In a week when flaws in Rolling Stone’s reporting of a culture of rape on the University of Virginia campus created national headlines, the lapses of a single cultural reporter at the Wall Street Journal doesn’t seem to amount to a hill of beans. But it’s a story that is much buzzed about in theatrical circles, and perhaps throughout the field of the arts, with implications much greater than Joanne Kaufman’s self-appointed role as a serial “Broadway bolter,” who has accepted who knows how many complimentary tickets only to depart frequently at intermission.
In a column last week, Kaufman declared:
I’m embarrassed by how unembarrassed I am to admit that the very next night, I took early leave of “The Country House,” and the following night of “It’s Only a Play.” If only. Don’t ask me what happened during the second acts of “Matilda,” “Kinky Boots,” “Pippin” and, reaching back a few seasons, “Boeing-Boeing” and “Billy Elliott. ” Really, I have no idea. But I am nothing if not cosmopolitan in my tastes, or distastes—French farces, English musicals set in gritty industrial cities, and American entertainments involving Charlemagne ’s Frankish kin.
I happen to believe that, for the regular theatregoer, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a show at intermission. You paid for the right to be there and if you’re miserable, it’s probably to your benefit and the benefit of the rest of the audience if you depart. It’s your right (so long as it’s not done mid-scene, which is far too disruptive) and frankly the rest of the audience and the actors are probably better off without your repeated loud sighs, your ongoing dialogue with the person you came with, or your snoring.
But anyone who is attending in a professional capacity, let alone someone with complimentary tickets, has to stick it out – because it’s their job, or simply good manners as a guest. If not, the tickets have been accepted under false pretenses and the individual’s credibility is damaged, if not destroyed.
Now it’s important to note that in my circles, both personal and online, there seems to be little sympathy or tolerance for Kaufman’s recurring disappearing act. Other journalists have shot verbal arrows at her on Twitter, as have theatre professionals from every discipline in the field. She has been the subject of nothing less than ongoing ridicule, and she’s likely to be a longtime theatre punchline. Publicist Rick Miramontez (a friend and professional colleague) has had a blog post in which he calls out Kaufman go viral, in part because he lays bare her failings and also because many assume that p.r. people will kowtow to the media at all costs.
Miramontez wrote, as part of declaring that he would no longer invite Kaufman or provide her with complimentary tickets:
I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a chump for having accommodated the woman so many times over the years. Certainly every audience member, paid or comped, has the right to form whatever opinions they might about any production they see, but I don’t think it’s too much to expect those who attend on press tickets stay for the duration. Would a fine art writer only peer at half a canvas before deciding she’s bored and it’s time to move on? Does a music reporter think he can make an informed decision on an album if he only listens to a couple of tracks? Why would we accept such sheer laziness from our theatrical press?
Since others have effectively demolished Kaufman’s questionable professional ethics, I need not rehash them further. But let me go a step beyond.
Unlike bloggers with their own sites (say for example, me), journalists don’t simply write something and have it magically appear in print or online. There’s at least one editor and a copy editor who has seen the piece, and at a paper like the Wall Street Journal, probably more. So it’s important to note that Kaufman was not writing in a vacuum, but rather with the tacit approval of every staffer at the WSJ who got a glimpse of her piece. It’s more than a bit worrisome that no one at the paper apparently saw anything wrong with either Kaufman’s actions or her almost gleeful confession of her ethical gaffes. Frankly, why did this piece run at all?
While her piece was opinion rather than reportage, surely average readers may now wonder about the veracity of other WSJ writing – and that’s a shame, because I know many arts reporters at the paper and know them to operate with the highest integrity and profound respect for the arts. While I haven’t asked him, I can’t help but think that Kaufman’s actions are particularly galling to the WSJ’s drama critic Terry Teachout, especially as many accounts of the “Broadway bolter” incorrectly identified her as the WSJ’s theatre critic.
Should it be up to publicists to put Kaufman on the straight and narrow? Even if she does start paying for tickets, will her bosses only permit her to attend with a minder? Will she become a culture writer only on works of 90 minutes or less, since that’s all she can tolerate? Perhaps she’ll need an ankle bracelet so they can be certain that she stays for the duration.
In a moment of sympathy, I’m willing to suggest that perhaps Kaufman, and her editors, fell prey to aping the lingua franca of the internet: snark (see prior paragraph as an example). Maybe the flip, contrarian tone was an effort to mimic the style of bloggers and tweeters. But in the august, conservative WSJ, it stuck out like a sore thumb – and while it may well have tapped into a new audience, it did so only to be met by significant derision. It seems that, for all of the angst surrounding critical arts coverage in general, Kaufman had truly crossed a bridge too far by slamming work she hadn’t even bothered to assess in full. If anything, she proved that there is still a place and desire for arts journalism, but that she may have no place in it.
On the same subway ride during which I read Kaufman’s piece, I also read an essay by Tim Walker, who has recently been let go from his position as theatre critic for London’s Sunday Telegraph. Understandably troubled by the ongoing culling of arts critics in London (an issue in the U.S. as well, and a concern I share), he cites a conversation about criticism he recently had:
One leading impresario told me he looked around at the motley crowd that had turned up to sit in judgment on one of his productions and he realised he didn’t know a single one of them. “They were young, spotty, out of their comfort zones and clearly exhausted, having been diverted at the last minute from other tasks at their hard-pressed media organisations,” he lamented. “Honestly, after all the work we had put in on our side, and all the investment, it felt like a slap in the face.”
The conventional wisdom is that readers of theatre reviews are migrating – along with the advertising – to online, but who, honestly, can name an internet critic who has the authority of, say, the Guardian’s Michael Billington? Or – until he also joined the exodus – the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer?
While he has given himself the cover of quoting someone else, Walker seems to side with his unnamed commentator. He also mimics someone in a vastly more significant situation, namely the prosecutor in the Michael Brown case, who repeatedly spoke of the failings of social media before revealing the wholly inadequate results of the grand jury findings. Two decades after the advent of general internet use, nearly a decade after the advent of social media, one can no longer make the case for journalism, or any endeavor, by slamming the reality of how we communicate now and continuing to proclaim the superiority of the “mainstream media.” Walker’s legitimate concerns about the state of arts criticism are undone by condescension, just as Kaufman skewered herself with her own glee over her risable actions.
Arts journalism is no different from any other facet of journalism today in that many of the old structures are falling and the future is evolving at an exceptionally fast pace, chewing up both practices and people in the process. But the bottom line is that if you find the rug pulled out from under you, it won’t serve the field to have you bemoaning the new and ever-changing normal; if you still have a platform, use it to imagine a better, sustainable future. And by all means, if you have a platform, use it professionally and ethically, lest you go out on a limb and saw it off behind yourself.