Monday, October 29, 2007

Of blogs and bloggers

What are the ethics of blogging? It's an intriguing question, perhaps because it's curled around the larger question, "What are blogs for?" After blogging for nearly a year (the anniversary is November 15th), perhaps the time has come for me to ponder that question.

The general answer, I suppose, has something to do with "self-expression," although "self-expression" easily morphs into "self-promotion." Thus we find a lot of that in local blogs, as well as a mania for log-rolling and back-scratching. Joel Brown over at HubArts, for example, often uses his blog as a springboard for print gigs: he fluffs Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, where he often works, here, and even posts an article about the fact that he has written an article here. Geoff Edgers at the Exhibitionist is another believer in print-blog synergy: he links to Globe articles here, and also pulls the neat double trick of including a shout-out to Alex Ross, the New Yorker reviewer whose blog and books are called The Rest is Noise. He's also a fan of Lee Rosenbaum, a.k.a. culturegrrl - so it goes without saying that she's also a dead-tree writer, in such prestigious perches as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Not that there's anything wrong with that - still, is the blogosphere supposed to be so cozy with the MSM? Do you (or I) expect Geoff Edgers to cast as cool an eye on Alex Ross and the New Yorker as he has, say, on the Wang Center? No, of course not - even if many might argue, or even outright believe, that the blogosphere acts as an antagonist to the print media, the cultural blogs - which are, ironically enough, often extensions of the MSM - tend to lean precisely the opposite way (except, of course, me - I'm indebted to the MSM for their reporting - in particular that of Edgers - but my analysis is often at variance with theirs).

This issue of self-promotion impacts me in a different way, however, in that I'm going to be directing a show this winter for Zeitgeist Stage - and so I'm struggling with how to write about that process, how to cover Zeitgeist, and how much to write about other shows in town. Another blogger, Art Hennessy of Mirror Up to Nature, struggles with similar issues, as his wife, Amanda Good Hennessy, is an active local actress.

But should Art and I be so concerned with conflicts of interest when so many blogs are so relentessly self-promotional? (Isn't that, after all, a subtle conflict of interest?) Are there any standards to be broken here at all? I'm beginning to be unsure, particularly given what's been going on over at The Arts Fuse, which hosts the work of Bill Marx. "The Fuse" has been printing posts from "anonymous sources" - indeed, they inform us,

We feel anonymous columns of this kind have a long and glorious history in American journalism, going back to the American Revolution, The Federalist Papers, and, more recently, the original, anonymous Talk of the Town columns from the New Yorker magazine’s golden age. We are pleased that the tradition has recently been revived in this “Age of the Blog.”

But a few examples will demonstrate how this naive policy can go wrong (with my apologies to Alexander Hamilton and William Shawn). I was, for instance, embroiled in an ongoing argument on the site over the "Matter Pollocks." The Arts Fuse's "anonymous source" repeatedly insinuated that the Matter Paintings (currently still on display at the McMullen Museum) were genuine Pollocks, even as the empirical case for their authenticity slipped away (recent press reports, which all but prove Pollock couldn't have had access to many of the pigments in these paintings, have basically shut the book on the case). This struck me as a real breach of whatever ethics the blogosphere might entail: the use of the Internet's anonymity to promote an argument which could deliver a windfall to an unscrupulous party. The Arts Fuse tried to pre-empt any criticism by insisting, "With regard to the recent Pollock Matter Affair posts, The Arts Fuse can assert categorically that no one involved with the disputed paintings themselves, their ownership, their scientific analysis, or their exhibition at the McMullen Museum and its catalogue had anything to do with composing them or had any prior knowledge of their posting." But it's hard to understand why we should believe this - after all, if there is no tie between the site's source and the affair, why would the source demand anonymity?

Now The Arts Fuse has published several nasty posts from a source that once haunted my own e-mailbox, parodying my writing style and generally indulging in a kind of rabid character assassination - all anonymously, of course. I can see the posts are funny, to anyone who's ever been stung by my confident style (and said style is all the more irritating to those who've been on the wrong side of my arguments, as my record reveals few slip-ups so far). No doubt the Arts Fuse feels I "deserve" this because I dared to slap around local critic emeritus Caldwell Titcomb for his fluffing of Harvard's new undergraduate theatre. Still, it's obviously a bad precedent; the seriousness of blogging all but collapses if it devolves into anonymous name-calling, or anonymous "tips" pushing forgeries. It's a little surprising, in fact, that Bill Marx would remain attached to the Arts Fuse, given its obvious ethical quandaries (or again, maybe it's not so surprising).

At any rate, the one thing I can guarantee you (aside from my arrogance in asserting opinions that almost always turn out to be right) is that I'll continue my policy of full disclosure. Of course I'm able to do this because I'm not really trying to eke out a career in journalism; nor am I tied forever to Zeitgeist Stage (much less my alma mater). I'm a free agent - and sometimes I think that's what's really at the bottom of some of the animosity I sense from other writers and critics. I don't have to kow-tow to a witless editor, or tread carefully for fear of rousing the subscriber base. I don't care about these things, and I don't have to - and perhaps that, more than any perceptive edge, is what has enabled me to be so accurate for so long. Still, it's ironic, isn't it, that while everyone professes to support the freedom of the Internet, when said freedom impacts their own self-interest, suddenly everybody's a critic.


  1. There are many bloggers who were so active and engaging in the early days of the theatre blogosphere that are now using their blogs exclusively as promotional and advertising tools for their work.

    But then again, new bloggers are appearing all the time.

    I do disclose, etc, on my blog, but, like you, I sometimes wonder if there is really any obligation to this.

    A question in response might be, "Well, you want to be taken seriously, don't you? " To which I would respond, "Seriously as what?"

    What is blogging?

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  3. To me, the basic issue is one of trust. If a blog attempts - as I've attempted, and as Bill Marx has attempted - to "transfer" some of the prestige and sense of authority of the print media to the blogosphere, then somehow or other, some sense of a code of ethics is going to be required - at least something more than "trust us," which is essentially the M.O. over at "The Arts Fuse" (along with "and we'll publish rants from people with obvious emotional issues, as long as they settle our scores for us!"). Of course it's always nice to have negative examples to guide one in a new endeavor, so perhaps I should be grateful to Marx & Co. for demonstrating how not to run a blog.

    Not that I have any illusions about the print media, mind you - remember, I was in it for a while. In fact, I think one of the great advantages of blogging - its free-ranging quality - is intimately tied to its ethical challenges.

    For instance, at the Globe, I could never do what most critics long to do - that is, connect the dots. The Globe in particular had some strange, debased idea that the paper's "criticism" (note the quotes) should be forced into a template roughly approximating "news." Hence, you could never reference productions other than the one you were reviewing, and could never toss about comparisons such as "Generally, Theatre X does this kind of thing much better than Theatre Y." You could also never discuss trends ("Many have noted the obsession with rock-and-roll at Theatre Z . . ") - or rather, you couldn't do these things until you'd put in your time, paid your union dues, and somehow romanced the editor.

    What this really meant, of course, was simply that the editor was in control of the big picture. You could write, for instance, that Handel and Haydn did a bang-up job with Beethoven last weekend - but the editor may have already decided that the paper would "back" the BSO (not that the Globe does that, mind you!), so you couldn't say, "In fact, it left the BSO's version in the dust," as I did recently. No, that call - either its reporting or its suppression - would be up to the editor (who generally was far less likely to make it accurately than the critic).

    So what's exciting about a blog is that essentially, you can ditch Scott Heller and Jeffrey Gantz. You can actually be the critic, in truth as well as name, and what you write can begin to form something like an intellectual and aesthetic position.

    Of course what this also requires - if you're going to be responsible, and not pretend to yourself that the Internet is some new kind of sandbox - is that you act as your own "editor" ethically. And what that requires is - except possibly in a few exceptional cases - full disclosure of one's identity and biases.