Why even great arts critics face declining clout

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Who sells tickets, closes shows, makes authors?

The New York Times obituary of Peter Hall, a great British theater director, notes in passing how his 1955 production of "Waiting for Godot" inspired an important, glowing review by "reputation-making critic Kenneth Tynan."

Who's around these days to make and break a reputation in the arts? Who's like the chain-smoking Brit Tynan (1927-1980), who is most associated with his days at London's Observer?

Can literary critic James Wood sharply boost careers of fiction authors? What about Michiko Kakutani during her career at The New York Times (she recently stepped down)? Frank Rich was a powerful theater critic during his esteemed Times tenure but can Ben Brantley close a show?

Movies? There doesn't seem anybody in this era of Rotten Tomatoes (owned by two big movie-making media companies). TV? Was slobbering over "Game of Thrones" more important than word of mouth and powerful marketing?

Even in their syndicated heyday, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert may not have altered the fate of many films. But what movie critics surface regularly (if ever) on late-night shows, such as the "Tonight Show," as they did?

"It's a good question," says New Yorker editor David Remnick (a big fan of Wood) about the general matter of impactful critics.

"Good question," said Chris Jones, the whirling dervish theater critic of the Chicago Tribune. "We try."

Somewhere in the mix are the decline of traditional media, the coming of the internet, powerful commercial marketing machines and social media that makes everybody, including Sean Hannity, a self-professed critic. Having sweated blood, some authors might prefer a recommendation via tweet by Taylor Swift or Ashton Kutcher to praise in The New York Review of Books or People magazine, or from Matt Lauer during a solicitous "Today" appearance.

Mountains of quality confront even taller ones of crap, and the willingness of a larger public to distinguish is ambiguous. And yet ...

"Reputation-making critics still exist, in my view, in two corners of our world," said Andras Szanto,  an author and cultural strategy consultant who was director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.

"On the one hand, restaurants. In high cuisine, a great review can really make a difference, especially when a major food critic drives interest in an obscure and offbeat restaurant. My hunch — not altogether confirmed, but I think reasonable — is that the other place one might look for such a role is in small scenes and subcultures. In these little petri dish arts worlds, the voice of the thinker and proselytizer still counts. Everyone’s listening. "

"Elsewhere the critic's voice has been diluted by the sheer vastness and diffusion of the cultural universe, the overwhelming force of the commercial marketing apparatus, and the fragmentation of the media business, which deprives critics of the huge soap boxes they once stood on. "

Alluding to Tynan, Szanto notes how “reputation making” is a critical power even greater than the ability to “close a show.” Yes, some theater productions can still suffer from a lousy review. "But as far as actually creating reputations, that’s a mighty cultural power, well out of reach for working critics today — and in fairness, a privilege of only a handful of critics in the past."

As for that cadre, he references Clement Greenberg, the late art critic. Szanto recalls a report by the NAJP (I was on the board before its demise), which was the first and only survey of visual arts critics in America. One of them alluded to Greenberg in maintaining that "the days of chest thumping oracle critics are over."

His resounding (not quite) conclusion about the state of criticism: "I would say that anyone perched in the New York Times food critic slot who writes up some remote Bushwick brick oven pizza joint or a hidden Chinese dumpling place in a mall in Queens will likely give rise to a foodie phenomenon. Other than that I cannot name names. "

Trump's morning tweets

Yes, they are back! Yes, this very morning! How lucky for serious discussants of public policy. More lower down.

White House and NABJ enter Jemele Hill fray

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders morphed into the nation's self-appointed H.R. Department and cited as a "fireable offense" the tweets from ESPN host Jemele Hill about President Trump being a racist, the National Association of Black Journalists backed Hill:

"Jemele Hill is an award-winning, veteran journalist who has distinguished herself for having insightful opinions and perspectives on a variety of topics. Having been successful along those lines for 20 years, she has been able to connect with viewers on ESPN as well as on various social media platforms. That withstanding, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) supports Hill's First Amendment rights on all matters of discussion, within and outside the world of sports, as they do not impinge on her duties as a host and commentator.​"

Hill had not tweeted since Tuesday until late last evening when she posted a photo: "Love that my @NABJSports brothers came to check on me." And then came this tweet, "So, to address the elephant in the room:"

"My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional."

Conservatives who find ESPN the media's Leninist torchbearer won't be appeased. But the early Vegas line is that it will provide creative inspiration for Fox's Tucker Carlson tonight.

Facebook seeks to soothe advertisers

Adweek says Facebook is bringing out tools that presumably give advertisers a better sense of where their ads are actually showing up. It's all about measurement and transparency at a time when fake Russian accounts bought ads. "The moves come at a critical time when advertisers are not only demanding more insight into how the so-called walled garden operates, but also have broader concerns about controlling how digital ads are served and measured."

 Meanwhile, Robert Mueller and Senate investigators are on its case, too, as Bloomberg reports.

Tabloid and travel

ABC's "World News Tonight" opened with its characteristic tabloid panache: "The nursing home horror after Hurricane Irma ... "Deadly school Shooting" ... "Marines Hospitalized" ... and later threw in "Biracial Child Attacked?" ... "Chemical Plant Fire."

But it also included Brian Ross' disclosure that very wealthy Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin "requested use of a government jet to take him and his wife on their honeymoon in Scotland, France and Italy earlier this summer, sparking an 'inquiry' by the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General."

The woeful coverage of women's sports

University of Southern California and Purdue University researchers update a decade-long study of general-driven TV coverage of sports and conclude that " L.A.-based network affiliates devoted 3.2 percent of airtime to women’s sports on news broadcasts, down from 5 percent from 1989, the first year of the study. ESPN’s SportsCenter has been even worse, devoting 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports, a proportion that has remained flat since the study began tracking the show in 1999."

The study in the journal Gender & Society contends that sexism in coverage is less blatant than a decade ago but still obvious. “It seems at first that it’s respectful, but if you compare the framing with men’s sports, women are talked about in a much more boring way. There is no joking or complimenting. Those kinds of descriptors are missing from women’s sports.”

And it juxtaposes the modest quantity of coverage with dramatic spikes in female sports participation. ESPN, says USC's Michela Musto, "’remains a kind of electronic man cave, by, for and about men’s sports."

Lighting black faces

It's arcane and fascinating: Ava Berkofsky, the cinematographer of HBO's "Insecure," on the traditional problem of lighting black and brown faces. Partly, it's been a technical issue, with this fascinating history:

"When it comes to calibrating film cameras to properly light a subject, we attribute much of what we know to Kodak’s work with 'Shirley cards' from the 1940s through 1990s. Color film was adjusted against the cards, named after model and Kodak employee Shirley Page, who appeared on the initial set. As Richard Photo Lab worker Jersson Garcia told NPR in 2014, 'If Shirley looked good, everything else was OK. If Shirley didn’t look so hot that day, we had to tweak something — something was wrong.'"

"Despite their worldwide use, for decades the cards featured only white women. According to Vox, things shifted when companies complained to Kodak that they couldn’t tell different-colored wood products apart. But when did this change happen for brown people as opposed to just brown objects? 'I’d say it turned around in 2010,' Berkofsky said. 'When the [video camera] Arri Alexa came out, it really changed how people were shooting digital and what kind of results we could get.'" (Mic)

When you're hot

Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Vice Media.  It's now cut a deal with the National Basketball Association and Turner Sports to produce mobile and digital basketball content. They'll share the ad sales.

The initial fare sounds very Vice-like, including "Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and his journey from Cameroon to NBA stardom, the influence the hoops hotbed of the Greater Toronto Area had on Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, and Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay’s immersion into Chinese basketball culture."

Wildlife and wildfires

How do all those those fires out West, underreported by national media, impact wildlife? The Billings, Montana, Gazette is running the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman Review's take on things:

"Despite the well-established links between air pollution and human health, vegetation and aquatic ecosystems, less attention has been paid to the potential impact of atmospheric gases on birds and wildlife."

"However, according to one survey, 'Avian responses to air pollution include respiratory distress and illness, increased detoxification effort, elevated stress levels, immunosuppression, behavioral changes, and impaired reproductive success.' The study was conducted by two University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers after a review of other studies conducted in the past 60 years."

Remnick on Hillary

The early interviews with Hillary Clinton about her book are imbued with a melancholy monotony, but if you're as good as The New Yorker's David Remnick, you can overcome Clintonian rote pervading much of the session. It includes his take on the media-Clinton mutual wariness and Clintonian self-pity and sense of victimization:

"Such ingrained habits of media antagonism proved to be another factor that allowed Trump, the biggest liar in the history of Presidential politics, to be seen by tens of millions of people as a figure of rude authenticity, their champion. In Clinton’s view, she could never win with people who had been trained to regard her as a high-minded phony. Her wariness and evasions drained their sympathy; her strained attempts to win people back too often fell flat. Why couldn’t she be admired for her intelligence, her competence, her experience?" (New Yorker)

The Edie Windsor photos

After many thousands of words marked the passing of Edie Windsor, 88, who won the landmark Supreme Court gay rights case, Slate takes a look at the images of her personal life: "These Old Photos of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer Are a Deeply Moving Portrait of Queer Love and Desire."

A high-caloric pissing match

A big political issue in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, is a significant new soda tax that's led to heavy advertising by the industry and unions scared of decreased sales and lost jobs. But a big new ad campaign backing the new penny-per-ounce tax now underscores a "public health emergency" as a result of sugary drinks.

Those radio and TV ads are paid for by Michael Bloomberg, and you can't miss them unless you're in a concrete underground bunker. By coincidence, during last night's Cubs-Mets game, a Bloomberg ad about the adverse impact was followed by one for a bank that mentioned how 17,000 hot dogs are sold at each Cubs game. Nutrition isn't a priority, at least not at Wrigley Field.

The Morning Babel

Yesterday's meeting between Trump and top Democrats on so-called Dreamers legislation was hailed not just by the Democratic hierarchy last night but also by "Trump & Friends" this morning, albeit for slightly different reasons. The Democrats underscored no agreement on building a wall, but the show said it will be done, if down the road, and if not it's the Democrats' fault. "Washington's a swamp!" said cheerleading co-host Steve Doocy, portraying Trump as a deal master back at work.

Breitbart clearly departed from the Fox line, making the network look like it's appeasing amnesty: "Amnesty Don." It says he caved.

CNN's "New Day," no surprise, came at matter from a different angle: Republican chagrin with such a deal. "I believe in his heart of hearts he doesn't want to kick these people out of the country," said Dana Bash of Trump. Meanwhile, co-host Chris Cuomo reminded us of the Irma aftermath, now in Naples and covering those awful nursing home deaths but also bringing a needed live report by Clarissa Ward from devastated St. Martin in the Caribbean (remember the Caribbean, folks?), which desperately needs food, running water and sanitation.

MSNBC's "Morning Joe" was back to Trump mania and featured co-host Joe Scarborough underscoring polling that shows only 12 percent of voters want Dreamers deported and how thus only a small minority supports the positions of Breitbart, its boss Steve Bannon, and Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham on the Dreamers-wall matter, calling each out specifically. "I'm fine with the base being pissed off this morning. The 12 percent can get together in a phone booth somewhere in Washington, D.C."

As for Trump, once again the leader of the free world (or is it Germany's Angela Merkel now?) was watching cable TV, or perhaps checking out The Washington Post or New York Times stories on the apparent deal, and tweeted at 6:11 a.m.  (sunrise there today was 6:49). "No deal was made last night on DACA. Massive border security would have to be agreed to in exchange for consent. Would be subject to vote."

The TV and newspaper industries should really get Trump to do Twitter public service ads on the importance of kids consuming high-end news before breakfast. 

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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