Critic’s Conundrum: How Well to Know People You Cover

Buried within the splendid Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” lies a mini-debate over what might be called critical etiquette. Specifically, while Ebert formed close relationships with directors and other talent whose work he critiqued, longtime Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss makes clear he doesn’t want to know his subjects at all, joking that he prefers to think of them as fictional characters.

For critics, it’s an age-old conundrum, one complicated by staff reductions at the outlets where many work – often forcing critics to don multiple hats, among them that of reporter – and interactions via social media, which can allow journalists and talent to engage in a dialogue outside the usual public-relations cocoon and filter.

Beyond the recent premiere of “Life Itself” on CNN, the issue is germane in the midst of another awards season — full of movie-related events — and the TV Critics Assn. press tour, sporting the usual mix of panels and parties, of conversations conducted with a cocktail in one hand and a tape recorder in the other.

Howard Rosenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic for the Los Angeles Times and now a USC professor and author, always sided squarely with Corliss in regard to hobnobbing with stars and filmmakers.

“I didn’t want to get to know anybody, and I didn’t want them to get to know me,” Rosenberg said. “You can end up liking them or disliking them, and that can affect how you write about them.”

Rosenberg remembered feeling queasy watching Ebert’s annual appearances on the red carpet during the Oscars, chatting up attendees for Los Angeles’ ABC station, KABC-TV. And while he conceded that avoiding casual run-ins with people is especially difficult for those who live in Los Angeles, in terms of interviews, he said, “It’s awkward. ‘Remember me? I’m the guy who said you were a piece of s**t yesterday.’”

As noted, fewer critics now have the luxury of operating from a distance, as Rosenberg did, with news coverage often having become an all-hands-on-deck proposition. Even so, there are differing opinions about the ground rules that should govern interactions with the industry.

Personally, I have always fallen somewhere in the middle on this issue. I have no problem meeting people whose work I review or having the occasional lunch, feeling that as long as opinions are expressed honestly, you can call someone’s baby ugly and still look them in the eye.

At the same time, lines can easily become blurred or erased. Many people in the business are charming, and some are, well, not. Based on human nature, vigilance is necessary to avoid letting those factors cloud one’s judgment or intrude when writing a review. And I agree with Rosenberg that events like the annual White House Correspondents Dinner — where reporters and politicians participate in the equivalent of a celebrity roast — don’t help matters.

So a meal or drinks, sure; attending their kid’s birthday party, not so much.

Having done this for a while, conveying those concerns isn’t always easy or fully understood. It’s not uncommon for someone to be personally wounded by a negative review, or to jump to the conclusion that negativity (in particular) can be traced to some deeper ulterior motive.

Nor is proximity – that chance encounter at the dry cleaners – the only challenge to objectivity. Even without the kind of in-person access fostered at an event like TCA, artists and critics can now engage each other, both in friendly and not-so-friendly ways.

Take “Scandal” exec producer Shonda Rhimes, who took to Twitter to add her objections to a widely derided column by New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley; or “Sons of Anarchy’s” Kurt Sutter, who frequently used social media or his blog to take critics to task (including yours truly) over the course of the show’s run.

So even if a critic wants to behave like Batman – dispensing justice from a cave – it’s hard to stay completely removed. The real question is whether scribes can adhere to the ideal of remaining impartial and detached. Moreover, the sheer size of today’s media giants can muddy the waters, such as when to disclose, say, that my wife works for Disney, even if her division is well removed from the studio’s TV networks.

Inasmuch as “media bias” is one of the first things people scribble in comments sections upon reading an opinion with which they disagree, the search for more nefarious explanations and eagerness to impugn critics’  integrity won’t go away. Indeed, for some, nothing will convince them otherwise.

From that perspective, perhaps the best assurance a critic can offer to those on the receiving end of his or her analysis comes courtesy of “The Godfather’s” Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

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