There are many reasons newspapers are losing readers—the rise of the Internet, the shortsightedness of greedy corporate owners, for starters. And just maybe their cynicism and pretension to omniscience.
There are many ways to express an opinion, but all too often journalists opt for the ostentation of the smart-ass.
I once asked a movie reviewer colleague how a twenty-one inch demolition job on a movie could be justified. My own preference was to ignore bad movies and books, but that’s hard to do when the producers and publishers are advertising in your paper. My colleague complained that I was being cantankerous. He’d gotten under my skin, so I replied that this kind of review was ugly exhibitionism. It’s much harder to praise than demean.
Recently The New York Times’ TV guide summarized the 1993 film Untamed Heart as “harmless,” echoing a similarly dismissive review the year the film was released by critic Vincent Canby. What a curiously cynical (smart-ass) comment! Harmless? From what, from whom do we need protection? Why should a lovely film about two truly innocent people, a waitress played by Marisa Tomei (inset) and a busboy played by Christian Slater, be characterized as harmless except by someone too jaded to be so privileged as to pass on anybody’s creative endeavor?
And yet I have heard this very word used again and again. My wife once heard one colleague describe another as harmless. Meaning what? That we should be on guard against each other? That harmless means no threat to our ambitions? No threat to our perceived position in the world? What a curious and surpassingly ugly way of viewing fellow human beings, weighing them for their threat potential, viewing life as risk management.
I am pained to mention Canby ((July 27, 1924 – September 15, 2000) while complaining of this style of criticism because he was a fair and generous film critic whose work I welcomed as an editor. His original critique of Untamed Heart, while not snotty, was uncharacteristically world-weary, and I eagerly exempt him from my indictment of smart-ass critics.
But nonetheless I often marveled as an editor why a newspaper would give a full column of type to some twerp indulging his own verbal exhibitionism at the expense of someone’s creative effort. It especially galled me when the news hole was restrictive and more than eighty percent of the day’s report ended up in the trash.
It seems a pity to have to accept that we live in a society that adjudges a peaceful nation or a portrayal of innocence as harmless. Untamed Heart is about simple decency, love in unexpected places and people, and nobility of soul. But the great New York Times, our paper of record, in agate type has dismissed it as “harmless,” saying far more about the times and The Times than it does about a modest film meant to encourage the beleaguered soul.
Djelloul (Del) Marbrook was the editor of six daily newspapers and held editorial posts on several major metropolitan dailies. He is the winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize of Kent State University whose press will publish his book, Far From Algiers, next fall. For more information www.djelloulmarbrook.com or www.myspace.com/delmarbrook.