Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Rush to Judgement

As the TV show I'm helping produce debuted this week, I was reminded that there's a huge difference between making something and consuming it. And an even wider gap between making it and critiquing it. Especially now, in the blogosphere.

When I was a journalist, process fascinated me.
To write my Rolling Stone piece about the making of the movie Broadcast News (right), I plumbed writer-director James L. Brooks's brain, interviewed not just his actors and filmmaking team, but even the journalists he'd modeled the Holly Hunter character on, Jane Mayer and Susan Zirinsky. I was trying to retrace the steps that led him to such a strong -- and, it turns out, prescient and long-lasting -- story about an important shift in media ethics, in style over content.

Before I wrote my Rolling Stone review of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, (left) I did something I've never done before or since: I got the Boys on the phone to clarify a couple of lyrics, references and samples I couldn't quite decipher on my advance copy.

It was an awkward conversation (even though I'd met them when profiling them during their first national tour, replete with inflatable penis, and escorted them through Graceland). But for me it was important.

I didn't think it was cheating. I had already formed my opinion of the album (and both album and review, I think, also hold up today).  I just didn't want to be WRONG.

Today, with the instant transmission of the Internet, there's a rush to judge, to digest, to commentate, that has its upsides and downsides.  I quite enjoy the morning-after recaps of Mad Men provided by Salon's Heather Havrilesky and New York magazine's Logan Hill and the SF Chronicle's Tim Goodman. And I wouldn't have found them without social media.

On the other hand, the only way to stand out (and be retweeted, and blogrolled) is to spew voice and zing and above all, have speed.

This came home to me when Parker Spitzer premiered Monday. The rush to judgement began even before air. Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post -- a CNN employee himself -- wrote a piece belittling some of the experiments we were doing behind the scenes during rehearsals. New York magazine did a cover story about how our show epitomized something  about cable TV news, without waiting to see what our show actually was.

Someone I know saw New York's writer, Gabriel Sherman, on a talk show. When asked if he'd watched our premiere, he said he'd seen clips on the web.

And then within three hours of our premiere Monday nightt, the New York Times had posted Alessandra Stanley's review, which contained a factual error. It felt like she was so poised to malign that she mistakenly attributed something to Spitzer that Kathleen had actually said. I emailed her and the paper, and a correction was made.

More troubling is the idea that everything one needs to know about what the show will be like forever was encapsulated in that first jam-packed, self-conscious hour. The Guardian decried the show's party segment as "youth pandering," based on who was invited. But the second night -- which had already been booked for days -- one of the guests was historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who's 67. Another night the party included French phlosopher Bernard Henry-Levi, who's 61. 

And the show has been getting steadily better (and ratings have been going up) as our hosts and staff figure things out. I doubt if Stanley or the Guardian critic stuck around to watch. They have too many other things to review, and the system they're part of doesn't value the long view. 

I'm as guilty of this as the next guy. I remember when I saw the premiere of the Colbert Report in October 2005 and thought, this will never work, he can't sustain this character every night. I'm glad I was wrong. Broadway shows have previews. TV shows rarely get to "soft launch."

I would hate for people not to even sample Parker Spitzer because a critic on deadline watched one episode and sealed its fate. 


Anonymous said...

Sorry for all those who make a living as a critic, but I NEVER listen to them if the topic of the intrigues me. I know many do, and that is a complete shame. I haven't watched the show yet, David, but plan to. I will admit it has nothing to do with the premise of the show but rather Spitzer's involvement.

Gavin said...

I realize this is not the point of your post, but: I had no idea you wrote that Beastie Boys article! I remember hugely enjoying it, especially the scene at Graceland where one of the Boys asks what song Spinal Tap sang at Presley's grave.

David Handelman said...

Gavin -- as usual, you remember things better than I, even though I wrote them!

Anonymous -- that's what everyone says till they see him once.