Ethics Quiz: Critic Ethics

How I love critics...

How I love critics…

This is a delicate one for me; the names have been omitted and details disguised to protect…well, for a lot of reasons.

Last week I posted about the mixed-gender version of “I Do! I Do!” I directed for The American Century Theater, which I co-founded and where I am the artistic director. The show met all my objectives and expectations, even surpassed them, and until today, all of the reviews have been raves.

Today, though, a non-rave came out on a local theater website. It is the kind of review I detest, where the standard of the critic is “why didn’t you do it this way? That’s what I would have done.” The answer to that is, bluntly, “Direct your own damn show, then.” Snap judgments from one-time viewers, even extremely sophisticated ones, about what they would do if they were the author, actor, director, or designer of a stage production—when if truth they never have been or could be—are inherently unfair, incompetent and also obnoxious. After considering and experimenting and testing various artistic approaches to any problem over months of preparation, meetings and  intense rehearsal with a large production and artistic team, any production deserves the respect of being assumed to have considered and rejected for cause other solutions, which for various reasons didn’t work.

This is not, of course, a professional reviewer, though a reader could only know that from the quality of the review. Among other tells, the critic misidentifies which performers sing what, and the whole concept of non-realistic sets seems to be alien to him: yes, dear, we could have afforded a four-poster bed; the director felt the show would be better without one, and in fact, it is. Okay, the reviewer is a boob: that’s fine; most theater reviewers are.  I would not make an issue about one sloppy and badly reasoned amateur review, because if I did, I’d be in a padded room.

However, after the review was published, I learned that our company had a prior experience with this reviewer: he had been on the crew of a show last year, and we had to fire him. In 17 years and over 80 productions, he is the only person to be fired from that particular job.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz with a theatrical bent:

Does a critic who has a past relationship with a theater company whose production he or she is reviewing have an ethical obligation to disclose it as part of the published review?

My answer: of course.

If he or she fits the description of a potentially disgruntled former employee, then the critic has to disclose that in the review. This is Ethics 101, basic and immutable. Such a critic has a conflict of interest and a potential bias. Whether or not the critic feels that he or she is capable of writing a fair review despite, for example, being canned by the company involved, readers should have full disclosure to judge for themselves, and the company involved should be asked to waive the conflict. The alternative is not to do the review.

Personally, I have no idea whether this reviewer is getting even, or even whether his past negative experience with the company curdled his judgment. The review is an incompetent one, and obviously so, whether it’s biased or not, but there is an obvious basis for bias, and any ethical critic would disclose it, or decline the assignment. To this critic’s credit, he does clearly state his objections to the production concept as his personal opinion, and not as an authoritative declaration. Nonetheless, being fired by the theater company you are reviewing is rather unusual, and readers have a right to know about it, to make their own assessment of whether the review is biased or not.

Graphic: This Vegan Rants



27 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Critic Ethics

  1. Probably. But in a world of increasingly sophisticated methods of concealing personal identity, it is not as clear-cut as it seems. In academia, there is the blind peer review; callers on talk shows are free to introduce themselves as they see fit; even JM’s respondents sport creative cognomens, and are individuals who may or may not be known to the hard-working owner of this blog. In all cases, identity does not trump issue, because the latter is important in and of itself.
    In the Case of the Revengeful Reviewer, his status as one who previously worked for the theater company has almost completely obscured the issues he has raised; it has now become an explanation for his “poor” review, a review which, as has been pointed out, was already deemed “poor” ever before his identity was revealed.

      • I have cited instances where identity is withheld in a manner that does not significantly diminish motive, objective and credibility.

          • The Revengeful Reviewer’s views are neither enhanced nor diminished by the disclosure of his true identity: his views are still what they were, before and after.
            If I used an email or Twitter address with a name that was not really mine, you wouldn’t have known, would you? How can you even say if this one is genuine?

            • What? A reviewer’s credibility is based on experience, knowledge, perceptiveness, ability to articulate his opinion, and objectivity. Identity establishes the ability to confirm three of those five. If the individual has a pre-existing or current relationship that would otherwise be unknown, disclosing it is essential to determining the credibility, honesty and fairness of the reviewer.

              You either are trolling or you aren’t articulating your point, whatever it is.

              Sure, any reviewer may not believe what he writes, but the presumptuous is that he or she does, unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise—like a bias, or a conflict.

              I check the websites and the emails, as well as the identities of most who post here. If there’s a discrepancy, I ask for clarification. Anyone who would misrepresent their identity on an ethics blog isn’t welcome here.

              • Most of the issues raised in your latest response are examined in my first post. I repeat that there are many situations in which the subject of discussion can be separated from the identity of the person discussing it with no appreciable damage to the message.
                You can argue that it is not relevant to this case, but you cannot say that it does not exist. Your insinuation that I could be a troll proves my point; what I might be transcends what I am saying. And surely, your checks should have confirmed your suspicions?

                • It’s not an all or none thing and Jack hasn’t said it is. Person X may absolutely an utterly despise the producers of product Y, but person X may be so perfectly professional that he can write a perfect review of product Y that is FAIR but holds a negative opinion of product Y based solely on product Y’s merits, and be completely independent of person X’s personal feelings towards the producer. Spiffy, it’s possible.

                  But when combined with other factors, such as poor quality of the review, unprofessionally written, and other factors that point the review being less than the objective opinion of person X, then yes, people have every right to assume that person X was unable to transcend their biases in the review.

                  It is a multi faceted consideration and identity does matter as one of the facets.

                    • “Whether or not the critic feels that he or she is capable of writing a fair review despite, for example, being canned by the company involved, readers should have full disclosure to judge for themselves, and the company involved should be asked to waive the conflict.”

                      That line more or less says what you want. This line more definitively so (especially with its associated paragraph):

                      “Personally, I have no idea whether this reviewer is getting even, or even whether his past negative experience with the company curdled his judgment.”

                      The whole post never declares that a person’s identity automatically determines a reviews bias. Nor is it required to explicitly declare that an identity might be completely transcended during the creation of a review, especially since the article clearly indicates that understanding.

                      You seem to be emotionally attached to this cause, has this happened to you? Are you perhaps the individual this article refers to? A friend or relative perhaps?

            • Identity doesn’t matter so much as conflict of interest. I post here psuedonymously, but if I make beneficial or critical comments about an organization I am currently, or was previously, involved with, I say so.

              In this case, we know who the reviewer is and know they chose not to disclose the past relationship. I think the failure to disclose is evidence of either malicious intent or incompetence.

  2. Seems logical to me that in the larger category of Any Kind of Review, such is Car Performance, Artistic Review, Product Descriptions, Movie Reviews, etc, that the reviewer ought to reveal any connections to the product being reviewed.

    Is the reviewer somehow financially tied to the product being reviewed?
    Does the reviewer have any reason to harbor animosity to the product being reviewed?
    Are there any other type of loyalty to the product or loyalty to a competing product?

    Of course no one can ever truly be so detached from a product as to not have some sort of bias, but knowing what they are or potentially are certainly helps readers who hope to use the review for decision making purposes.

  3. Apparently the unnamed reviewer updated his post to reflect his association with TACT. It makes no mention of the context of the association, though in the “Business,” “artistic differences” are not uncommon.

    While it is a negative review, I’ve read worse, and more mean-spirited, in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and locally in Washington Post and Washington City Paper. At least here the reviewer tells you what he found objectionable and why. Was there a bias? Hard to tell, but given the added disclaimer you are free to make a judgment.

    Speaking from experience, a critic walks a fine line in writing a review. On one hand, the theaters want a rave and probably, so too, the websites that retain said reviewer to secure ads or enhance readership. On the other hand, actors, designers, and production folks are looking to get a favorable mention as most probably should, but there are space limitations that test a reader’s patience.

    Potential patrons who want to know whether or not to attend a show want a highly recommended (i.e. no negatives) rating before they will commit; you can praise 9 things about a production, but all they’ll see (and remember) is your one reservation. Those who have seen it are looking to read their assessments confirmed in your review, one way or the other. They’ll praise you or take you to task accordingly, and as I sometimes see, wage proxy battles with each other.

    At the same time people will see a play in spite of a critic’s take; I know I have. And live theater is like my favorite sport, baseball. There’s always something memorable to see even when the performance is occasionally so-so. Get ready to be amazed and delighted at some point!

    Disclaimer: The writer, who has his own website, has reviewed TACT productions numerous times in the past, selecting them as one of two Theaters of the Year for 2012. He finds the practice of theater criticism a highly demanding and solitary endeavor, though on balance a rewarding one.

        • Just so I make sure I understand what ought to be the differences:

          A critique is a technical evaluation of a particular work of art as it relates to the particular techniques, media, styles, etc that belong to that particular art form? And as such, must be undertaken by an educated insider of the art form?

          A review is a wider evaluation taking into consideration how the message that the particular work of art is received or conveyed to the general audience?

          Of course those definitions are wholly incomplete, but is that the general gist of the difference?

            • I wouldn’t want the genre’s to be exclusive either. A reviewer that forgets the distinctions of the particular form of art, it’s styles and techniques, it’s media and mechanisms, will only be a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Their review will be clumsy and rube-like, essentially coming across as “I didn’t like the piece because it bored me!” or “I really liked the piece because it had flashy colors and neat sounds!”.

              Conversely, a critic, who forgets that all art ultimately is meant to convey messages will return soulless and clinical opinions that can only hope to encourage particular artisans to focus only on the mechanics and specific underlying principles of their art form while forgetting the messages they wish to convey. Inevitably and art form held hostage by such critics can only hope to become sterile and devoid of meaning and become ultimately sad and empty productions, like Jackson Pollock’s crap. Or to see a visual representation of what I’m saying: devolution of art. Sure the work would encapsulate the principles of art, but devoid of the message: meaningless.

    • It is a hard job, and like fire fighting, bomb disposal, brain surgery and being President of the United States, it’s unethical to take it on without the requisite skill, training, and competence to do it adequately, and an insult to theater professionals who take great risks, financial and artistic, to mount a production. The consequences of a poor review are tangible and material—mostly, they cost money. Costing my company money with a half-baked, uninformed criticism is taking money out of our account, and jeopardizes the arts.

      The review under question was predicated on the assumption that a fully same sex version of “I Do! I Do!” would be superior to the concept employed. That isn’t a valid opinion, because it is demonstrably untrue: a same sex version is impossible. The book wouldn’t permit it. Lines, lyrics, scenes and situations throughout the show require a male-female couple—a same-sex version would be ridiculous without a major rewrite and re-structuring, which, unlike the version he saw, would violate all licensing agreements. There were other reasons—other than the fact that it was impossible—I didn’t take this route; for one thing, would make the show about gay marriage, which is as limiting as making it solely about hetero-sexual marriage. This he would have known if he read the program notes, just as he would have known that a female, rather than a male, sang one of the songs he mentioned if he had been paying attention.

      So without paying attention to the script or the performance, and not fairly considering the concept and the reason behind it, a critic tells an audience not familiar with the constraints of the book that the approach taken by the director was wrong. That’s critic malpractice, and the fact that this may be common or that writing competent reviews is hard can be no excuse. The job is too hard for him, and thus the ethical thing is not to do it.

      {John Glass is one of the most articulate and perceptive theater critics I have ever read or encountered, and the fact that he is not employed by a major news organization for this role is a national disgrace.]

      • You’re not one for understatement Jack and I thank you!

        In re-reading the review my take-away message is he didn’t like the way you staged the production based 1) on his prior experience with the straight play and 2) certain specific artistic choices you all made. Now #1 is something all critics and audiences contend with consciously or not and it’s a bias that is deep seated. How to clear out that landmark show and actor from your mind and write about the one in front of you – that’s the rub. All you can say about #2 is the choices and consequently the show didn’t work for him. In both cases he seems to have laid out his bones of contentions.

        As far as academic qualifications go in theater criticism, the field as a whole, is hit or miss. Still experience and OJT must count for something and people who see the same show repeatedly from the back of the house have some advantage over those of us who have to make the call on the outside looking in, usually on one viewing. Based on his bio and writing he looks qualified to me.

        Given the other favorable reviews and his stated objections, I see no cause for concern for this show based on his review. Even the number one critic in the DC area could not kill this show, but a rave might work wonders – invite him out (again)! The biggest determiner of box office success is and remains word of mouth.

        For readers unfamiliar with TACT they put on professional theater with a cadre of regulars, at an affordable price, and in an intimate space; all this operating on a modest budget with high production values. Here less is more. I can’t recall ever seeing a bad show there and I’ve seen plenty of good ones. And there’s still time to see this one. Let me check my baseball schedule!

        • I’d summarize by saying that he didn’t know enough about theater generally or the show specifically to speak authoritatively about either. Not recognizing a non-realistic set as a choice dictated by artistic goals—there is no reason there has to be a giant four-poster bed in the middle of the stage, any more than a realistic carousel has to be on stage in Carousel. And I have no problem with the opinion that he doesn’t get the concept, but basing that opinion on his preference for another approach that is unworkable and obviously so to anyone who can read a script is simply not valid, not to mention lazy and misleading.

          Because we flagged the critic’s factual errors and his conflict, the site has told us that they won’t review us any more. Small loss, but telling—they didn’t dispute the complaints’ legitimacy, they just resented being called on their inadequacy. Talk about blaming the victim.

  4. ” The consequences of a poor review are tangible and material—mostly, they cost money. Costing my company money with a half-baked, uninformed criticism is taking money out of our account, and jeopardizes the arts.”
    But you know what?
    With the anonymity of the Internet, there is always going to be some disgruntled crybaby writing false negative reviews to get even with a former employer.
    Where I personally knew the real story. I’ve seen attacks on veterinarians, B&Bs, and restaurants.
    I am sure each one of them lost business because of the poor review even though it was completely false.

    A lot of people search for information on a company/person before they use their services, I do it myself.
    And while sometimes it’s pretty obvious that a bad review was written by an ex-employee with an ax to grind, other times it does make me wonder and I might decide to go elsewhere.

    I really don’t know what the answer is.
    It is unfair – to all parties involved.

  5. This a fairly clear case. We presume the reviewer would have written the same review whether or not he/she was fired from the company – if not, then the reviewer is not following the journalistic code of ethics. Disclosing an association with the theater would be standard practice – you notice that in ethical journalistic quarters, any relationship (“company so and so is owend by the NY Times” for example) is disclosed so that the reader can factor in that potentially important piece of information

    James Abruzzo, Co-Director
    Institute for Ethical Leadership
    Rutgers Business School

    • We presume the reviewer would have written the same review whether or not he/she was fired from the company – if not, then the reviewer is not following the journalistic code of ethics.

      Ah, what? Good intent isn’t enough for a journalist, and assuming the journalist is ethical is also silly, especially if there’s an explicit ethical failure (the lack of disclosure). Ugh.

    • What are the chances that an unpaid reviewer on a local arts site has read, or regards himself as obligated to follow, any of the various journalism codes of ethics? My guess, especially since relatively few journalists have read them since school, and fewer follow them, is that the chances are bleak. Reviewing isn’t a profession because there are no standards of professionalism….or competence, credentials, training or good practice, for that matter. That such a reviewer would be ignorant of ethical disclosure principles is a near certainty. And while Hanlon’s Razor certainly applies here, assumptions of integrity don’t.

      The reviewer, after all, was fired from his job at the theater for unprofessional conduct.

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