At a time when so many newspapers are slashing arts coverage, the St. Petersburg Times has full-time film, performing arts, visual arts, television, pop music and book critics. But as famed film critic Roger Ebert recently lamented in his blog, cutting substantive arts and entertainment news signifies a more troubling trend. Here are excerpts from Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times blog entry of Nov. 26.
Charlotte Sutton, Arts and Homes editor
A newspaper film critic is like a canary in a coal mine. When one croaks, get the hell out. The lengthening toll of former film critics acts as a poster child for the self-destruction of American newspapers, which once hoped to be more like the New York Times and now yearn to become more like the National Enquirer. We used to be the town crier. Now we are the neighborhood gossip.
The crowning blow came this week when the once-magisterial Associated Press imposed a 500-word limit on all of its entertainment writers. The 500-word limit applies to reviews, interviews, news stories, trend pieces and "thinkers." Oh, it can be done. But with Synecdoche, New York?
Little do we know
Worse, the AP wants its writers on the entertainment beat to focus more on the kind of brief celebrity items its clients apparently hunger for.
The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it. It teaches shabby values to young people, festers unwholesome curiosity, violates privacy, and is indifferent to meaningful achievement. One of the TV celeb shows has announced it will cover the Obama family as "a Hollywood story." I want to smash something against a wall.
As the CelebCult triumphs, major newspapers have been firing experienced film critics. They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking. What they require doesn't need to be paid for out of their payrolls. Why does the biggest story about Twilight involve its fans? Do we need interviews with 16-year-old girls about Robert Pattinson? When was the last time they read a paper? Isn't the movie obviously about sexual abstinence and the teen fascination with doomy Goth death-flirtation?
Why do we need critics? A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should "reflect the taste of the readers." My friend said, "Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald's?" The editor: "Absolutely." I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, "You are correct, sir!" A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.
Little do we care
At one time all newspapers by definition did those things on every page. Now they are lascivious gossips, covering invented beats. On one single day recently, I was informed that Tom and Katie's daughter Suri "won't wear pants" and shares matching designer sunglasses with her mom. Eloping to Mexico: Heidi and Spencer. Britney is feeling old. Amy is in the hospital.
The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. It is not about the disappearance of film critics. We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.
The news is still big. It's the newspapers that got small.
Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources.