Commenting On Commentary Commenting On Commentary (On Reporting and Reviews)

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To say that we live in the age of the derivative is to be redundant: I don’t think anyone really knows what constitutes original reporting anymore. True, if you’re the first to report something, you’ve broken news; the theory was that if you can break news, you’ll burnish your brand and thus become a trusted source of information. The theory, however, is more and more being thwarted by reality.

Today, for example, CNN.com, via People.com, published a sad piece on the death of an 11-year-old Broadway actress, Shannon Tavarez. At the end, CNN.com noted that BroadwayWorld.com reported Tavarez’s death first. Does that that mean I’ll be turning to BroadwayWorld.com for my theatre news? Unlikely. Not to diss BroadwayWorld.com, but I wasn’t looking for Broadway news. I was looking for political news and there on CNN’s homepage was “11-year-old Broadway Singer Dies.” A great, if extremely sad, headline. The “news,” meanwhile, was already reporting about reporting about reporting.

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Somewhat in this vein was Amanda Ameer’s recent Life’s a Pitch blog post on ArtsJournal.com. The headline: “This Age Without Last Words.” It raises a variety of issues, some new, some not, with regard to contemporary arts reporting and criticism, including whether the derivative-of-a-derivative-of-derivative construct applies here, too.

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(The funny thing is that if I write about the critic she mentions who reviewed a music concert he didn’t attend, I am, in essence, adding to the derivative prolixity of the Web. So click on the above link(s) and discover for yourself.)

Personally, I’m more intrigued by Ameer’s look at arts criticism generally — its currently utility and value, if you could call it that, to the marketplace. This is some of what I gleaned:

1) “Media” publications, quite rightly, rarely remove articles from their sites:

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When a feature or review in a newspaper would never been seen or heard from again except in a press kit or on a quote sheet, I assume that a reader’s inclination to voice their own opinions existed in a diluted form.

2) “Media” influence over cultural-consumer decisions is ebbing into extinction. Surprise! It’s nothing new:

When my mom used to take my sister and me into the city to see Broadway shows, she’d say that the best reviews were always from the line for the Ladies room during intermission. “The Ladies room at intermission can make or break a Broadway show!” she’d announce. Today, the Ladies Who Intermission can Tweet their reviews, update their Facebook profiles with their reviews, and text their reviews to friends.

3) “Media” no longer signifies a professional journalistic class distinct from the unwashed masses:

Artists and publicists have blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. …publicists and artists now have a plethora of ways to connect with audiences without the filter of the traditional media.

4) “Media,” by no longer signifying a professional journalistic class distinct from the unwashed masses, sows confusion:

…do we need publicists writing reviews of their own clients’ work? Do we need artists reviewing their own work? A separation of perspective exists for a reason.

5) “Media,” in terms of arts criticism, is proccupied with consumption of the work, not the work itself:

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…what creates a feeling of more helplessness than a bad review of a CD your client and you have been working on for years? What is more frustrating than a profile for which a journalist clearly went in to an interview with an agenda, completely unbeknownst to you?

6) “Media” cannot be reinvented in an age of hyper-derivation:

Because we have grown so accustomed to Tweeting, updating, and blogging our every thought, our urge to comment on negative features and reviews rather than ignore them or learn our lesson with certain writers is accelerated.

No offense to Ameer, but much of this isn’t new, but I appreciated how these subjects competed for space in her mind and in her writing. I also thought it was very apt that she find the very folks who view arts criticism as central to their businesses — publicists, producers, artists themselves — being least likely to put their money where their gripes are:

In response to the two angriest (and lengthiest!) e mails I’ve received about this blog — one from a publicist at a major New York presenter and another from the head of a major record label — I suggested they make their comments public. …Neither the label nor the presenter commented, and frankly, as a publicist, I would have advised them to do just that. Where, then, is the disconnect? I write this blog and want people to post their criticisms, and then I tell my own clients that they shouldn’t comment on their own features or reviews? Am I simply a Big Old Hypocrite, or are we all at a point in media history wherein we’re not quite sure whether everyone having the access, ability and inclination to respond in a public way is helping us or hurting us?

Recently, in a professional setting, I was asked to provide my view on contemporary arts criticism. My response was not unlike Ameer’s — a jumble of interlocking, seemingly contradictory instincts and observations in an increasingly anxious search for order and clarity.

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Tellingly, no one commented on Ameer’s post — not even on the absurdity of an arts journalist or critic writing about an event he readily admits he did not attend. Instead, the writer in question based his piece on hearsay. Which makes it commenting on commentary to which he had no professional right to comment. Which, apparently, was not worth any commentary.

Which means that maybe commentary that comments on commentary isn’t worth any commentary at all.

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