Sun-Times theater critic provokes outrage for panning play

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Race, violence and misunderstanding are part of Chicago's civic shame. The tragic spectacle now ensnares a theater critic while underscoring tricky issues of cultural and media diversity.

To slightly mangle "Hamilton," the Chicago Sun-Times might shout out, "I'm not throwing away my critic."

The paper devoted its entire editorial page Sunday to support Hedy Weiss, its own longtime theater and dance critic, after outrage sparked by her review of the esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre's new play, "Pass Over," which is Antoinette Nwandu's redrafting of "Waiting for Godot."

Here are the lines that infuriated people:

“To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. "

Weiss continued, "Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist White cop (clearly meant to indict all White cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless White aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely White ‘liberal’ audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.’’

There was a petition signed by around 3,500 people to bar Weiss from reviewing shows and declarations from some that announced they'd do just that. (Chicago Tribune) And then came a statement from Steppenwolf, whose laundry list of alums includes John Malkovich, William Petersen, Jeff Perry, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Glenn Headley and Gary Cole:

"Particularly egregious are the comments from Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, whose critical contribution has, once again, revealed a deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism."

While conceding the need for more diversity among the ranks of critics, her paper asked, "Could Hedy have been more nuanced in her comments? Should her review of Pass Over' been edited better? Was it tone-deaf? We are all free to complain, defend and debate. But Hedy Weiss is a theater critic of integrity who writes from a place of honest good faith. Nothing she wrote comes close to what Steppenwolf assessed as 'deep-seated bigotry.'"

Geoffrey Stone, a prominent University of Chicago law professor, hadn't been aware of the flap. When I passed along the editorial, he said, "The Sun-Times response sounds eminently sensible. The critic is free to offer her opinion, others are free to criticize her, and the Sun-Times is free to defend her. The only unfortunate thing is the threat no longer to treat her equally with other theater critics in terms of free tickets, but they are free to do that, even though they're wrong to do so."

And then there's Harvey Young, a dramatist and a theater and African-American Studies scholar at Northwestern University, who notes that this sort of backlash tends to be more common in film criticism. "Longtime reviewers are called out for being unable to appreciate and understand the significance of new artistic works."

Slowly, he said, theater is getting more diverse. "August Wilson was the most produced playwright on regional stages last year. Ayad Akhtar was the most produced playwright in the previous year. Lauren Yee was the most recommended playwright for this year’s Kilroy’s list."

"The body of theater critics is not diversifying at the same pace — and, unfortunately, the overall numbers of major newspaper theater critics are decreasing as newspapers cut funding to the arts."

As for the Sun-Times editorial, it "struck the right note. It acknowledges the need to diversify its staff of theater critics, defends a critic for the right to express an opinion (even a potentially disagreeable one), and reminds us that we need to consider everything in context — whether a play or the body of a critic's career — before making a quick judgment.”

Facebook heads to Hollywood

"The social-networking giant is talking to Hollywood studios and agencies about producing TV-quality shows with an eye toward launching original programming by late summer, people familiar with the matter said." (The Wall Street Journal)

This should only expand the current golden age of content, and creator-actor compensation, of late symbolized by the rise of Netflix. Netflix has stunned Hollywood with its free-spending ways. Imagine Facebook.

Trump's lies

The New York Times should now give David Leonhardt and Stuart Thompson several days off due after the surely exhausting, if not physically debilitating work of cataloguing Donald Trump's lies since he took office. It took up an entire page of the Sunday paper in rather small type.

Google and your email

"Google is stopping one of the most controversial advertising formats: ads inside Gmail that scan users’ email contents. The decision didn’t come from Google’s ad team, but from its cloud unit, which is angling to sign up more corporate customers." (Bloomberg)

Total transparency in Portland

The Oregonian's website last night showed that, as with political, all naked bike rides are local, or something like that:

"Portland reacts to the 2017 World Naked Bike Ride."

However, "The Oregonian is a family paper, which means we don't publish inappropriate photos. This policy leads to some interesting exchanges between our photographers, reporters and editors during our coverage of the ride. They included the cogent inquiry, 'What's the policy on butts?'"

CNN's retraction

The network totally blew a story that claimed Senate investigators were investigating ties between Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci (a Fox favorite) and a Russian investment fund. It ran a two-paragraph retraction on its site in what passes for full disclosure on TV. (The Hill)

Seymour Hersh's latest

Investigative reporting legend Seymour Hersh now argues, with a contrarianism that verges on the befuddling, that the Syrian government chemical gas attack that prompted a U.S missile strike didn't happen. It comes, oddly enough, not in one of his longtime homes, such as The New Yorker, but in the German newspaper Welt.

His effort is derided pretty convincingly by Bellingcat, a site run by Eliot Higgins, who once blogged under the nom de plume Brown Moses and is deemed reliable on weapons used in the Syrian war.

"As with his other recent articles, Hersh presented another version of events, claiming the established narrative was wrong. And, as with those other recent articles, Hersh based his case on a tiny number of anonymous sources, presented no other evidence to support his case, and ignored or dismissed evidence that countered the alternative narrative he was trying to build." (Bellingcat)

One-party government

The New York Post had a bug up its butt about a New York Times look at Republican political control in North Carolina. It declares, "Imagine — a local political party so dominant that it can enact its agenda at will and even 'skew the balance of power in its favor.' Actually, the Times needn’t have ventured so far south to find such tyranny, as New York City itself is a virtual one-party state and will likely remain so for at least the near future."

Why "Zuck" is not running for president

A tweetstorm by a former Twitter executive "laid out a convincing case for the real reason" behind Mark Zuckerberg's year-long tour of the country (Recode):

“Zuck woke up on Nov. 9 acutely aware that FB had facilitated a new shift he didn't foresee or understand,” wrote Nathan Hubbard, alluding apparently to Donald Trump's victory. He deems a rumored presidential run silly and said the cross-country odyssey is really about his "ruthless survival instinct" as he tries to assess unintended consequences of the company's success and its competitors.

A primer on fake news from kids

Replete with an opening featuring a photo of Kellyanne Conway, Common Sense Media offers "How to spot fake news (and teach kids to be media-savvy)"

Taking a break

The New York Times recently profiled Gabe Fleisher, a high school freshman in St. Louis who cranks out a solid politics newsletter. "The free newsletter, which he has been writing in some form since he was 8, is a surprisingly sophisticated, well-researched summary of the day’s political news."

Alas, a reader of the newsletter passes along word from Fleisher that "I'm about to leave for eight weeks of summer camp, where I'll be in the wilderness, without internet, Twitter, TV, or the ability to write a daily newsletter." Let's all be envious.

The NFL's future

"New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said the future of NFL broadcasts is in 'over the top' deals like the livestreaming agreement the NFL signed with Amazon this spring." (New York Post)

The morning babble

MSNBC's "Morning Joe" agreed that in normal circumstances President Trump would twist arms to get votes for a healthcare bill he deems "mean" and claims that former President Obama used his term in chiding the bill. But these aren't normal times.

"Trump & Friends" on Fox said predictably "Liberal media incites healthcare fears." A primary source for its allaying those Democratic-inspired fears are the words of "Kellyanne." Yes, "Kellyanne," as co-host Ainsley Earhardt referred to her, with even cheerleader co-host Steve Doocy saying the prospects for passage looked tough.

CNN's "New Day" also did the legislative politics of healthcare but segued right into Trump's switcheroo in saying Obama stole his adjective in describing the health bill. And its panel of David Drucker, A.B Stoddard and Errol Louis then said, yes, Russia was involved in election meddling after a Washington Post revelation about Obama's struggle to deal with what was obvious, namely Russian hacking.

Trump and the National Enquirer

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin explores the incestuous relationship between Trump and the National Enquirer in The New Yorker. Bloomberg did something similar last September in "TABLOID’S SHOCKINGLOVE AFFAIR WITH TRUMP REVEALED!"

McConnell as Houdini

With the image of him in a magician's box, giant hacksaw slicing the middle of the box, Axios writes, "This is the week we'll learn whether Mitch McConnell can pull a rabbit out of a hat. His challenge: Tweak his healthcare bill enough to win over wavering moderates — including Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski — without losing any more conservatives on top of Rand Paul."

For whom the bell tolls in Brussels

"The European Union’s antitrust watchdog will as soon as Tuesday hit Alphabet Inc.’s Google with a fine of more than €1 billion ($1.12 billion) and demand changes to the company’s business practices, according to people familiar with the matter." (The Wall Street Journal)

Summer internship at the White House

If you're on a vacation tour of the White House, or among the media taking part in those increasingly camera-less press briefing, take note: "Robert Mueller begins thirteenth day undercover as White House janitor."

Do Trump or Mike Pence realize it? Hopefully there will be follow-ups in The Onion.

P.S. Popular demand requests actual results from my kids' weekend ballgames tipped on Fridays. So my coach-pitch Junior Rockies (first- and second-graders) lost to the White Sox, 15-11. Switch-hitting Eliot Warren would have gone 4 for 4 were it not for an Omar Vizquel-like play by Sox shortstop in the fateful sixth inning. Great sliding catch, even better throw to first. It was then off to snacks.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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