Everyone's a Critic
This is the 400th or so media column I have written for the Voice; it is also, absent unforeseen circumstances, the last.
After eight-and-a-half years here, I am leaving to become the New York bureau chief for The Industry Standard, a weekly magazine covering the Internet business. Writing a weekly press column for the Voice is a joyful privilege, but also a complicated one. In large part because I inherited Press Clips from a series of brilliant but distinct journalists, this 25-year-old column has amassed multiple expectations in different camps. There is an audience that wants an umpire for the wars--declared and undeclared--among the New York dailies; an audience that expects a supplement to mainstream media's lousy coverage of international affairs; an audience that sees media criticism as a tool of left advocacy, which includes coverage of left-alternative media; an audience that wants holes poked in national media; and an audience that craves reporting and gossip on media business and culture.
Serving all readers in any given column is nearly impossible--which is to say that writing Press Clips guarantees that a lot of people, and not just those it targets, are regularly dissatisfied with it. That's fine: being hectored by readers who think the column falls short in whatever respect keeps me alert and brings in good items. Wordsworth's vision was that everyone could be a poet; among my readers, it seems everyone wants to be a critic.
If I seem heavily focused on the kaleidoscope of reader expectations, it's because I think that whatever consensus once existed on the mission of this column has cracked. There are times when I wonder whether the model of a weekly column of left media criticism is outdated.
Partly this doubt arises from the erosion and fragmentation of the left itself. When I began working here in 1990, I believed--perhaps naively--that a majority of Voice readers shared a roughly uniform point of view on most political questions, local, national, and even international. From that point of view flowed assumptions about mainstream media (that corporate ownership acts as a de facto censor on vital topics, that the lives of powerless people are routinely ignored or distorted, etc.) which constituted a workable filter for a weekly column.
Those assumptions, while still plausible, are now far from airtight. I don't know anymore how completely the Press Clips audience identifies with the left; those who do no longer necessarily share a knowledge or interest base, let alone a common perspective. At one time, it was reasonable to presume that enough Voice readers followed issues in Central America to allow an item about distorted media treatment of Nicaragua to speak for itself. But in the late '90s, there are far fewer comparable left issues; you can't write about, say, coverage of Burma if a sizable majority of readers haven't been through the basics--they will simply turn the page.
Of course, that example also illustrates the tumultuous changes in the media landscape over the last decade. A good press critic will seek to enlighten readers about unfamiliar material; still, the job differs from that of film, theater, or book critics in that we mostly write about stories that readers have already seen or can reasonably be expected to know about.
That makes this column dependent not only on how the media performs, but what readers actually see. Here, too, lies an eroded consensus: the media habits of the Voice audience are, I believe, dramatically different from what they were a generation ago. The late Geoffrey Stokes, who wrote this column from 1984 to 1989, almost never went a week without mentioning some flare-up at one or more of the city's tabloids. That was his world, and the column assumed it was yours, too. Maybe it was: the tabs had hundreds of thousands more readers then than they do now, and they were also the best at covering the gurgling, sexy metro scandals of the time: Koch administration corruption, the PVB and Donald Manes, Wedtech.
But Stokes's universe has been altered, perhaps forever. Most of my closest friends do not seriously follow city politics; a few years ago they stopped even feeling guilty about it. The closing of New York Newsday in 1995, the shriveled readership of both the News and Post, the self-interest of politically corrupt owners that makes any Spice Girls development a bigger tabloid story than the governor's race--all of these are media symptoms of the suburbanization of the mind that defines the Giuliani era. Local political involvement is now perceived not as a civic obligation but as a kind of hobby, something relegated to niche, rather than mass, media.
This column, under Doug Ireland and myself, has struggled with that shift, as has much of the Voice. Someone trying to write an NYC-focused version of Press Clips today would spend a lot of time critiquing New York 1 and the Observer, both places, besides the Voice, where some of the deepest metro coverage appears today. But with Voice circulation now ballooned since the paper went free in Manhattan, the audiences of those outfits make up a small minority of ours. Does it make sense to go full blazes after a story that most Voice readers did not see initially and probably never will? In some instances, sure--but that's not a strong foundation for a regular column.
For that and related reasons, Voice editor Don Forst believes Press Clips should be a creature of strong original media reporting, rather than criticism or commentary. I largely concur, though I've tried to create a hybrid breed.
Theoretically, a fully functioning Internet would alleviate some of this mission creep. Through hypertext links, Press Clips could provide instant access to whatever story or broadcast was being written about. In such a version, it would probably make sense to publish items several times a week--as close to a real-time reaction as possible--and to invite instantaneous reader response; an edited version of the whole mix could then be published weekly in the paper. This is the model used by several columns in Slate.
That vision is, however, several years away from being realized--and I say that's a good thing. Because for the time being, the old-fashioned, weekly-newspaper model helps ensure that the Voice stays in touch with the New Yorkers who need it most--the ones without audio players on their PCs, maybe even the ones without home phone lines.
After all, it's not as if there's a shortage of media reporting and coverage for the elite; on the contrary, this decade has witnessed an absolute explosion of the genre. Remember that in 1990, New York Times media reporting was tame, minimal, and late; the Post had not yet ceded almost its entire business section over to media stories; the Observer and New York Press carried media stories, but mere trickles of what they do today; Ed Diamond's New York work was spotty and infrequent; there was no CNN Reliable Sources, no NPR On the Media, no Spin Cycle on the bestseller list, and certainly no Brill's Content.
So the amount of media coverage and commentary has expanded (probably even more than the audience for it--those programs and publications have a lot of overlapping consumers). And yet, very little of that newfound attention raises questions beyond the coverage of individual stories; very little examines politics beyond the next election; very little advocates any change at all, in media or anywhere else.
This leaves room for a truly alternative press column. Two weeks ago, the Observer labeled me "the city's most prominent leftist media critic." That's awfully nice, but the fact is that very few are vying for the title. We can bemoan the lack of competition as an index of the left's decline, or we can take advantage of it. The Voice can make this column a depoliticized mirror of press coverage available elsewhere, and probably get a scoop now and again. Or it can assert its uniqueness--for political purposes, yes, but also because there's a genuine market there, a thirst for media writing that engages with the real world outside media. Maybe we shouldn't assume our readers share progressive politics, but we ought to write as if we believe they can be persuaded.
That's it. To my Voice colleagues, past and present; to my readers; to the countless sources, snitches, spies, and soul mates--I can't name names, but you know who you are--I leave my deepest, most heartfelt thanks. I couldn't have done it without you, and wouldn't have wanted to.
For the next several weeks, Press Clips will be written by Andrew Hsiao, who has deftly edited the column for many months. To him and to the column's future stewards I leave a few dusty files, and Gramsci's oft-repeated but permanently relevant watchwords: "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will."
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