Late last night two titans of online film criticism grappled in a candid but civil Twitter debate about the eroding ethical state of showbiz journalism. I’ve been reading both Devin Faraci of Badass Digest and Drew McWeeny of HitFix on a near-daily basis for the better part of a decade. They’re among the best web critics currently working; always insightful, articulate and passionate. They are the giant shoulders upon which I stand.
The discussion was sparked when Faraci sent out a tweet to his 10,000+ subscribers, lamenting a growing trend that finds junket critics selling out themselves and their faithful readers. “So few of your favorite film critics are trustworthy. What a state of affairs when opinions are for sale. “
Faraci was referencing a Paramount Pictures press conference, held earlier in the day, for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy, The Dictator. Journalists were inexplicably required to submit questions for approval beforehand. Cohen proceeded to field the questions in-character, as Gaddafi-composite Admiral General Aladeen, of the fictional Republic of Wadiya. Faraci's concern was that attending journalists became complicit participants in a shameless PR stunt masquerading as a legitimate press conference.
A carefully considered Professor X vs. Magneto polemic unfolded between Faraci and McWeeny (I’ll let you determine who’s who). They agreed upon the core ethical dilemma, that truth and honesty are fundamental to their profession, but disagreed on how a responsible journalist should react to offending parties. Both gentlemen asked tough questions in what emerged as one the most intelligent discourses on journalistic integrity I've read in ages.
The following is a transcript, from May 8th, 2012, of the Twitter conversation between Faraci and McWeeny.
DEVIN FARACI: So few of your favorite film critics are trustworthy. What a state of affairs when opinions are for sale. (And they sell for cheap)
DREW MCWEENY: I really wish if you're going to do this, that you'd go all the way. Call someone out directly instead of obliquely. If someone sold their opinion, I'd love to hear them discuss that price. I always think the specific is better than the vague.
FARACI: Most rationalize the price so they never know they paid it. Running first, exclusive access, early looks are all poisons without taste or smell. They never realize they're compromised. And the compromise becomes par for the course. Naming names is pointless, because the named always truly believe themselves faultless.
MCWEENY: To play devil's advocate, most of the things on that list have been part of your publishing schedule at times. Do you feel that you're compromised? Do you feel protected because your boss just don't give a fuck? If you ever had to change outlets, once you've made these proclamations, could you do so?
FARACI: I never excused myself from the critique. I'm self-aware enough to know I'm not above being compromised
MCWEENY: Okay. Fair enough. Ultimately, I think all any of us can do is focus on our own publishing and making it as great as possible. There is a lot of wasted text out there, and it seems like there is little you can do to change it except by example. I've smacked my head into certain walls enough times to know that I'm not changing anyone else. Nor do I care to.
FARACI: Everybody has that freedom. Nobody is an indentured servant to their outlet.
MCWEENY: Disagree. All any of us can do is be honest about what we see around ourselves, and be honest with how we process things. I think you have an outlet that affords you freedoms that you can enjoy, and you're able to define your own space. That's rare.
FARACI: Including being fully upfront (with readers and ourselves) about how we might be compromised.
MCWEENY: And at your best, you seem to enjoy that freedom and make the most of it. I tried that "what's around me" thing. Doesn't work. And no one really cares how the sausage gets made. I agree that honesty with the readership is important. But about myself. Not anyone else. No upside to that. I think that path leads to "David Poland, Internet Ombudsman," where it is so inside baseball and so skewed it's pointless. I'm sure David meant well at one point and even had points to make. I think he lost that thread years ago. It swallowed him.
FARACI: That's why I'm not interested in naming names and starting wars. Simply stating the rarely stated facts.
MCWEENY: And now he's either bitching about the NYT, about Nikki Finke, or complaining that no one knows numbers like he does. Yawn. No. Most outlets have very specific editorial voices, and do not give writers free reign to do whatever they want.
FARACI: They still pay people to dig ditches. If the demands of your outlet are immoral or wrong, you have more choices in life. I'm not Dave. I don't think I'm above the basic criticisms.
MCWEENY: Opinion. Not fact. When you're calling someone else's motives and inner life into question, I have a hard time calling it "fact." For someone starting out, telling them to either burn the system down or go dig a ditch... not really a fair statement.
FARACI: Human nature is human nature.
MCWEENY: And "immoral" is where I think it's opinion to some degrees. Sure, there are huge transgressions. Obvious ones. But there are people who make choices I wouldn't, and I don't think I'd jump to "immoral". Just not the choices I'd make.
FARACI: That seems like the fairest statement of all. This isn't exactly an indispensable profession. Do it right or do something else.
MCWEENY: Hmm. In the end, I am responsible for one person's publishing. Mine. That's enough to deal with.
FARACI: I guess. If you're prideful enough to believe you don't need to be policed.
MCWEENY: Not even slightly what I said. Not even close. About as far from what I said as possible.
FARACI: There's no way to only look out for ourselves because we're too blinded by ourselves. We need others looking out for us. Which means we need to be looking out for others.
MCWEENY: I do that in any number of positive ways. But I'm not a traffic cop. And I can't make anyone else do anything. I can be encouraging. I can be inclusive. I can try to create dialogue. But none of that means me policing anyone else. The last few years have taught me that you can offer whatever you have to offer, but you can't make anyone take it to heart.
FARACI: That's definitely true. But you can make sure others know when people are full of shit.
MCWEENY: Sure. And certainly as critics or cultural commentators or whatever you want to call what you do, that's part of the gig. But I'd rather focus that energy on the thing I'm writing about than the other people writing about it.
FARACI: Agreed. But this week Paramount did a press conference where all the questions were pre-approved. This was a high water mark for compromised bullshit. With the clamor of voices on the internet the exact magnitude of shittiness of this event can become lost in the larger roar. It's vital for informed people to call that out. At least as vital as this unimportant job can be. To me this is the bare minimum we can do.
MCWEENY: Did you write a piece about it? I confess, I just tuned the whole thing out because I wouldn't go to that in the first place. I certainly wouldn't submit my questions before an interview. Just wouldn't. Would never consider it. I think a piece about what that means is certainly worth writing and reading.
FARACI: I've been thinking about writing one. Had to confirm that the whole event was scripted first. I think every bit of the PR for this movie has been ugly. Symptoms of the new age of manipulation.
MCWEENY: To conclude, I'll read the shit out of it if you write it.