they are right, even when their name is Scott Adams and they created Dilbert. As an assessment of the modern state of journalism, this is pretty succinct.
So despite being Scott Adams and therefore tragically mentally impaired, he can plainly see there is something wrong with the state of journalism today. I’d go so far as to say political journalism from the major outlets in North America is entirely dead – which is to say that it still very much exists but its integrity is utterly compromised. The heart of it is torn out, the sharp edges smoothed over. Any sense of responsibility to the audience has slowly given way to responsibility to protect access relationships with major sources. Want to get face time with a Presidential candidate? Better not have ever criticized him or you get left out of the party. Preserving access has gone a fairly long way in blunting the cutting edge that journalism is supposed to apply to the world.
Protecting the wealthy is another trend which has cropped up in media and has made its own contribution to the ruin of journalism. Damning story about Corporation X? The CEO is on the board of our newspaper! Bad news about the “job creators” might harm the economy! How many of the people directly involved with the 2008 economic meltdown got a complete pass in the mainstream press? Why are they safe from criticism?
So by now you are checking which site you are on and wondering when Allhorror.net became MoveOn.org and just what in the holy hell this has to do with horror.
Let’s connect the dots:
What has happened to straight journalism in North America is something that can easily happen to genre journalism. Some would argue it already has.
The big players in genre journalism all enjoy relationships with the various big studios (as well as indies and all that). They get sent screeners, exclusive set photos, exclusive news items, various swag, all-expenses set visits, exclusive interviews and so on. This becomes how business is done and on the surface there is nothing really wrong with this arrangement.
It’s only when everybody involved forgets the point and their role that things get messy.
See, all these things become about access. If you have access to that studio relationship you can compete, if you don’t you are always going to be behind the other guys.
So if Outlet X says something negative about Studio Y, Studio Y can retaliate by cutting off Outlet X. The problem is that if you cut off all the outlets you can’t get the word out to your audience and traditionally the press was to be respected and feared because the studios needed the coverage. It should still be this way but a lack of solidarity between the outlets and a lack of principled unity means they can divide and conquer. Corporations can theoretically punish outlets now because there is so much competition and always someone willing to compromise their integrity in exchange for that access; to trade principle for set pics and a star beside your name in their list of friendly editors.
The genre press is here to help mediate a conversation between artists and audience, to provide context to that dialogue, to help artists reach out and find people to enjoy their work and to help audiences reach out and find artists that will be pleasing to them. To me, that’s the role in a nutshell. There isn’t anything in there about us being here to help a studio sell a product.
So what are we to do with the ugly business side of entertainment? I mean ultimately we do help studios sell a product but that doesn’t mean we have to be become the extension of the studio marketing department. We are the tastemakers. We are the signposts in the desert that tell people where the Oasis is or where the quicksand lies. We need to do that with integrity and we can’t let swag bags and our place on a publicists speed dial influence us. That way lies madness and the same stupefying chasm of irrelevance the mainstream press finds itself in now.
To counter this the majors need to stand tough on their integrity to the point of cutting coverage of studios that abuse the relationship and attempt to punish critical outlets. There is a ruthless streak that will urge you to see it as one less competitor at the table, I will implore you to ignore it for the good of the industry. Remember who you really want to represent in the end – the fans and the artists.
One of the privileges that being a major outlet is supposed to afford you is the ability to take stands on things with little fear of reprisal because the industry needs you – you are one of the gatekeepers to the success or failure of the film. Let’s make sure we are making the studios respect this and that the special access they grant is so we can get in and evaluate the work and present our findings without prejudice. It’s not a payoff for loyalty.
“The press is like the air, a chartered libertine.”
– William Pitt
The other disturbing sign of decline we need to be totally on guard against is the unwillingness to speak critically about the business end of the industry. We seem to have no problem being critical of the artists, sometimes unmercifully so. There is a perverse pleasure so many of us (myself included) take in a scathing review and the artists are always fair targets in these things. The people who aren’t considered fair targets are the businesspeople who in many cases share as much blame for the failure of a picture as the creative side of the house. They put their names on the credits, they tend to reap greater financial rewards than the artists but somehow expect to be immune from press criticism.
This is clearly and patently bullshit and another narcissistic attempt to escape part of the proper role of the moneyman: professional asshole and blame-taker.
“Journalism is to politician as dog is to lamp-post.”
– H.L. Mencken
Cruel cynic, possible crypto-fascist (or crypto-libertarian if there is a discernable difference) who once described democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses” – however you want to see the man he had the right idea here. This is the correct attitude and it applies to genre journalism and studio suits just as equally I think.
It’s always the soft-bellied squealers who want immunity. The ones whose hearts aren’t in the game. Like the cowardly goon who has finished selling all of his accomplices down the river so he can walk free, the suits seem to think that if they give up the artists to the wolves they can just cash checks.
If the artist is fair game, so is the producer. So is the distributor. So is the studio.
There is a growing intolerance to this notion that is troubling me and it should trouble you as well because this represents another example of how the more privileged business class asserts that it deserves some special protection from criticism while the more vulnerable class (the artists) must stand alone and answer for a film. This belief that the wealthy business class is beyond reproach is symptomatic of an illness that has infected the American Dream.
Besides just being cowardly, it violates principles of the role of the Hollywood Moneyman. Part of the job of the business side of the equation is to be the assholes, to be there to absorb blame (deserving or not). When people decry Hollywood trends and say “When will they stop doing TREND X” I can assure you nobody is thinking about directors or screenwriters – the “they” is the suits, the people the public sees as the dull-witted bean counters the studios hire to make profits, not art. The hired geeks with MBA’s who the people see as the guys who break movies down into numbers and who would green light any idiot slop that would make returns.
That’s who audiences blame and by trying to train the press into not making the same observations the suits are only ensuring a disconnect. Much like audiences turn increasingly to smaller blogs and more personal outlets for their political news they will do the same for their genre news if it goes down the same road.
So are the moneylenders in the temple all corporate stooges? Of course not. There are wonderful people out there in the business side of things who are not craven assholes at all. What I’m suggesting is that the ones who have a hard time with being painted as dull pricks and company yes-men don’t grasp something crucial that needs to exist for all this to work properly:
Art and business and the press and its subjects should never be comfortable in bed with each other. There should always be a healthy mistrust on both sides, a tension that keeps everybody in line. Proper contempt for each other needs to be cultivated and maintained. When any one side rolls over for the other we end up with disaster – vacuous commercial kibble produced by focus groups and brand consultants on one hand and decadent artistic excess on the other. The press need not be antagonistic but it cannot be credulous and eager to please the business – it must preserve its ability to be critical of the whole spectacle. Only this tension can preserve the balance required, healthy contempt keeps us honest.
So while a given producer may be the kindest, most artist-friendly person on the planet earth they need to accept that this narrative of tension needs to exist and to resist the urge to try and smooth it out or worse, stamp it out. I once managed a lot of staff, I knew they talked about me behind my back and I knew they were often unkind about me. That’s the price I paid for being in the position I had. I used that tension to get the performance I needed from my people and to give them the scapegoat they sometimes needed to beat the stress.
Stand on the same firing line as the artists and take what you get. That’s part of having your name in the credits and the best thing you can do to earn the respect of your talent is to eat some shit on their behalf, deserve it or not. Embrace being the “bad guy”!
In order that we not see a brutal death come to the integrity of our little corner of the world we need to preserve this divide – this tension – and never forget who we really serve and that is the audiences first, artists second and corporations last. This may be a naïve sounding appeal, it may appear a hopelessly romantic and antiquated perspective but it is the only honest approach I know and it is my hope our genre outlets preserve this ideal and work more closely together to ensure it stays that way. The alternative is a kind of feudalism and while putting heads on spikes has its charms you’ll find there are more heads in the world than skewers upon which to adorn them. So what’s harder – convincing people that pure dogshit is quality entertainment or just making quality entertainment in the first place?
I guess that depends how cynical you are feeling but I suspect on the aggregate the effort spent is about the same but the muscles exercised are different. Maybe that is the problem – we’ve made Charles Atlas of the marketing wonks and the makers of the soulless blockbuster and let our artists keep eating sand.
“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heartbreaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin.”
– Virginia Woolf
Read More by Dave Pace at AllHorror.net