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NYT Critics Want to Interact--from a Safe Distance

by Anne Thompson
February 18, 2011 9:22 AM
14 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

It's all very well for newspapers to try and interact with their readers online. What strikes me about the NYTimes' effort to engage movie fans with film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis is how they are choosing to respond to their readers.

In other words, the NYT does not encourage unmediated comments on its critics' review pages, and they rarely respond to those comments that do get through (mostly positive). Instead via the Times' awards blog, The Carpetbagger, the NYT now invites readers to send questions to the critics, which they will then answer once a month as they see fit.

This allows the critics to stay at a remove from their readers, to stay in control. To pontificate from their high ivory tower of authority. It ignores the new order of the day, which brings critics onto a more equal footing with their readers. By contrast, this week LAT critic Kenneth Turan is also accepting Oscar questions from readers online: live. UPDATE: And Roger Ebert is the new model critic who communicates with his readers constantly, in multiple media: "And I read, vet and post all the comments on my blog and often respond," he reminds in an email.

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More: Web/Tech, Reviews, Digital Future, Media

14 Comments

  • Anthony Joseph | February 20, 2011 5:00 AMReply

    I'm thinking someone must have hacked Anne Thompson's column.
    That's the only explanation I can think of for why a normally sensible and fair writer like her would pen such snarky nonsense about the two NYT critics.
    She of all people should know that responding to readers is something that critics very often have to do on their own time, for no additional pay.
    And having to cope with the NYT's vast readership without any filtering mechanism would be an onerous job, even for someone doing it full-time.

  • Fake Ansen | February 20, 2011 3:16 AMReply

    As noted by the NYT Maureen Dowd:

    Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled that when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of high-tech sociopaths.

    “I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,” he said. “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually?”

  • John M | February 19, 2011 7:45 AMReply

    Ah, so THIS is the new order of things.

    Those snooty critics at the Times, in their ivory towers, writing their reviews and their features and not responding to their giant readership on an comment-to-comment basis, why I oughta...

    Just because you're exploited in such a way, Anne, doesn't mean Dargis and Scott have to...oh, never mind.

    (note: this is a typical comment...short, skimpy on substance, and pissy...you better respond!)

  • leo brady | February 19, 2011 7:21 AMReply

    Who reads the NYT anyway?
    the mainstream is dead!
    ;-)

  • Fake Ansen | February 19, 2011 6:58 AMReply

    Who needs Dargis and Scott when we have brilliant film scholars like McWeenie, Knowles and all the other vidiots at Iluvmoovies.com? As long as you have a twitter account, you're a member in good standing in the cinema criticism community, right? So what if you've never seen a Polanski film except Rosemary's Baby? Who cares if you don't know George Melies as long as you know George Lucas? "This allows the critics to stay at a remove from their readers, to stay in control," you say. "To pontificate from their high ivory tower of authority." Given the alternatives, I say build the ivory tower even higher....

  • Q. Le | February 19, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    Anne,

    I'm really surprised by what is otherwise an uncharacteristically snarky, unbalanced and unfair comment against two writers and a respected publication. I've read your work and know you're better than this, for reasons I'll list below:

    Roger Ebert separates his online reviews from his blog, his twitter, and his facebook. While these are all interconnected to an extent, you cannot directly comment on Ebert's main review page – most people do that via facebook and twitter. Also note that he does screen comments in his blog section, which means he reads through every single comment before allowing them to go through. He also screens his facebook page, deleting posts from users that he finds uninteresting or for whatever reasons he finds fit.

    Most writers are not as blessed as Mr. Ebert, are not given the same flexibility of medium or are on similar work/writing schedule as he is. Spam/inflammatory commenting is a major problem on the internet, and most publishers either let them all go through or don't let allow them at all because in the end, it saves time and money from having to screen through every comment or have administers respond to every "alert" notification. Screening is a major pain for most publishers/columnists, and that's just the nature of the beast.

    So to belittle Scott and Dargis for "interacting from a safe distance" is not only unfair, but mean spirited too. It implies that both writers have a safe in what the publisher wants, which for all we know could or couldn't be farther from the truth. While not familiar with Dargis, I am very familiar with Mr. Scott's works and know that he does take into account email responses to his reviews and editorials (for instance, he recently mentioned many readers heckled him for lauding Sophia Coppola's "Somewhere" too much in one of his editorials which I can't find the link to). Perhaps even both writers are under contract that restricts them in their medium, or perhaps they may be less comfortable interacting in a blogosphere style than others out there? (I know Todd McCarthy wasn't as comfortable with the transition to blogging on Indiewire after his leave from Variety, for instance).

    Perhaps the last thing you may not have considered is that directly emailing a writer/reviewer is a nice alternative to screening comments. Most inflammatory responders enjoy having their remarks seen by the net asap, and by omitting a instantly visible comment section you've immediately taken away the appeal for what we otherwise deem as "trolls." From my experience, more thoughtful/leveled responses tend to come from email responders: even if they are outraged or angry, emails tend to be much more articulate – my guess is that the sender is aware they are writing directly to someone's inbox as opposed to a generalized comment section, and the illusion of instantaneously having their immediate thoughts heard and seen is diluted in this sense.

    You're so much better than what you've written, Anne. I just hope you'll be a little less hot-headed in the future.

  • Scott | February 19, 2011 6:39 AMReply

    I think the NY Times SHOULD be protecting their critics from commenters, and that other publications would do well to follow suit. Sure, comments on reviews can sometimes be useful/informed/interesting, but more often they're just whiny, jerky rants from people who can't stand differing opinions from their own.

    Go look at the comments section on any recent Rex Reed review. (Particularly his True Grit review.) I don't like Reed's reviews myself, but yeesh, it's appalling the vitriol fired his way in the comments sections. To my mind, the chief problem with comments sections is that they encourage people to give immediate voice to the kind of thoughts they used to think twice about. And as a result, the comments in most mainstream, wide-readership publications are 90% idiotic/hateful/uninformed. Niche websites like this one tend to have more thoughtful posts, of course, so I'm not advocating banning comments altogether. But I certainly don't think the NY Times should be condemned for trying to maintain a modicum of control – and thus civility – in their web pages.

    And Anne, give us a break with this notion that not chatting with the public and not tweeting like Roger Ebert is somehow ivory tower snottiness. It's called prioritizing! Can't we all agree that the real valuable work is in the writing of strong prose reviews? Can you imagine if James Agee and Manny Farber and Pauline Kael had been forced to field questions from the public all the time? They'd have quit in disgust!

    I'm kind of horrified that this insidious sort of anti-intellectualism is making it's way into the pages of Indiewire, of all places...

  • rgm | February 19, 2011 5:02 AMReply

    Isn't it really a question of just plain TIME? If these critics are fully employed now, can they be expected to put in even more long hours "conversing and exchanging ideas with readers?"

    You are admirable and you do work 24/7 ... but didn't you just admit that you are often exhausted? How many readers' comments can major critics be expected to even read -- let alone "converse" with -- before being overwhelmed?
    Suppose even 50 TOH readers all requested your reponse daily?

  • Anne Thompson | February 19, 2011 1:01 AMReply

    Well, we could say that all film fans are created equal, and some know more and write better than others, and that's why they get paid to be film critics. Are all film critics equal? No, some are way smarter and more conversant in the intricacies of film writing than others.

    But the means of communication have changed. Instead of standing high above the crowd and laying down their thoughts, critics now have the ability to converse and exchange ideas with their readers. This is a good thing. Nothing to be afraid of.

    And you are right. While anyone can blog--just as anyone can post a film review--I do not think that any blogger or reviewer is a journalist. That requires training, rigor and rules about accuracy, integrity, and so forth. This I have no trouble with.

  • tony | February 19, 2011 12:39 AMReply

    Anne, I'm surprised by such snarky comments. But seriously you claim that criticism and readership need be on "equal footing"?! You don't really belileve that do you??? Would you honestly make this argument with regard to literary criticism??? Or art criticism??? Yes, movies are a popular art form - but does that make all comments of equal stature??? I know a lot about movies but Dargis and Scott know more than me! And both are better writers that me! CRITICISM IS A SKILL, NOT A POPULAR EXCHANGE. Similarly, one of the problems with "the new order of the day" is that any blogger can be a journalist - and I KNOW you have a problem with that!

  • Anne Thompson | February 19, 2011 12:30 AMReply

    I'm not saying that critics shouldn't have authority. I believe in and respect our best critics--including Scott and Dargis-- as much as anyone. And I want their pieces to be long, thoughtful and written slow. I'm saying that the internet offers the opportunity for real interaction--both ways--with readers, as opposed to weighing in from on high, oblivious to any reaction, query, or argument.

    The NYT protects its critics from criticism, in effect.

  • rgm | February 19, 2011 12:12 AMReply

    If critics were on an equal footing with their readers -- we would not need critics. Criticism is not a competitive sport.

    Furthermore, not everyone can work 24/7. Good bloggers work incredibly fast--all the time--but blog columns disappear even faster. NY Times reviews have a somewhat longer shelf life -- and may need more time, thought or rewrites.

  • Edward Douglas | February 18, 2011 11:12 AMReply

    And it's amazing that this is considered something new and groundbreaking. I've been writing for the internet for over 16 years and in that time, I've always interacted and communicated with anyone who chooses to read and respond to what I write. I've even made efforts to meet with many of them! If you're a critic and you don't care what your readers think about your opinion, then just write for print and stay off the internet, that's what I say :)

  • Joe Leydon | February 18, 2011 10:52 AMReply

    I have absolutely no problem with this. Indeed, I hope it sets an example that other publications follow.

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