Conservative Guru John Podhoretz Attacks Critics. Will Critics Return the Favor?

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The answer to the question is yes. On his blog, Diacritical, Douglas McLennan fearlessly takes neoconservative and self-styled prophet of popular culture John Podhoretz to task for comments published in the Weekly Standard on the poor quality of film criticism and, more broadly, why the upset in the arts-criticism community during this period of contraction for newspapers is actually all to the good.

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For Podhoretz, who famously wrote in his book Bush Country that the 43rd president will be fondly remembered by history as “the first great leader of the 21st century” (that is, if you thrill to great leaders lying their countries into war and guiltlessly sleeping as the blood of their countrymen coarses through their fingers), this is liberal hatemongering gussied up in a Project Runway-style burka. Fortunately for the rest of us, McLennan is having none of it.

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He begins by quoting two paragraphs from Podhoretz’s piece, which I’ll also do, since it contains Podhoretz’s thesis:

Movie criticism has been a feature of American newspapers for a century, and sadly, one can count the standout critics throughout that time on maybe two hands. Many of these jobs were filled by reporters or editors who didn’t get another plum assignment and were thrown a bone by a gruff but kindly managing editor. Nothing much good was going to come of that.

This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have happened to the field. Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting sensibility. The more self-consciously educated one is in the field–by which I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic has–the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to an ordinary person who isn’t all that interested in the condition of Finnish cinema.

What Podhoretz doesn’t acknowledge — since, as the child of two conservative, Jewish, New York journalists, he is as far removed from “ordinary” as the Yale-educated scion of a patrician political family — is that criticism is the place where speaking to “ordinary” people, artists and scholars occurs within one piece, and within the body of a critic’s work. True, some newspaper critics historically arrived at their jobs by dint of capricious editorial decrees — the sportswriter temporarily removed from the baseball beat to cover the opening night of some musical he’d have just as soon avoided. But that trope is increasingly, well, a trope — a byproduct of haphazard early 20th century editorial thinking, and there weren’t many cases of accidental critics even when there were cases of accidental critics. Further, it is a truism that even in those examples in which critics came to their jobs without significant professional study or training in the field in question, experiencing the art and having to articulate opinions about it over time acted as an education in itself. In fact, I would argue that history will show show immersion often produced better criticism than so-called trained professionals produced. The critic who was just some ordinary Jim or Jane who got to sit through every play on Broadway knows how to write for ordinary people. Those are often the critics that ordinary folk love.

Here how McLennan cleans Podhoretz of cant:

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Podhoretz clings to an old and unsophisticated definition of expertize. In this view, experts are supposed to be infallible by definition. Since no one is infallible, experts are to be inherently distrusted. In this view, experts are “them” and there is more natural wisdom in the “us” who don’t declare ourselves expert. This is the view that declares that being able to have a beer with the President is a more important qualification for the job than experience and skill.

First Podhoretz denigrates the role of newspaper movie critic by setting up a premise meant to ridicule: “Many of these jobs were filled by reporters or editors who didn’t get another plum assignment and were thrown a bone by a gruff but kindly managing editor. Nothing much good was going to come of that.”

Translation: newspaper movie critics became movie critics not because they knew anything, but because they couldn’t hack it in “real” journalism. For Podhoretz, the movie critic job was a consolation prize for fuck-ups. Nothing much good was going to come of that, indeed.

Nice, right? I especially like McLennan’s first graph, with its sly dig against Bush.

But Podhoretz goes on — as quoted by McLennan, which I’ll do here as well — to explain why, in terms of market research, the critic is a disposable asset:

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There is a story told about a major American newspaper that was among the first to do a huge readership survey in the early 1980s. The survey cost several million dollars. And in those days, the editors expected to learn that their lead political columnist was the most popular in the paper, that people really followed the sports columnists, and that the area rose and fell with the opinions on the editorial page.

To their absolute horror, what the editors discovered was this: No more than 5 percent of the readers looked at the editorials. The lead political columnist was one of the least-read. And the most popular item was “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” a column of questions and answers about celebrities which appeared not in the newspaper itself but in Parade, the independently published Sunday supplement.

And nobody, but nobody, knew the names of the critics. This was at a time when the paper in question had two movie critics, two theater critics, two television critics, two book critics, a dance critic, a rock critic, a classical music critic, and an architecture critic. It took the paper nearly three decades to get around to it, but the lead critics in all but one of these fields have taken buyouts and are not being replaced.

It is here that I disagree to some extent with McLennan’s response:

So there. Nobody knew the critics, so they should go. Except that that’s stupid. Without knowing the questions and methodology, it’s impossible to argue the specific points, but readership surveys notoriously have failed to measure what people really value in their newspaper. They might not know the byline, but they read the work. They might not specifically buy the paper for city hall coverage, but they notice it when it’s there (and when it’s not).

The larger issue is this. It’s all well and good to ask an audience what it wants. It’s important to understand the market. But no publication ever became great by following rather than leading. There is an important place for the wisdom of crowds. But there’s also a significant role for those who become experts. You’d think that Podhoretz, with his limited, elitist and subsidized audience at the Weekly Standard and Commentary would understand this as much as anyone.

First, I disagree with McLennan’s response because by considering the value of readership surveys, it allows the debate to rage on Podhoretz’s terms: Are critics valuable or not? What McLennan could have done is join the debate by discussing the value of critics for the artists and organizations who depend on them for something to market — for the print advertisements and promotional flyers and posters they used to buy, crowing with the critics’ words. In this sense, criticism is inevitably connected to revenue for newspapers and otherwise — or at least that’s how it was until the Great Recession began to dismantle the Great Newspaper Dynamic. You’d think that Podhoretz, that worshipper of the free market, would understand the relationship between the content critics write and how — once again, until recently — it was being monetized in real time. The problem with the newspaper industry is not the worthlessness of critics. It’s the inability of publishers to recognize the revenue stream right under their fingers.

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Let me just add that “no publication ever became great by following rather than leading” is the truest statement I can think of. I argued that for years at my former employer. I’ll let that speak for itself.

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