But that is, boiled to its essence, what the Los Angeles theatre website Bitter Lemons has just proposed to the southern California theatre community. Citing the general reduction in theatre reviews both nationally and locally, the site has laid out a plan whereby theatres (or individuals) can pay $150 and be assured of a review of at least 300 words, but one which is wholly independent and will be solely the opinion of the site’s critics, not a pandering paean to whatever show or patron has ponied up the bucks.
While I’m prepared to take Bitter Lemons at their word about protecting the independence of their critics [full disclosure: I know one of their critics, Katie Buenneke, largely from Twitter], the optics of this proposal, as well as many practical elements, seem hugely problematic. The moment money changes hands between a producer (or producing organization) and a media outlet (be it vast or grass-roots), the necessary divide between both parties starts to break down. No matter how strong any “walls” may be, when editorial choices are determined by outside dollars, and when the economic viability of a media outlet may be dependent upon those covered, the opportunities for ethical compromise are rife.
Bitter Lemons became almost compulsory reading for me this year as the site was a central disseminator of information, inquiry and invective during the heated debate over Actors Equity Association’s promulgation of new guidelines for the 99 seat and under plan that had been used in Los Angeles over the past 25 years. In passionate and at times exhaustive detail, Bitter Lemons has been a champion of retaining the 99-seat plan as is, and I fully expect the site to continue to fight for that cause so long as supporters in the Los Angeles AEA community seek to make their case.
That’s why I bring up the optics: here is a theatre site, arguing for the right of union actors to work for notably less than AEA actors elsewhere in the country, that is saying their theatre coverage is dependent on being paid to cover that same community. To be sure, there are some apples to oranges issues in this comparison, but as I say, I’m referring simply to how it looks, not the particulars.
So let’s go to practical issues. “The Bitter Lemons Imperative,” as it’s called, suggests that it’s easy for companies to shoulder the expense. “Most producing companies already have it in their budgets, if they have any budget at all.” While I cannot be definitive, I strongly doubt that’s an accurate statement; I’m unfamiliar with any theatre company that has a budget line for reviews. What they may have, as the policy statement on Bitter Lemons sets out a bit further on, is “thousands of dollars for mailings, postcards, advertising, many companies even pay anywhere from $500 to $2k for a publicist.” But equating marketing with criticism is a comparison with which I suspect few critics would feel comfortable. When a company pays for an ad or a brochure, it explicitly controls the content; when it pays for a publicist, it’s engaging someone to work with the media, but in a manner where there’s no quid pro quo, explicit or implied.
I find myself wondering about where this plan might leave the very newest theatre companies in Los Angeles, which may have budgets so low that the $150 fee to Bitter Lemons is beyond thinly stretched means, and which are already providing (presumably) a pair of complimentary tickets as well, which have their own dollar value. Does this mean that they will go unnoticed by Bitter Lemons? I fear this will only reinforce an economic stratification insofar as the site’s coverage goes, where only companies with sufficient means become worthy of the site’s attention, instead of decisions being made according to editorial choices and interests. If Bitter Lemons learns of an intriguing show that doesn’t write a check, will that show in essence be the proverbial tree falling in an empty lemon grove?
There’s no question that theatre coverage, arts coverage and frankly all manner of paid journalism are under vast pressure right now (take note of an impending newswriters’ strike in Philadelphia or the new round of buyouts at The Denver Post). But those who have set out to offer independent arts coverage have done so by soliciting general support that isn’t tied to an editorial imperative (you pay us, we cover you). Their efforts are more akin to public radio and television campaigns; offhand I think of campaigns by The Arts Fuse in Boston and New York’s The Clyde Fitch Report. Ad sales, already in evidence on Bitter Lemons, are another revenue source; if the site incorporates as a not-for-profit (if it isn’t already), contributions may be further advantaged, particularly with foundations that support new media journalism and the arts, separately or together.
I’ll say again that I’ve found Bitter Lemons invaluable in my education about the 99 seat debate. I am also repeatedly on record as arguing on behalf of paying arts writers and reporters for their work and I applaud new models for sustaining them (and worry about others). But linking coverage to cash on the barrelhead smacks too much of payola, of pay for play, even if it’s out in the open. I think it can only serve to diminish the site’s credibility, and may well, in the long run, result in a diminished Bitter Lemons, which would be a shame. After all, can this model hold up if paying companies start receiving blistering pans, or simply indifference?
As someone who believes deeply in theatre and in theatre journalism, I have to say that if I had to choose where to allocate $150 in the Los Angeles theatre community right now, I’d probably use it to pay an actor before a critic. No bitterness intended or implied.
Update: June 5, 4:45 pm: In writing this post early this morning, I hadn’t yet seen a corollary piece by Colin Mitchell of Bitter Lemons about the early response to the Bitter Lemons Imperative. It reads, in part:
“On the eve of opening night for previews at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, Bitter Lemons has over 30 exclusive Bitter Lemons Reviews ordered and purchased – that’s right pre-purchased – and those top quality works of theater criticism will be rolling out over the next couple of weeks. . .
We offered a deeply discounted 50% off our regular price of $150 just because we love the Fringe community so much and understand how important it is for them to get quality coverage from a truly experienced, savvy, historian of the ephemeral arts, plus we saw this as the perfect opportunity to introduce the Los Angeles Theater Community to our new business model for theater criticism.”
Is this an arts journalism post or a post about Bitter Lemons’s own business acumen, one that that also essentially functions as a sales tool? The lines seems to be blurring very fast.
Update: June 6, 5:15 pm: In expressing my concerns about the “pay for review” practice at Bitter Lemons, I attempted to address the issue with respect for the site and and shared concern over the dire economic models for arts journalism. Some responded saying it should be given a chance, and time will tell. So now that I’ve seen one of the “paid for” reviews on the site, I want to share with you a bit of what one fringe production has gotten for their $150:
I don’t know about the rest of you people, but if someone pays me to write about them, I suck them off with such vigor that their ejaculate explodes into the back of my skull with such force that I feel like the bells of Notre Dame pounded by Quasimodo on a Keith Moon bender.
So, since I’m only in this for the money, and the bloodthirsty mercenary in me trumps any pretense of integrity and balance, the rest of what follows in this review of Scott Claus’ “Sin: A Pop Opera,” at the iconic Three Clubs bar—a review he or someone else associated with him paid for—will be a bunch of positive, compromised hokum.
Perhaps this is merely showing off in the wake of comments and blog posts about the new policy, or perhaps as Isaac Butler posited in his post “Startling Chutzpah In The 99-Seat Arena,” we’re all just being punked. But regardless of Bitter Lemons’s motivation and intent, I think they’re doing serious damage to their credibility. I would really urge all makers of theatre in Los Angeles to put their money back in their pockets and, if they paid by check, they might want to stop payment now.
Update: June 12, 6:00 pm: The American Theatre Critics Association has issued a statement regarding the Bitter Lemons review policy. It reads:
The American Theatre Critics’ Association, the only national organization of professional theater critics, is concerned with the model started by Bitter Lemons. While it does not guarantee a favorable review or allow theater companies to choose the reviewer, this pay-for-play arrangement creates a clear appearance of a conflict of interest. That appearance, even if spurious, undermines the crucial credibility of not only Bitter Lemons’ critics, but all critics.
Our profession has fought for decades to preserve the image of independence. When our work is put out for sale to those we cover, we are concerned not just for the criticism itself but for the bypassing of editorial judgment in deciding what to cover and what not to cover.
Additionally, Steven Leigh Morris, editor of Stage Raw, another significant Los Angeles theatre site, made the following statement to me regarding his site’s selection of critics in the wake of the Bitter Lemons Imperative:
It is Stage Raw’s policy that any reviewer who has accepted remuneration from a theater as quid pro quo for a review of that theater is ineligible to write reviews for Stage Raw.
Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism and communications at USC, said that words such as “appalled” and “atrocity” flashed in his mind when he first heard what Bitter Lemons was up to.
Then he checked out the website, saw Mitchell’s explanations, and read some of the reviews.
On further reflection, Saltzman said, “I think it’s not that bad a deal. It’s a fascinating way to try to solve a very difficult problem I thought was unsolvable. They don’t have money to hire critics, so how else do they keep a pool of talented, freelance critics? As long as it’s transparent, as long as the audience isn’t being fooled, I don’t have a problem with it.
An article published this morning by the L.A. Weekly, “A New Scheme To Have Shows Pay $150 For A Review Will Hurt L.A. Theater” is by Steven Leigh Morris, editor of Stage Raw, who does not cite his own site’s policy regarding critics who work under the Bitter Lemons plan. But his summary of the problems with the plan are specific and concise:
Mitchell’s market-based initiative puts this all backwards: It places the primary relationship of the critic with the theater rather than the reader. It entails a contract by which the critic is paid by the theater to write something in public as an ostensibly neutral observer, while the theater is banking that the critic will entice audiences. Meanwhile, the critic becomes the servant of two masters — the theater-as-employer and the readers, who have a rightful expectation of candor. This is why traditional print media have always insisted on a separation between critics and the theaters they review.
Howard Sherman is the director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Drama.