Hey, Washington Post, I’ve Got a Gripe!

February 24th, 2012 § 8 comments

“Got a grievance to air about the Washington arts scene? Is complaining your favorite form of catharsis? Our Sunday Arts section is seeking critics like yourself, who are interested in giving our local and cultural scene some tough love.”

– From the February 23, 2012 Washington Post online

Dear Washington Post:

You want a rant, Washington Post? Yeah? I’ll give you a rant! I’ll rant like you wouldn’t believe!

[Breathe, Howard, breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth.]

Look, I appreciate that you’re being urged to find new ways for old-line media such as yourself to interact and engage with your readership. I’m all for it. But at what point do you starting ceding your authority? After all, you have a strong staff of arts critics and reporters, and barely two months ago you produced perhaps the single most comprehensive look at a city’s theatre scene that I’ve seen in some 30 years of poring over arts coverage. I don’t think you’re lacking for skills, ideas or perspectives.

So I can’t fathom why you have taken the tack of offering a weekly platform to anyone with, as you explicitly request, a grievance with some aspect the arts community. Isn’t that what your staff is there to do – discover, observe, opine and inform? I know some of your folks and I can say they do not lack for opinion, positive or negative.

If you want to open the floodgates I understand it and on one level, I applaud it, since it begins to model on social media, in the sense that it allows many more voices into the conversations you can start (or end).  It’s not a dialogue, which would be healthier, but it is a step away from the monolithic stance that newspapers once cultivated.

My real complaint, however, is that you are only calling for negative citizen journalism. You want to know what people are cranky about, what gets their goat. Is this remotely fair? What about all of the people who want to shout from the rooftops (or the arts pages) about the good they see in the arts community? Surely the city is not a bubbling cauldron of disregard for every artistic endeavor. But if you only solicit that which harps upon the flaws, that’s the picture you’ll paint – especially since this is not an unmediated comments board, but a virtual essay contest, where you’ll reproduce the submissions you like, some in print, others online — so you’re already preparing a hierarchy of complaint as well. What will meet your criteria for worthiness: the best writing or those cavils which your editorial staff deems most valid (i.e. in line with their own)?

Has the paper sought the same kind of input in the sports pages? Are people now going to be able to vent their spleen about local businesses outside of the arts? If you can truthfully tell me this same approach is being adopted throughout the paper, then I can’t really complain, because it would demonstrate editorial consistency. But I have this nagging suspicion that only the arts are being offered up in this manner, either as test case or sacrifice.

Those of us who make our lives in the arts often struggle to make our peace with the criticisms the media applies to our work, but we do — partly because we stand with you in defense of freedom of speech, partly because you support our work by making audiences and potential audiences more aware of what we do, and partly because we know there’s little we can do about it. But we have to draw the line, and you should too. That line should stop at your offering exposure only to those who want to kvetch, unless you also provide room for those who would kvell.  Put some balance into this plan before it’s underway, or you will undermine not only the arts in Washington DC and the surrounding area, but your own credibility as well.

Rant over. For now.

P.S. I dare you to print this rant.



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  • Amaznblu1

    Love, love, love this!  Way to go, Howard!

  • Patrick

    Makes a lot of sense to me. I’m really enjoying your pieces, rants and all.

  • Go, Howard! I just have to admire you for that. I’m the same way about equality 

  • Cara

    I think it’s horrible that all they think critics do is COMPLAIN. While it can seem like that at times, there are often fantastic reviews with little to complain about. It’s like the are seeking people to beat down the arts community.

  • They’ve also overcorrected and misused “yourself.” Which isn’t at all the point of course but I’d expect the Washington Post to know better.

  • Why does being critical have to mean criticizing? “Is complaining your favourite form of catharsis?” If that’s the kind of articles or if those are the kinds of points of view they’re looking for, they are not being progressive and modern at all, which seems to be their aim. I really hope they print this, or at least put your soundly worded advice to good use. 

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